Portland Art Museum's North Building Project
Opening festivities Oct. 1, 10 am to late, Oct. 2, 10 am – 5 pm, www.pam.org
Not only is Oprah reviving her contemporary authors book club this October, but the Portland Art Museum is finally opening its much-ballyhooed North Building Project. The new wing, housed in the highly impressive, 141,000-square-foot Masonic building adjacent to PAM, makes the museum the largest of its kind in the Pacific Northwest. Conceived as part of a 10-year extension plan in 1995, the North Building Project kicked into high gear in 2001, after the acquisition of the Clement Greenberg Collection of post-war American art.
So why aren't we exactly wetting our pants with excitement over the new expansion? Let's break it down.
There is a common misconception among the public that the six-level Masonic building has been converted into a continuous gallery space. Hardly. The Museum's Center for Modern and Contemporary Art occupies 28,000 square feet, or slightly less than 20 percent of the entire building. The remaining 80 percent houses the museum's administrative offices, two ballrooms, and a library. Portlanders should certainly welcome any center for modern and contemporary art in the city, but anybody who envisioned the North Building as one big public museum needs to adjust their expectations.
The second, and greater, concern is with what actually goes into the building. PAM is hardly known as a museum for contemporary art lovers. In 2000, PAM played host to Let's Entertain, a highly popular exhibition of contemporary art from across the globe that people still speak fondly of. In the three years that I've lived in Portland, however, the following exhibitions stick out: minor works by Norman Rockwell, Grandma Moses, and Faberge. There have been a few exhibitions by relevant contemporary artists, such as Ed and Nancy Kienholz and Ed Ruscha, but neither were fully realized, successful shows. The new building gives the museum the opportunity to reverse this trend, as a new-ish exhibition by French artist Sophie Calle opens October 2. The museum's contemporary holdings include excellent pieces by Jack Pierson, Kiki Smith, and the Dan Flavin, but every time we get our hopes up that PAM will round the corner, we're treated to something like Eleven Decades of Modern Silver: A Taste for Coffee and Tea, which will be featured in the North Building until early next year.
With all that said, the West Coast is the land of second chances, and we're willing to wait and see how PAM resurrects itself from the ashes of its own programming before making our final judgment.