Vision 2020: John Olbrantz

The director of the Hallie Ford Museum of Art praises Salem's thriving arts community, while noting that proximity to Portland is both a blessing and a curse

For more than two decades, the Hallie Ford Museum of Art at Willamette University has served as an essential artistic, cultural, and intellectual center for both the school and the community. John Olbrantz has been with the Salem museum from the beginning.

Olbrantz, the Maribeth Collins Director of the museum, is a specialist in ancient and American art while also pursuing his interests in Roman art, the history of archaeology, contemporary American art, and the history of museums. He holds a BA from Western Washington University and an MA in the history of art from the University of Washington. He and his wife, Pamela, live in Salem and have two grown children. 


VISION 2020: TWENTY VIEWS ON OREGON ARTS


During his long career, Olbrantz has helped found two art museums, been involved in numerous capital fund drives for expansion and renovation, organized more than 100 temporary exhibitions of historical and contemporary art, and juried more than 40 art competitions on the West Coast. He also lectures on a wide variety of art topics both at Willamette University and around the country, and is published in the fields of ancient and contemporary art. You can read more of his biography here.

John Olbrantz, Maribeth Collins director of the Hallie Ford Museum of Art in Salem, says his projects this year range from increasing museum staff to doing research on Scottish artist David Roberts for a future exhibition. Photo courtesy: Willamette University
John Olbrantz, Maribeth Collins director of the Hallie Ford Museum of Art in Salem, says his projects this year range from increasing museum staff to doing research on Scottish artist David Roberts for a future exhibition. Photo courtesy: Willamette University

What would you like people to know about the Hallie Ford Museum of Art? What is its role in the community?

I’d like people to know that the Hallie Ford Museum of Art is the third-largest academic museum of art in the Pacific Northwest, behind the University of Washington and the University of Oregon. We have an encyclopedic permanent collection of Western and non-Western art (9,000 objects), with an emphasis on regional art. We’ve mounted a dazzling array of world-class exhibitions over the past 21 years, ranging from ancient Near Eastern art and Renaissance drawings to solo and group exhibitions for some of the foremost artists in our region. We’ve published 32 books in the last 18 years, and we’ve invited some of the most distinguished scholars, writers, thinkers, artists, and performers to campus and to Salem to lecture on topics related to our collections and exhibitions. Speakers have ranged from internationally recognized Egyptologist Kent Weeks to New York Times best-selling author Robert Edsel.

It serves not only Willamette University, but the broader public as well?

From our inception in 1998, the Hallie Ford Museum of Art has existed to enhance and enrich the liberal arts curriculum of Willamette University and to serve as an intellectual, cultural, and artistic resource for Salem, the mid-Willamette Valley, and beyond, through the collection, preservation, exhibition, and interpretation of historic and contemporary art, with an emphasis on the art of our region. In addition to our educational mission, we’ve served as an important tourist attraction and cultural destination in Salem and the mid-Willamette Valley for the past 21 years, bringing new visitors and dollars into downtown Salem and enhancing the quality of life throughout the region. Indeed, Salem and mid-Willamette Valley residents would have to travel to Portland, Seattle, or beyond to have the kind of visual arts experiences that we consistently offer throughout the year. 

How would you characterize the general state of artistic and cultural health in your area, either by any objective criteria of your choosing or anecdotal evidence?

Overall, I think the artistic and cultural health in Salem and the mid-Willamette Valley is strong. We have healthy and vibrant cultural organizations in Salem, including the Hallie Ford Museum of Art, the Salem Art Association, the Willamette Heritage Center, A.C. Gilbert House, and historic Deepwood Museum, among many others. The Hallie Ford Museum of Art provides year-round visual art experiences for Salem residents, and the World Beat Festival in June and the Salem Art Fair and Festival in July bring visitors from throughout the region and nation to Salem during the summer months. Moreover, the Oregon Artist Series Foundation and the Salem Public Art Commission have sought to bring public art into downtown Salem over the past decade.

In addition to various cultural organizations, we have a small but vibrant group of artists living and working in Salem, including members of the art faculties at Chemeketa Community College, Willamette University, and Western Oregon University in Monmouth, as well as independent working artists like Rob Bibler, Carol Hausser, Dave Nichols and Sandra Nichols (nic and sloy), Gary Westford, and the late DE May, among others.

Unfortunately, for as long as I have lived here, there has never been a vibrant gallery scene in Salem to showcase local artists’ work like you have in Portland, Seattle, or elsewhere. The Mary Lou Zeek Gallery operated in a storefront in downtown Salem for a number of years and represented many local artists, but Mary Lou closed her doors in 2013. Similarly, Michael Hernandez operated an excellent commercial art gallery for about 18 months, but he too had to close his doors in 2018. Salem has always been a tough city for a commercial gallery to survive and thrive. I think our proximity to Portland is both a blessing and a curse.

For two decades, the Hallie Ford Museum of Art has provided a showcase for important regional artists, such as Louis Bunce (1907-1932).  The Portland painter was the subject of a 2017 retrospective that included this oil painting from 1939-40, “Along the Waterfront.” The museum also published a book in conjunction with the exhibit, “Louis Bunce: Dialogue With Modernism.” Courtesy Hallie Ford Museum of Art

What has had the biggest impact on the museum and its mission, for better or worse, in the last few years?

