The good news: The Portland Art Museum's new Center for Modern and Contemporary Art is bursting with more great artwork from the past 125 years than we ever imagined existed on the Park Blocks. Prior to the opening of the North Building galleries, most of the museum's 20th century holdings had been sequestered away in storage like ugly stepchildren, and it's startling to see that instead of gimpy, minor works, PAM has a solid collection, including a lot of contemporary works that should be familiar to anyone who's been hitting Portland galleries over the past few years.
Sounds great so far, doesn't it? Well, the experience is not so rosy inside the building. Imagine driving on a busy freeway, and having all the traffic diverted into the left lane—the jam of thousands of drivers into one narrow quarter of the thoroughfare. This is the architectural plan of the Mark Building. As I wrote before the new wing opened, the modern and contemporary galleries are shoved against the southernmost side of the building, which continues to be dominated by two ballrooms. The result is that most of the works of art are shown in hallways and staircase landings, not galleries. At least half of the art here cannot be viewed from a distance of more than seven feet.
In addition to collecting and exhibiting important works of art, museums are responsible for world-class presentation, and this is where PAM fails miserably. Richard Misrach's masterful, mural-sized photograph of a sunbather seen from overhead, surrounded by thousands of sandy footsteps (seen at Elizabeth Leach Gallery last spring) has been cramped into a corner near a staircase. Rather than experiencing it as it is meant to be seen, from a generous distance, with surrounding space to let us imagine the beach extending infinitely, viewers nearly sideswipe the photograph, then have to back up and jockey for a better view. This example is typical of the enormous architectural and installation blunders in PAM's new space. Now that the museum finally has the opportunity to show off their surprisingly good collection, they've managed to present it in the least flattering light possible.