Portland Opera Puccini

News & Notes: Libraries turn the page

As Central Library reopens in downtown Portland, The Library Foundation takes on new leadership. Plus: A new leader for the Parks Foundation; talking Nevelson and Neel at PNCA.

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Central Library, the downtown Portland core branch that was built in 1913, reopened Friday, Feb. 23, after  being closed almost a year for renovations. Photo courtesy Multnomah County Library.
Central Library, the downtown Portland core branch that was built in 1913, reopened Friday, Feb. 23, after being closed almost a year for renovations. Photo courtesy Multnomah County Library.

Libraries, those beacons of information and discovery from rural communities to giant cities across the globe, have been in the news a lot lately, for reasons both good and bad.

Among the good, at least in Oregon, has been the 2020 vote to approve a $387 million bond levy to renovate and expand the Multnomah County Library system. The process, which has brought temporary shutdowns across the system for construction, is bringing library services closer to people throughout the county, including a new large branch in East County set to open in spring 2026. It’ll be as big as the tentpole Central Library, which has just reopened in downtown Portland after many months of renovation: Austin De Dios of The Oregonian/Oregon Live has a good summary of what’s new at Central following its $15 million upgrade.

The bad, of course, has been the constant headlines about political efforts in Florida, Texas, and across the country (including Oregon) to ban certain kinds of books from school and public libraries — bans that include books discussing topics such as race, history, gender, sex, religion, and certain kinds of cultural ideas (including, ironically, Fahrenheit 451, Ray Bradbury’s classic dystopian novel about thought control and book-burning, whose title indicates the temperature at which book paper catches fire and burns).

A lot of the talk about libraries has been about their expansion from strictly centers of information and study into something more akin to community centers, offering a broad array of services.

When Willamina Library Director Sarah Frost was hired in 2016 to help the struggling library, she faced a daunting task. “I spent a good solid year going to chamber of commerce meetings and connecting with Kiwanis and civic clubs and just talking about libraries and what libraries can do for communities,” she says. Photo: David Bates
When Willamina Library Director Sarah Frost was hired in 2016 to help the struggling library, she faced a daunting task. “I spent a good solid year going to chamber of commerce meetings and connecting with Kiwanis and civic clubs and just talking about libraries and what libraries can do for communities,” she says. Photo: David Bates
  • Last November, in the ArtsWatch story Multnomah County Library: Looking at arts education through an equity lens, Jean Zondervan wrote about how the system’s bond-funded renovations are also expanding free arts and cultural opportunities for children in neighborhood branches.
  • Also last November, ArtsWatch’s David Bates wrote in Willamina Public Library: The little library that could about how the small-town Yamhill County library has transformed into a vibrant center of community activity, offering everything from books to workshops, games, and homeless outreach.
  • In this January’s Oregon rural libraries: Crossroads of community, Amanda Waldroupe wrote for ArtsWatch about how libraries from Sisters to Burns to Clatskanie and beyond have expanded their roles to include all sorts of vital community services, from young-adult book clubs to kids’ arts & crafts spaces to lectures and local history centers and meeting spaces.
  • And on Feb. 23 Waldroupe followed up with Josephine Community Library receives financial support for new building, even as it faces controversy. Her story tells good news (a $250,000 grant from the Cow Creek Band of Umpqua Indians to help build a new, larger replacement for the outmoded Grants Pass library), promising news (a bill progressing in the Oregon Legislature that would provide $424,603 to the estimated $26 million project), and less salutary news: a lawsuit to allow county homeowners to opt out of the library’s local tax district; opposition from the “home team” in the Legislature — Republican Dwayne Yunker, Josephine County’s state representative, was the only member of the Ways and Means subcommittee who voted no on HB 4124, which would provide state money for the Grants Pass library and other cultural building projects around the state.

New chief for The Library Foundation

Left: Love Centerwall, new executive director of The Library Foundation. Right: Merris Sumrall, who led the foundation for 21 years. Photos courtesy The Library Foundation.

In Multnomah County, all of that library renovation and construction doesn’t come about without some key help — from county voters who approved the bond measure by 60 percent, of course, but also from key interest groups including The Library Foundation, a nonprofit support group that works with librarians to raise money, advocate for funding, receive bequests and planned gifts to the library system, and support “early literacy, school-age success, and learning for life.” The Foundation played a key role in pushing the renovation and expansion bond vote.