On the upside, I think the biggest impact has been the generosity and support of our donors. From our inception in 1998, we have been able to build a close to $8 million endowment fund to support several key staff positions, art acquisitions, various types of exhibitions (art historical, regional, Native American), education programs, art conservation, and professional development. The late Maribeth Collins and Hallie Ford, in particular, were generous and supportive to a fault. Other donors have stepped up to the plate over the years to support collections, exhibitions, programs, and publications with small and large contributions, from $25 to $25,000 and more.

On the downside, I think the lack of coverage of the Hallie Ford Museum of Art in the (Salem) Statesman-Journal over the past few years has had a negative impact on annual attendance. For the first 10 years of our existence, Ron Cowan covered our exhibitions and programs with major feature articles, often on the front page of the newspaper and occasionally above the fold. When Ron retired, Barbara Curtin continued to cover the Hallie Ford Museum of Art on a regular basis, and when she too retired, the slack was picked up by Tom Rastrelli for several years until he quit the newspaper to take a position at Willamette.  Since 2016, however, news coverage of the Hallie Ford Museum of Art has been virtually nonexistent and we have had to turn to other outlets and vehicles to promote our exhibitions and programs with varying degrees of success.

What would you tell a young person going off to college to prepare for a career in the arts — either as an artist or an arts administrator? What do you know that you’d like them to know?

I would tell a young person going off to college who was interested in museum work to study hard; select a field of study that is appropriate for the kind of museum in which you want to work; fine tune your speaking and writing skills; determine what type of museum position you might be interested in; get the appropriate training and degree(s) for that position; be willing to start at the bottom and work your way up; build a network of colleagues and professional contacts during your career; be flexible and adaptable if your museum career interests change; always maintain your personal and professional integrity; and be willing to be flexible in terms of where your museum career might take you — in other words, be prepared to bounce around a little before you settle on your dream job in your dream location. 

"Dreamer," by George Rodriguez, greets visitors at the Hallie Ford Museum of Art as they enter the chamber featuring the sculpture series "Sanctuary" (2017, stoneware with glass, courtesy of the artist and the Foster/White Gallery in Seattle). Photo by: David Bates
An exhibit last summer at the Hallie Ford Museum of Art featured the work of George Rodriguez, a Seattle artist who deals with Latino and border issues in his sculptural ceramics, such as this piece titled “Dreamer.” Photo by: David Bates

The country is obviously in a period of political and social turbulence, and regardless of the outcome of any election, that unrest is likely to be exacerbated by ecological problems related to climate change and industrialization. I’m wondering how you’ve seen these issues resonate and find expression in the work exhibited in the museum.

For centuries, there have always been a handful of artists who have chosen to explore social, political, and environmental issues in their artwork. Over the past 21 years, we’ve presented exhibitions that have explored the Vietnam War (2009) as well work by regional artists who are dealing with environmental issues (2010). In 2018, we mounted a major exhibition that explored themes of social justice in contemporary printmaking and photography; last summer, we showed the work of Seattle Mexican-American ceramic artist George Rodriguez, who deals with Latino and border issues in his sculptural work; and next year, we will present a 20-year survey exhibition for Arvie Smith, a Portland African American painter who deals with issues of race and identity in his paintings and prints.

What are your goals and expectations for the coming year in the arts, both personally and professionally?

I intend to continue to oversee the Hallie Ford Museum of Art’s core services of collections, exhibitions, and programs; explore several new sources of contributed income; lay the groundwork to reinstate a permanent, full-time exhibition designer/chief preparator to the museum staff by 2021; and add a temporary, part-time registrar to the staff by the end of the first quarter of 2020. Also, I intend to oversee the organization and/or management of several large and small exhibitions and related programs in 2020 as well as conduct research on the Scottish artist and traveler David Roberts (1796-1864) for an exhibition and small book of his hand-colored lithographs of Egypt and the Holy Land planned for the summer of 2021.

If you could wave a wand to make one thing happen in the arts world in 2020, what would that be?

I’d like to see the federal government increase its appropriation to the National Endowment for the Arts, National Endowment for the Humanities, and the Institute of Museum and Library Services, bringing them back to pre-Donald Trump levels, and I’d like to see state government increase its support of the Oregon Arts Commission and Oregon Humanities.

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This is the seventh in a series of twenty interviews in twenty days with arts and cultural figures around Oregon, creating a group portrait of the state of the arts in the state. It looks at where we’ve been, where we are, and what might or should happen culturally in the 2020s.

Previously:

  • Rachel Barreras-Kleemann. The Newport dance teacher’s “small” goals: keep kids motivated to dance, give low-income kids a place to go.
  • Niel DePonte. The Portland percussionist, composer, and conductor for more than 40 years thinks about thorny issues ahead.
  • Darcy Dolge, Sarah West, and Nancy Knowles. Three leaders of Eastern Oregon’s Art Center East in La Grande say funding cuts could have been dire in their rural area, but the community stepped up to keep arts thriving.
  • Maya Vivas and Leila Haile. The founders of North Mississippi Avenue’s Ori Gallery “often joke about how we would love to not be the only Queer, Black-run art space in town.”
  • Christopher Acebo. The longtime key figure at the Oregon Shakespeare Festival and recent chair of the Oregon Arts Commission talks about diversity, funding, and who controls the gate to the castle.
  • Yulia Arakelyan and Erik Ferguson. Beyond the arts bubble, the Wobbly duo see a dangerous world: “Hate based crime directed against people with disabilities has gone up.”

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