Oregon museums

Southern Rites at the Jewish Museum

Photographer Gillian Laub's deeply documented show on the persistence of racial attitudes in the South is visual activism at its best

What do I want? Why do I want it? And how do I get it?
– Stacey Abrams, in a TED talk shortly after she lost her bid to be elected governor of Georgia in the 2018 midterm elections.

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AS SHOULD BE OBVIOUS by now, I rarely review exhibitions that I don’t like. The world doesn’t need more negativity, and I don’t need the emotional aggravation. It is therefore with some trepidation that I accept invitations to review something I have not yet had a chance to see. I will only do so if I am deeply committed to an institution and usually trust its choices, as is the case with the Oregon Jewish Museum and Center for Holocaust Education (OJMCHE.)

Felicia after the Black Prom, Vidalia, Georgia, 2009. Photographed by Gillian Laub. Photo: Friderike Heuer

No need to fret: OJMCHE’s newest exhibition, Southern Ritesis one of its strongest yet, a moving and thought-provoking tour de force about race relations and racism in contemporary America. Organized by the International Center for Photography and judiciously curated by Maya Benton, the exhibition of photographs by Gillian Laub is visual activism at its best: perceptive, engaged, critical photography of human beings in a context that defines them. Did I mention beautiful? Beautiful!

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Five Oaks: What’s in a name?

The former Washington County Museum branches out under a new name, Five Oaks Museum, reflecting a broader cultural umbrella

Last summer the Washington County Museum picked a dynamic new team to lead it into the future, naming Community Engagement Coordinator Molly Alloy, 38, and Education Director Nathanael Andreini, 45 as co-directors. They immediately embarked on a re-thinking of the 63-year-old institution, overhauling its educational curriculum, diversifying its exhibit curation, and expanding its focus to further include the perspectives of the region’s Native American and immigrant communities, giving the arts a higher profile than ever. 

But as the pair accelerated their efforts, which they’d begun in their previous positions at the museum, they realized that something stood in the way of their new, broader vision for the museum: its name. 

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FOR ONE THING, AS THE MUSEUM EXPANDED its digital reach beyond its cozy campus at Portland Community College Rock Creek, the team realized that it risked confusion, because there are Washington Counties across the United States. Nor is the independent museum, whose history stretches back decades before its consolidation as Washington County Historical Society, actually owned by Oregon’s Washington County, though the county is one of its major supporters. 

The new brand.

But the name’s limitations ran deeper. “The ‘Washington County’ designation came to this area when Western settlers established American control of this place,” Alloy explained. “By starting there, we’re cutting off 10,000 years of history that preceded it. The county is only one person at the dinner party. The stories that can be told about this area go so far beyond that that’s it’s not accurate historically for the institution. To retain that name does privilege a certain kind of history that is already the dominant narrative.”

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Coos Bay’s Everybody Biennial

The Coos Art Museum's big biennial of Oregon art is a come-one come-all affair, with no gatekeepers. How's that work? You'd be surprised.

COOS BAY – What if they gave a Biennial and invited everyone to join in?

That’s not, of course, the way biennial art shows ordinarily work. From Venice to São Paulo to Shanghai to Sydney to Istanbul to Havana to Berlin to the Whitney in New York, biennials tend to be ambitious, careerist, elbow-throwing affairs, intent on one-upping the art world with the biggest names, the newest trends, the deepest scent of money, and the even deeper desire to shape the next chapter in the shifting story of global contemporary art. Competition is fierce, and acceptance into one of the big-name biennials can make an artist’s career.

Coos Art Museum’s Biennial 2018. In the center: Alan Bartl’s funkified bike trailer “Pork Slider.” Photo: Laura Grimes

Or you could just invite any and all artists in the state of Oregon to drop by with up to three works, and then fit them all onto your museum’s walls. That’s the way it works at the Coos Art Museum on the southern Oregon coast, where since the 1990s a “come one, come all” approach to its biennial has prevailed and, perhaps astonishingly, largely succeeded. In a way, it can’t get more daring. The show has no gatekeepers. Museum officials don’t know who or what’s going to walk in the door. You trust that it’ll be good, or at least not embarrassing. And what you get, you show. If ever there was a People’s Biennial, a purely democratic approach to the state of the art, this is it.

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A bigger, bolder Jewish Museum

The Oregon Jewish Museum and Center for Holocaust Education takes over the old craft museum space with a broadened vision and a vibrant Russian art show

In a crowded second-floor gallery at the corner of Northwest Davis Street and Park Avenue, the joint was jumpin’. Television cameras whirred in the new home of the Oregon Jewish Museum and Center for Holocaust Education, a small jewel of a museum location that had been sitting vacant for many months. Reporters cornered curators and scribbled notes. Early birds wandered up and down the stairs of the 15,000-square-foot space’s two stories. The Russian artist Grisha Bruskin, outfitted in black from his close-cut coil of hair to his sleek sneakers, was talking about his new exhibit, ALEFBET: The Alphabet of Memory, which was spread like a giant quilt across the main-floor gallery below. Preparations for Sunday’s free public grand opening were in full swing, and the mood was jubilant.

Bruce Guenther, curator of inaugural exhibition, and Judy Margles, director of Oregon Jewish Museum and Center for Holocaust Education. Photo: Palma Corral

It was Wednesday in the prime Pearl District space, which had been home to the Museum of Contemporary Craft until that museum was abruptly shut down by the board of the Pacific Northwest College of Art more than a year ago, shocking both the city and a tightknit national craft art scene that had considered MoCC a pacesetting institution. After several months of hammering, sawing, painting, and reshaping spaces, it’s been reborn as the new home of the Jewish museum, which has moved from a space half its size and far less strategically located. Judy Margles, the museum’s longtime director, addressed the preview-day crowd. The designers took a bow. Bruce Guenther, the former chief curator of the Portland Art Museum who is curating the museum’s first season of exhibitions, introduced Bruskin, whose ALEFBET he praised as taking “its place with the tapestry masterworks.” And if the bubbly wasn’t flowing (it was a Wednesday morning, after all) the coffee was: Suddenly a space that had housed an important cultural center that had died before its time seemed alive with hope and possibilities again.

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