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The foundation has hired Love Centerwall as its new executive director effective Monday, Feb. 26. He replaces Merris Sumrall, who is retiring after leading the organization for 21 years. Born in Stockholm, Centerwall (his first name, Love, is pronounced Lew-vah in Swedish) most recently spent seven years as vice president of development at OMSI, the Oregon Museum of Science and Industry.

“Love has the leadership skills, insight and life experience The Library Foundation needs at this pivotal time,” Board President Brad Thiel said on the foundation’s website. “We are thrilled that he is joining us.”

Of Sumrall, the board wrote; “She has led the foundation through three major multi-year fundraising campaigns focused on supporting children’s literacy programs and educational library spaces for children and teens. She also spearheaded the foundation’s leading role in five successful ballot measure campaigns for the library, including the 2012 measure that created the Multnomah County Library District and the 2020 capital bond measure funding nine major library building projects underway today.”

New leadership for the Portland Parks Foundation

Jessica Green, new executive director of the Portland Parks Foundation. Photo courtesy Portland Parks Foundation
Jessica Green, new executive director of the Portland Parks Foundation. Photo courtesy Portland Parks Foundation

Like The Library Foundation, the Portland Parks Foundation is a nonprofit group that supports its “parent” organization, the city-run Portland Parks & Recreation bureau. And like the Library Foundation, it has new leadership.

The foundation announced on Friday, Feb. 23, that it has chosen Jessica Green as its new executive director, replacing Randy Gragg, who retired at the end of September 2023. Green has been serving as interim executive director since Gragg’s retirement. She joined the foundation staff in 2017, and in addition to serving as interim executive director has been deputy director and has played key roles in operations, governance and finance. She is also board chair of Friends of Tryon Creek.

“I am honored by this opportunity,” Green said on the foundation’s website. “… I look forward to leading PPF’s efforts to help our city live up to the challenge of a parks system that is inclusive to all communities.”

Lectures on Louise Nevelson and Alice Neel

Left: Louise Nevelson, "Mirror - Shadow VIII," 1985, painted wood, 114 x 105 x 39 inches, Museum of Fine Arts, Boston. Right: Alice Neel, "Pregnant Maria," 1964, oil on canvas, 32 x 47 inches, private collection.
Left: Louise Nevelson, “Mirror – Shadow VIII,” 1985, painted wood, 114 x 105 x 39 inches, Museum of Fine Arts, Boston. Right: Alice Neel, “Pregnant Maria,” 1964, oil on canvas, 32 x 47 inches, private collection.

Last September ArtsWatch published Bringing women into the center of the art world, about the historic paucity of attention paid to women artists and a new Portland lecture series aimed at doing something about it.

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The series, called “Women and Art in the 20th Century” and sponsored by the Oregon Alliance for the National Museum of Women in the Arts, began with lectures by Prudence Roberts on the pioneering abstract artist Sonia Delaunay and by Abigail Susik on the Surrealist artist Leonora Carrington, but the final two lectures in the series hadn’t been nailed down yet.

Now they have.

At 2 p.m. Sunday, March 17, Bruce Guenther — adjunct curator for special exhibitions at the Oregon Jewish Museum and Center for Holocaust Education and former chief curator of the Portland Art Museum — will speak on the great modernist sculptor Louise Nevelson in “Hand and Eye: Louise Nevelson and a Bricolage Future.”

And at 2 p.m. Sunday, April 21, Sue Taylor — writer, art historian, and Professor Emerita of Art History at Portland State University — will speak on the “belatedly celebrated feminist” Alice Neel in “Alice Neel and the Politics of Figure Painting.”

Both lectures are free, and both will be at Pacific Northwest College of Art, 511 N.W. Broadway, Portland.

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Photo Joe Cantrell

Bob Hicks has been covering arts and culture in the Pacific Northwest since 1978, including 25 years at The Oregonian. Among his art books are Kazuyuki Ohtsu; James B. Thompson: Fragments in Time; and Beth Van Hoesen: Fauna and Flora. His work has appeared in American Theatre, Biblio, Professional Artist, Northwest Passage, Art Scatter, and elsewhere. He also writes the daily art-history series "Today I Am."

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