Portland Art Museum sets reopening

The museum plans to begin a phased reopening in July – and also announces a big round of layoffs.


The Portland Art Museum, shuttered since March 14 because of Covid-19 pandemic restrictions, is making plans to reopen in the second week of July. The reopening will be phased, with limits on the number of visitors allowed inside the building at any one time, and many details are still being worked out. “We’ll have more information in coming weeks, but we know museum operations and visitor numbers will need to be smaller at first due to precautions and restrictions for community health, including ongoing gathering restrictions that may prevent Northwest Film Center programs and museum event rentals from reopening for some time to come,” museum spokesperson Ian Gillingham said in an email Thursday afternoon.

Bad news arrived with the good: Effective July 1, the museum will lay off 51 full-time and 72 part-time workers. The cuts will reduce staffing costs for the cash-strapped museum by roughly one-third, and the museum hopes many of the layoffs will be temporary, Gillingham said.

“These layoffs are directly related to the COVID-19 pandemic and in no way reflect upon the dedication and talent of those who are affected,” museum Director Brian Ferriso wrote in a letter to staff that was sent Thursday. “I very much value and appreciate every member of the staff, your patience and your continued dedication to this institution.”

The museum had refrained from fully laying off staff earlier in the shutdown by using staff leaves, federal pandemic relief, and private emergency support that kept workers on the books through June. That effort has now ended.

“We can begin to rehire some of the laid-off staff as business needs allow, and as funding is available,” Ferriso continued. “We have been and will continue to be committed to advancing racial equity in our staffing and programming. I am deeply sorry to those impacted by this, and remain hopeful that we will be able to bring many people back as the crisis subsides and restrictions are lifted.”

Robert Colescott, “Knowledge of the Past is the Key to the Future: Upside Down Jesus and the Politics of Survival,” 1987, acrylic on canvas. Portland Art Museum purchase: Robert Hale Ellis Jr. Fund for the Blanche Eloise Day Ellis and Robert Hale Ellis Memorial Collection. © 1987 Robert Colescott. A Colescott retrospective will be on view when the museum reopens in July.

For the museum-going public, what this means in the near term is that the galleries will open for viewing first, with other programs and services following, depending largely on social distancing requirements, public health guidance, and the state of the museum’s finances. Ballroom rentals – ordinarily a reliable source of income – and other special events, plus Northwest Film Center screenings and lectures in the museum’s Whitsell Auditorium, “will follow much later,” Ferriso wrote.

Among the exhibitions that will be available immediately to view will be “Art and Race Matters,” an overview of the career of painter Robert Colescott, which will continue through Dec. 13, and “Volcano!,” the museum’s major exhibition of art about Mount St. Helens before and after its 1980 eruptions. That show, originally scheduled to close May 17, will continue through Jan. 3, 2021.

Several originally scheduled exhibitions, including the potential blockbuster “Frida Kahlo, Diego Rivera, and Mexican Modernism,” which was to have opened this summer, have been postponed. Museums around the world are reshuffling their schedules as they slowly make plans to reopen, and the process gets especially complex in the case of special exhibitions such as the Kahlo/Rivera show that had been been planned to be exhibited at several museums. Others on PAM’s “postponed” list include a major showing of work by the photographer Ansel Adams; “Queen Nefertiti: Eternal Egypt”; and “Joryū Hanga Kyōkai,” an exhibition of groundbreaking work by Japanese women printmakers from 1956 to 1965. All could be shown later.

The museum’s sharp staff layoffs reveal the steep financial toll the pandemic shutdowns have taken even from large arts and cultural institutions. With buildings and collections to maintain, and with income from ticket sales and other sources cut off, delicately balanced budgets have been shattered. “The institution continues to manage during this precarious time by seeking assistance from private donors, foundations, and government,” Ferriso wrote in his letter to museum staff. “While we have had some success in raising funds, our earned income, which supports nearly 40 percent of our budget, is zero. And, while we anticipate a slow reopening with greatly reduced admission income, earned income from rental events and film programs will be close to zero for the foreseeable future due to government restrictions on large gatherings.”


About the author
Senior Editor

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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