The History of the Portland Art Museum

Founded in 1892, the Portland Art Museum has been a cultural hotspot in Portland for more than 125 years. The museum celebrated its 125th-anniversary last year with an exhibit capturing the natural beauty of Oregon. Photo by Bijou Allard.

Founded in late 1892, the Portland Art Museum is the seventh oldest museum in the United States and the oldest in the Pacific Northwest. The museum rounded out its 125th year of operation this past December with an exhibit that celebrates that natural beauty of Oregon. Featuring works that date back to the 1800’s, Picturing Oregon combined paintings and photographs to capture the distinct regions of the state. The crisp, white gallery walls allow the stunningly captured landscapes to pop, taking the viewer on a tour through the vistas of dunes and spires, forested mountains, mossy urban areas, fallen trees, and expenses of golden fields that make up Oregon’s diverse geography.

The Portland Art Museum purchased its first collection, one hundred plaster casts of Greek and Roman sculptures, with a donation of $10,000 from local Portland resident Henry Corbett. This initial collection was on display at the Portland Art Museum’s first location in a public library on SW 7th and Stark. Quickly, the museum became a cultural hotspot attracting local artists, school groups, and enormous lecture audiences.

 

The museum continued to grow following World War I. In the 1920’s the museum held one of their most memorable exhibitions. Organized by Sally Lewis, art lover and daughter of a prominent Portland family, the exhibit included 44 paintings by Picasso, Matisse, Andre Derain and American Modernists, such as Maurice Prendergast, Charles Burchfield, and Max Weber.  Sally later became an important patron of the museum, organizing several prominent exhibitions in the early 20th century.

 

Finally, on November 18, 1932, the museum’s permanent location opened to the public. Located on the corner of SW Park Avenue and Jefferson Street, the grand building was noted and designed by architect Pietro Belluschi, and soon became a landmark in Portland’s cultural district. The building was constructed with a gift of $100,000 from Winslow B. Ayer, the same local patron that selected the plaster casts showcased in the museum’s first exhibition. As a result of his generous donations, the museum’s main building is now known as the Ayer wing.

 

By its 50th birthday in 1942, the museum held a permanent collection of 3,300 objects and 750 works on a long-term loan. During the 1950s, the museum hosted many record-breaking exhibitions. In 1959, more than 80,000 people visited a Vincent Van Gogh showcase that generated enough funds for the museum to purchase Waterlillies by Claude Monet. Over the next several decades the Portland Art Museum continued to evolve, hosting more events and featuring the works of prominent cinematographers. The museum celebrated its centennial in 1992, which was marked by the purchase of an adjacent Masonic temple, now known as the Mark Building.

 

Today, with a collection consisting of over 42,000 objects, the Portland Art Museum is one of the leading cultural institutions in the Pacific Northwest. “It’s our mission is to engage diverse communities through art and film of enduring quality, and to collect, preserve, and educate for the enrichment of present and future generations,” says Laura Bartroff, Director of Communications for the museum. “When our current director arrived 11 years ago, he had a great goal to make kids under 17 free as a way of opening up access to the community.” That access is in alignment with the museum’s greater values: creativity, connection, learning, accessibility, and accountability. Bartroff hopes that these values will guide the museum through a future as bright as their past.

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