MYS Oregon to Iberia

Looking at people looking at art

From Portland's museums and galleries to the Guggenheim and Whitney to Amsterdam, Australia, Berlin and beyond, Angela Allen focuses her camera on people interacting with art.

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Story and Photographs by ANGELA ALLEN


How do you fall in love with art museums?

Long ago my parents dragged me, a reluctant kid, along to museums, and astonishingly, I saw something I couldn’t stop looking at. It was the miniature Thorne Rooms in the Chicago Art Institute’s basement. The tiny rooms are replications of historic living spaces, back to the Puritans. To me, they were a universe of perfect dollhouses. Each minuscule plate and cup, three-inch-long piano bench, and thimble-sized lamp was meticulously and miraculously crafted by artisans in the 1930s project. At 7 years old, I pressed my nose to the glass; I was all agog. 

Eventually, after several revisits, I advanced to looking at more “sophisticated” artwork such as paintings and sculptures, and later, photography. Much later, I began to recognize artists, the more obvious ones, at least to me: Georgia O’Keeffe, van Gogh, Monet, Degas, Calder, Klimt, Edward Weston, Jackson Pollock, and my favorite as a kid, the whimsical Paul Klee.

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Every trip our family undertook, each new place we visited, my parents tracked down the art museum. Sometimes it was the history or science museum, but it was never mini-golf or amusement parks. My brother and I sighed and groaned, complained of “museum headaches,” and at times, snuck out to the gift shop to rifle through postcards of naked people. In my uncharted journey absorbing visual art, I watched other people looking, too.

How do we take in a painting or a print?  Who’s looking anymore at the originals with everything available online? Who’s focusing on the artwork when they can turn the iPhone on themselves and take a selfie instead? Well, lots of people.

This series is a brief survey of my captures of art-seekers and art museum-goers. Indoors or outdoors, people are still engaging, if only for a moment, with what’s hung on the wall or placed in courtyards and parks, at home or abroad. My parents would be pleased.

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The National Gallery of Victoria, commonly known as the NGV, is in Melbourne, Australia. It’s the oldest art museum in Australia, founded in 1861, and the busiest, too. In 2017-18 during this visit when I shot the photo of the entrance, more than 3 million visitors passed through the doors, and rain was no deterrent.

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In 2015, the Whitney Museum opened a new building in the Meatpacking District of Manhattan. In 2022, the museum, with a focus on American art, hung a huge Edward Hopper exhibition, but this masked woman was looking at pieces in quieter places with New Jersey across the river.

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At the Massachusetts Museum of Contemporary Art (MoCA) in North Adams, Mass., expect very edgy art. The largest contemporary museum in the United States, it is in a former textile factory, and  features many exhibits simultaneously. It promotes a relaxed attitude that allows visitors to sit almost anywhere – as if they were part of the piece.

A trombonist added jazz to the generously spaced pieces and exhibits at the vast Massachusetts Museum of Contemporary Art (MoCA) in the Berkshire Mountains. The museum prides itself on hosting multi-arts shows, and visual art can take on a new dimension with a little musical accompaniment. 

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The 86-year old activist artist Ed Bereal’s “Still Disturbing the Peace” exhibition at Elizabeth Leach Gallery in Portland’s Pearl District captured the rapt attention of an onlooker at August’s First Thursday show.  “With Liberty and Justice for All?”?” hung from the ceiling, and is made with plastic, resin and graphite.

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Portland artist Peter Gronquist’s “Manifest” show at Elizabeth Leach’s Gallery this summer in the Pearl District featured his “Line Drawing (boulders) 1,”  a drawing made by automating basalt boulders on enamel painted steel. The onlooker leans in to grasp Gronquist’s minimalist and original technique. 

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The Miro Museum (Fundacio Juan Miro) in a quiet hill-top corner of Barcelona, Spain, attracts viewers from all over the globe. This couple soaked up Miro’s colors and textures, wrapped in a cocoon of their own.

