News & Notes: Maryhill Museum opens new season with big changes

New leadership is coming to the Columbia Gorge museum. Plus: Send in the Clowns Without Borders; an –Ism book launch; Central Library takes a break; last call at the Portland Art Museum; cultural caucus grows.

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Maryhill Museum, shown from the north with lupines in the foreground and the Columbia River Gorge and Oregon hills in the back, reopens March 15. Photo courtesy Maryhill Museum of Art.

Maryhill Museum of Art, sitting along the Washington side of the Columbia River Gorge about 110 miles east of Portland, is a seasonal attraction in the Pacific Northwest, and its 2023 season is about to begin. Traditionally shut down during the winter months, when travel is more difficult, it reopens on Wednesday, March 15, for a season that will continue daily through Nov. 15.

Things can often seem reliably and pleasingly familiar at Maryhill, which is housed in a century-old concrete mansion with stunning views over the Gorge from its main grounds and its nearby replica of Stonehenge. Its collections are worth visiting or revisiting, from a large number of Rodin sculptures to a fascinating collection of chess pieces, memorabilia from the life and career of dancer Loïe Fuller, furniture designed by Queen Marie of Romania, Indigenous art, the sculpture garden on its expansive grounds, Orthodox icons, and Théatre de la Mode, its rotating tableaux of post-World War II French fashion figures.

But this year will also bring some big changes behind the scenes. Colleen Schafroth has announced her impending retirement after 22 years as executive director, and 37 years total at the museum. The museum has hired a search firm to find a new executive director and chief executive officer, and expects to have that person in place by the time Schafroth officially leaves on Sept. 1.

One plausible replacement seems off the table: Louise Palermo, the museum’s education curator for the past seven years and the creative force behind such massive projects as 2019’s Exquisite Gorge collaboration among printmakers and its 2022 followup with fiber artists, Exquisite Gorge II, left in February to become executive director of another museum in the Gorge, the Columbia Gorge Interpretive Center Museum, in Stevenson, Wash. Schafroth had been Maryhill’s education curator before becoming executive director.

Steven L. Grafe remains as curator of art, Sarah Purdy is collections manager, and artist Sorcha Meeks has replaced Palermo as education curator.

Among the attractions of Théâtre de la Mode: “La Rue de la Paix en la Place Vendôme,” fashions and mannequins in décor by Louis Touchagues, detail (recreated by Anne Surgers); Gift of Chambre Syndicale de la Couture Parisienne and Paul Verdier, Collection of Maryhill Museum of Art.

During her time as executive director Schafroth has overseen the museum’s 2002 accreditation from the American Alliance of Museums, led renovations to the main building and a much-needed expansion with the addition in 2012 of of the Mary and Bruce Stevenson Wing, and navigated the challenges of the coronavirus shutdowns, keeping the museum functioning with no loss in staff. “It was a miracle,” she said in a prepared statement. “I don’t know how we did it.”

She was happiest, she declared, when she saw “kids and families enjoying the museum. If people come here and have a change of perspective about what is possible in the world through art, even wanting to express themselves through art, then we have made an impact on people’s lives.”

Among the museum’s special exhibitions running throughout the 2023 season will be the newest showing of The Hound of Heaven, artist R.H. Ives Gammell’s series of 23 large symbolic paintings based on a long religious poem by the 19th century English poet Francis Thompson and the psychological and mythological work of Carl Jung. The paintings, which are in the museum’s permanent collection, were last exhibited in 2013.

Send in the Clowns Without Borders

Among the entertainers at Portland’s 24th annual Clowns Without Borders benefit shows March 18 will be Jet Black Pearl (left) and cowboy comedian Leapin’ Louie. Photos: Miri Stebivka

Since at least the days of the New Vaudeville movement of the 1970s and ’80s Portland’s been a town for clowns–the actual entertaining kind, and the people who like to see them come out and put their spin on Life On This Crazy Planet. It might not surprise you to learn that a lot of clowns are also deeply empathetic people devoted to taking the gift of laughter to places in the world that need it most, and that some of those clowns live in Portland, or like to visit here.

All of which is to remind you that one of the city’s most congenial annual bashes, the 24th annual Clowns Without Borders benefit show, is coming up quickly: It’ll be Saturday, March 18, at Alberta Rose Theatre. They’re coming up, actually: a matinee at 2 p.m. (doors open at 1) and an evening show at 7 p.m. (doors open at 6), both on the 18th.

Just looking at some of the names conjures images of the amusing sort: Jet Black Pearl, eccentric accordion diva from the Netherlands; Iman LIzarazu, Basque physical comedian; Izohnny, dynamic performance art, the Goliaths of Glam; Curt Carlyle, gentleman juggler for the 21st century; and of course Portland fave Leapin’ Louie Lichtenstein, the cowboy comedian.

But it’s not all fun and games–or it is fun and games, for a serious cause. Clowns Without Borders is an international group that, like organizations such as Doctors Without Borders, takes its skills to places in crisis, from natural disaster sites to refugee camps to conflict zones and other places that need, besides food, clothing, shelter, medical aid, and safety, something to laugh about.

To get a good sense of what’s behind the comedy, you can take a look at Enter laughing: a world of clowns, Danielle Vermette’s story for ArtsWatch about the 2021 Portland benefit performances; and A strongwoman, a fire dancer, and the joy of clowning across borders, Amy Leona Havin’s ArtsWatch story about the 2022 Portland benefit.

Sabine Choucaire performing in a refugee camp on Lesvos Island, Greece. Photo courtesy Clowns Without Borders.

An –Ism Project Book Launch

Dmae Lo Roberts, the Peabody Award-winning broadcast journalist whose Stage & Studio podcast interviews are hosted on ArtsWatch, is also the executive producer of MediaRites, the Portland organization “dedicated to telling the stories of diverse cultures and giving voice to the unheard through the arts, education and media projects.”

