Frida Kahlo

Portland Art Museum sets reopening

The museum, shut since March 14, will begin a phased reopening in July. Beset by lost income, it also announces a 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.

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A sharp shutdown at the museum

The Portland Art Museum puts 80 percent of its staff on unpaid leave as it and the cultural world face the economic upshot of the pandemic

The Portland Art Museum announced details Friday of an expansive staff cutback, bringing hard numbers to the painful economic plight that even large cultural organizations are facing because of the global coronavirus pandemic. The museum, including its allied Northwest Film Center, has put 80 percent of its staff on unpaid leave effective April 16, a cutback that affects 158 of 213 employees. Because many are part-time or occasional staffers, the cuts amount on the books to 60 percent of FTE, or full time equivalent, jobs.

Being placed on unpaid leave rather than being laid off allows workers to draw on their unused sick and vacation time so they can keep at least some cash flow. Health and dental benefits also will be covered through June. The museum and film center shut down on March 15 and since then “have incurred $1 million per month in payroll and other expenses, without offsetting revenue from admissions, rental event business, retail operations, and other channels,” the museum said in a press release. Museum Director Brian Ferriso elaborated in an email message to museum staff: “This is not sustainable, and we are projecting to end the fiscal year with a deficit of $4 million. The leader of the American Alliance of Museums has suggested that one-third of all museums may not reopen if this crisis continues. We must not let our Museum and Film Center join the list of casualties.”

The museum entrance, with a sign of the times. Photo courtesy Portland Art Museum.

The drastic cutbacks are emblematic of what’s happening in museums, theaters, concert halls, opera houses, and other major cultural centers around the globe. In Portland, the Oregon Symphony has laid off all of its musicians, Portland Opera has canceled the remainder of its season, the White Bird dance series has canceled several high-profile performances and is facing extreme financial hardship, and theater and dance companies from the biggest to the smallest have gone idle and are bleeding money. Regional museums and cultural centers in towns around the state have shut their doors. In southern Oregon, the Oregon Shakespeare Festival, which has a $44 million annual budget, has shut down until September, losing all of it high season and the income that goes with it. As the economy crumbles – more than 17 million Americans have filed for unemployment in the past four weeks, bringing the nation’s official unemployment rate to 13 percent and its actual rate, including freelance and contract workers, many homeless people, and workers who have dropped out of the job market, even higher – the nation’s cultural infrastructure crumbles with it.

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Art on the Road: Where Tuff meets Tough

Santa Fe, Part 2: Friderike Heuer takes her camera to Georgia O'Keeffe's high desert and rethinks her attitude toward the American legend

EDITOR’S NOTE: In the second of two visual essays from northern New Mexico, photographer and artist Friderike Heuer visits Georgia O’Keefe’s home territory and revises her thinking about the artist. She also responds to O’Keeffe’s views of the land and sky with  images from her own photographic work. In Portland you can learn more about O’Keeffe at noon Tuesday, April 30, when the Oregon Jewish Museum and Center for Holocaust education presents Carolyn Burke discussing her book Foursome: Alfred Stieglitz, Georgia O’Keeffe, Paul Strand, Rebecca Salsbury.

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IT HAS HAPPENED TO ME AGAIN. That’s twice now, in just two years. I’ve had to revise my assessment of an artist once I got to know the history and environment that was essential to her work. The first re-evaluation took place both on an intellectual and an emotional level: where I truly disliked Frida Kahlo before, I came round.

Georgia O’Keeffe, “Gerald’s Tree I,” 1937. Georgia O’Keeffe Museum

Photograph by Friderike Heuer

And now I have to admit something similar is happening for Georgia O’Keeffe. I was never a fan of the endlessly repeated desert skulls or foreshortened flower paintings, imbued with sexual metaphors or gender-specific markers – references, it turns out, mostly peddled by the men in her life in the beginning of her career and appropriated by many a feminist at some later point. O’Keeffe herself rejected these interpretations just as much as being co-opted by the feminist cause. (For a thorough analysis of her relationship to feminism read Linda M. Grasso: Equal under the Sky: Georgia O’Keeffe & Twentieth-Century Feminism University of New Mexico Press, 2017)

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