free museum

At PSU’s new museum, art for all

The new Jordan Schnitzer Museum of Art at the urban university gives Portland a new center for contemporary art. And it's free to everyone.

As you walk around the new Jordan Schnitzer Museum of Art at Portland State University, the eyes have it. Staring out from the prints on the walls in the museum’s inaugural exhibition, Art for All, they leap across the space between art and visitor, intimate and visceral and commanding. When the new museum’s interim director, Linda Tesner, was shaping its first show she wanted to appeal to as broad a potential audience as possible, and decided to stress portraits: person to person, universal and immediate. What could be more democratic?

“Art for All” might well also be the new museum’s motto. When the newest Schnitzer-named university art museum – the third in the Pacific Northwest – opens its doors on Thursday at PSU, Portland will gain something that’s common across Europe but almost as rare as hen’s teeth in the United States: a free art museum. That’s free, no strings attached: free admission for any PSU student or staff member; free for anyone and everyone, from anywhere and everywhere, who wants to visit.

Left: Robert Colescott’s Haircut, 1989, oil on canvas, 84 x 72 inches. Right: David Shrobe’s Keeper of Secrets, 2018, oil, acrylic, graphite, paper, canvas, wood, fabric, metal, and vinyl. Photo: Spencer Rutledge, courtesy PSU

That fact alone distinguishes the new JSMA from most American museums. It tears down the stubborn economic wall that traditionally keeps lower-income people on the outside and turns museums into havens for the middle and upper classes. The costs of building, maintaining and exhibiting museum collections are high, and in the U.S., where government underwriting of cultural institutions is scant, that usually means high admission prices, too: standard admission to the much larger Portland Art Museum, for instance, is $20, an amount that doesn’t even begin to cover the costs of keeping its doors open.  

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