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Babies often are not as intrigued by artistic efforts as their dads are, but their dads bring them to museums anyway, just in case something sinks in. This piece was at the Seattle Art Museum.

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Anyone could play the keyboard at the Portland Art Museum’s courtyard this summer. Piano Push Play rescued vintage pianos, artists decorated and painted them, and the pianos found temporary homes in parks and neighborhoods. What a colorful way to engage with the playful art and folks willing to listen to you. 

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These sophomores checked out “Married to my Work,” by Benjamin Mefford, a piece in Lake Oswego’s rotating outdoors Gallery Without Walls. Art pieces, which include sculptures, paper kites, paintings, murals, glass flowers and creations of various materials, pop up outdoors year-’round in downtown LO, where viewers have a chance to make sense of them free of charge.

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Father and child contemplate a corner of the “Guillermo del Toro: Crafting Pinocchio” show at Portland Art Museum this summer. The multi-room exhibit, organized by New York City’s Museum of Modern Art, came to Portland to charm and inform kids and adults who took in the sets, puppets, and anything to do with the fabled wooden boy and the Oscar-winning 2023 animation.

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The Rijksmuseum in Amsterdam, the Netherlands, this spring was thick with ticketed crowds trying to glimpse Johannes Vermeer’s paintings. Even with a hard-to-get ticket, privileged arts-goers jockeyed for a moment with one of the 28 radiant Vermeers, most of them small. The lobby was a good place to catch your breath, or to veer off in another direction to track down a Rembrandt or two. 

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“Not too close to the Richter,” the guard warned these women at the Neue Nationalgalerie in Berlin, a sleek modern-art museum designed by Ludwig Mies van der Rohe in the late 1960s and updated in 2015-21 by David Chipperfield. This vast 2011 digital print, called “Strip,” stretched front and center at the retrospective of Gerhard Richter, the German mostly abstract painter who said “in painting thinking is painting.”

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The van Gogh immersive show came to the Oregon Convention Center in late 2021, and the sheer size of the pieces in “Beyond van Gogh” was overwhelming enough. An immersive multimedia experience with dramatic lighting, the show drew masses of masked-up art lovers, kids included. What would Vincent van Gogh have wondered, seeing his sunflowers blown up in this way? Who knows? But plenty of people who’d never seen a van Gogh painting, now know who he is.

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The Guggenheim, when it opened in 1959, drew doubt, disdain and naysayers. Designed by Frank Lloyd Wright with its circular stairless pathways leading from one floor to another (you can use elevators), the mid-Manhattan building drove critics nuts. Museum-goers, it was joked, accelerated on their way down to the lobby. Some artists thought their art would appear tipsy or cattywampus. Newsweek magazine asked, “Museum or cupcake?” But some of us love the Guggenheim, and the mid-20th century critical world has caught up. Each time I travel to New York I try to visit, as do many others not minding the circular dance to brush up with the artwork.

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Photo Joe Cantrell

Angela Allen writes about the arts, especially opera, jazz, chamber music, and photography. Since 1984, she has contributed regularly to online and print publications, including Oregon ArtsWatch, The Columbian, The San Diego Union-Tribune, Willamette Week, The Oregonian, among others. She teaches photography and creative writing to Oregon students, and in 2009, served as Fishtrap’s Eastern Oregon Writer-in-Residence. A published poet and photographer, she was elected to the Music Critics Association of North America’s executive board and is a recipient of an NEA-Columbia Journalism grant. She earned an M.A. in journalism from University of Oregon in 1984, and 30 years later received her MFA in Creative Writing/Poetry from Pacific Lutheran University. She lives in Portland with her scientist husband and often unwieldy garden. Contact Angela Allen through her website.

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4 Responses

  1. Thank you, Angela. I love the thesis of your photo essay and the chatty, informed way you delivered details about people and art. Well-done.

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