PAM's New Mark Building

Jeff Alworth

PamSince we're talking art, I'm going to go out on a different limb.  On Thursday night, I took advantage of the Portland Art Museum's free welcome to the public and checked out the new Mark Building.  While I'm not particularly well-educated about art, I do love it.  When I go to a major city, I always try to see the local museum, and the museum in turn affects how I relate to the city.  I was shocked by the Art Institute of Chicago, and it made me reconsider the City of Broad Shoulders (and its famous stockyards).  Portland, a mid-sized city with an oversized interest in the arts, has always had a dumpy little museum that seemed a poor representative for our fair city.  So, with this $40-million dollar addition, the 28,000 additional square feet of gallery space, would Portland finally have a museum worthy of its citizens? 

Even though I know the reviews have been mixed (tomorrow Randy Gragg is apparently going to give the addition a pan, as did the Merc), I'm giving it a cautious thumbs up.  There are problems with both the building's new design and the collection, but they're minor and offset by substantial plusses. 

First, the problems: the new building is designed strangely, so that you follow a series of narrow, long rooms that have a certain cattle-chute feel to them.  When the museum's crowded, it means you have people bumping into each other and walking between art-goers and art.  There is only one bathroom, way back at the entrance.  On the art side, the new Mark building is a survey of 20th Century art, and the collection can't help remind you of that other museum that attends fairly well to modern art--MOMA.  But even here I'll reduce my gripe to a quibble.  I didn't particularly mind that PAM doesn't feature one master after another--MOMA, having just completed a half-billion dollar expansion, will always have the best collection.  What I missed was the careful exhibitry MOMA offers as it takes you through the eras and points out the influences from impressionism through minimalism.

The plusses, now.  Despite its sometimes cramped environment, the new building also offers some fairly impressive vistas.  The building's levels intersect and cross over, so that you can stand on a staircase and look down into a room.  A stairway plunges into the center of one room, a sculptural touch that is ringed by scultpure exhibits.  The building's angled glass facade is backed by open rooms, so the sense of the city--and weather--are present throughout your tour.  And even the cramped atmosphere has a certain Portland quality to it--along my tour I kept bumping into people I knew (not literally--though there was some bumping).  Museums are members of a dying institution--the public space.  There are worse things than running into someone you know while studying a piece of art.

I can speak with far less authority about the collection, save to say that it seems to offer a credible survey of 20th Century art.  There are a few major artists sprinkled throughout--Picasso, Monet, Pissaro, Rodin, Degas, Lichtenstein--but it's the works from artists I'd never heard of that impressed me.  The pieces aren't fillers; they are well-chosen and impressive.  Although the exhibits offer no interpretive material, the pieces' selection is adequate intuit the development of art through the decades.  The photography selection is idiosyncratic, but there are early, pre-dam pictures of the Columbia and an extremely early photo of Oregon City that really impress.

All in all, as a layman with no particular critical apparatus, I found it to be a satisfying and rewarding experience.  I think we have a museum to be proud of. 

  • Jesse O (unverified)

    Yup -- while the crowds may go away, the claustrophobia won't. And only getting into it via that tunnel? Puleeze. Have a hand stamp and let people go through the actual entrance, which is roped off now. Sheesh. That said, maybe the art museum needed to work with the City better to get a variance to the law prohibiting a ground-level or skyway connector.

  • uhh (unverified)
    <h2>pam is to moma like reader's digest condensed book is to finnegans wake. sorry At Ymca on bike hard to write but jeez.</h2>

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