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BodyVox The Spin Dance Portland Oregon

One of MediaRites’ many undertakings is The –Ism Project, which tells many of those stories via stage and video. An outgrowth of that is The –Ism Youth Files, which grew out of the pandemic shutdown years and focuses on how young people ages 12-21 have responded to isolation and its effect on mental health and self-care, particularly in BIPOC and disability communities.

This month MediaRites is publishing Speaking Our Truths: The –Ism Youth Files, a two-years-in-the-making book of essays, poetry, and short graphic novels by young people in Oregon and across the country. ArtsWatch will have more about the book later. In the meantime, you can get a taste of what’s in it during a live launching event on Facebook at 6:30 p.m. Wednesday, March 15, during which Roberts will talk with several of the young authors.

Central Library takes an eight-month break

Multnomah County Central Library in downtown Portland: Closing the books for now.

As of today–Saturday, March 11–you can’t check out any books from the biggest library in the greater Portland area, and it has nothing to do with executive actions in Florida, which is essentially waging war on school libraries.

Downtown Portland’s Multnomah County Central Library shut down after serving visitors on Friday, and will stay closed for most of the rest of 2023 as it embarks on the second phase of a major remodeling. It’s all part of a massive renovation project across the county system that also affects branches in Albina, Holgate, Midland, and North Portland–the Albina branch shuts down March 18 and won’t reopen until Fall 2024. Central hasn’t set a precise reopening date– it commits only to “Winter 2023”–but it’s expected be shut down for about eight months.

Some of the renovations at Central will be radical and, in some quarters, controversial. There’ll be fewer books once the branch reopens, and more open and meeting spaces. The remodel will result in fewer shelves to browse, and the shelves will be lower, allowing greater visibility and, presumably, observation of activity. Library users will find “new comfortable seating, a designated teen space, additional meeting space, updated restrooms, a completed outdoor terrace, new bookshelves, and more.” About 350,000 items are being packed for storage. Many will return, some will go to other expanded branches, and some will be deaccessioned through used-book sales, donations, and recycling.

A friend who lives downtown took a last trip to Central on Friday to stock up for the long shutdown. As she was checking out the librarian told her, “Just because they’re not due for eight months doesn’t mean you can’t return them. Just take them to your nearest branch.” My friend said she almost responded, “This is my nearest branch.” What more fitting, as the doors close, than one last literary joust?

Last call at the Portland Art Museum

Isaka Shamsud-Din, “Brothers Phree,” ca. 1990, acrylic on wood, Museum Purchase: Robert Hale Ellis Jr. Fund for the Blanche Eloise Day Ellis and Robert Hale Ellis Memorial Collection, © artist or other rights holder, 91.7

Meanwhile, at the Portland Art Museum, a pair of long-running, first-rate exhibitions are hitting the end of the road: Sunday, March 12, will be the last day to see Isaka Shamsud-Din: Rock of Ages and Portraiture from the Collection of Northwest Art. If you have a chance, both are worth a first or return visit before they end.

Shamsud-Din, a painter and muralist who was born in 1940 and has lived in Portland most of his life, is a lion of the local arts scene, and has been vividly recording everyday Black life in the city for half a century. The portraiture exhibit was assembled by artist Storm Tharp and museum curator Grace Kook-Anderson, who ranged through the museum’s collections and pulled together a vibrant sampling of images whose unifying theme is the human face and figure. Both shows opened in November 2019, remained through the pandemic shutdown and reopening, and are finally making way for new exhibits.

Oregon Legislature’s Cultural Caucus grows

For the first time in its long history, the Oregon Legislature this year established a Cultural Caucus of members from both the House and Senate with a declared interest in advocating for arts and cultural organizations and measures in the state budgeting process. ArtsWatch has written a pair of stories about the new caucus: A legislative caucus for the arts and Artists and politicians get down and party.

Since it was formed in early February the caucus has picked up considerable support. Its original nine members included Rep. Rob Nosse (D-Portland), Sen. Dick Anderson (R-Lincoln City), Rep. Janelle Bynum (D-Clackamas), Rep. Maxine Dexter (D-Portland), Rep. David Gomberg (D-Otis), Sen. Bill Hansell (R-Athena), Rep. John Lively (D-Springfield), Rep. Pam Marsh (D-Ashland), and Sen. Deb Patterson (D-Salem).

Four more members of the House soon joined them: Rep. Dacia Grayber (D-Tigard), Rep. Annette Hartman (D-Gladstone), Rep. Lisa Reynolds (D-Northeast Washington County), and Rep. Ricki Ruiz (D-Gresham).

And since the rollout event in Salem on Feb. 27 the caucus has grown to a healthy 24 members, including these 10: Rep. Ben Bowman (D-Tigard/Metzger/South Beaverton); Sen. Michael Dembrow (D-Portland); Sen. Lew Frederick (D-North/Northeast Portland); Rep. Emerson Levy (D-Bend/South Redmond/Tumalo/Sisters); Sen. James Manning Jr. (D-North Eugene/West Eugene/Veneta); Rep. Kevin Mannix (R-Keizer/North Salem); Sen. Mark Meek (D- Clackamas County); Rep. Daniel Nguyen (D-Lake Oswego/Southwest Portland); Rep. Hoa Nguyen (D-East Portland/Damascus); and Rep. Thuy Tran (D-Northeast Portland).  

“The interest in this Caucus, and its rapid growth, just show how much people value the arts and culture organizations in Oregon and how important it is that we support this sector,” Rep. Rob Nosse, the caucus coordinator, said in a prepared statement. Next up: the tough job of crunching numbers and persuading the full Legislature to make room in the budget for the cultural sector of the economy.

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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