At dusk, the second-floor windows at Willamette University’s Hallie Ford Museum of Art shine out to passersby in amber, blue, clear, green and red.
The patterns are at once new — made from modern safety reflectors — and old, echoing the designs of Native American weavings within. The late Richard Elliott, the artist, called his final work “Portals Through Time.” It’s a fine metaphor for a collection that connects visitors with humans across the millennia.
“Museums are time machines,” mused John Olbrantz, director at the museum, which is celebrating 15 years this month.
Spend an hour at 700 State St. and you can experience a female form sculpted in 6,000 B.C., before writing was developed. You can marvel at the artistry of a native weaver who worked tiny figures of elk into a utilitarian basket. You can discover artists such as Carl Hall, Constance Fowler and Henk Pander, whose paintings express the Northwest spirit in fresh ways.
That kind of scope is adding to the Salem museum’s reputation in the Northwest and beyond.
Trudy Kawami, director of research at the Arthur M. Sackler Foundation in New York, said the Hallie Ford museum stands out for the way it stages fresh exhibits instead of simply showing its own collection.
“In the Northwest there are a couple of museums in Portland and Seattle that have larger collections, but are nowhere near as active,” Kawami said. “It’s a little museum that could,” she said.
Through the past 15 years, through more than 150 exhibitions, Olbrantz has been the constant in the museum’s success, Kawami said.
“He is a wonderful person,” she said. “He is extremely curious, intellectually and artistically. He is a mensch, a good person. People trust him. That goes a long way.”
In the early 1990s, few could have imagined the current 27,000-square-foot building with six galleries.
One of them was Roger Hull, longtime teacher of art and art history at Willamette. He would unlock a small seminar room in the art building — practically a walk-in closet — to show his students some of the university’s treasures.
“It was quite fun going in there,” Hull reminisced. “It was like going into a treasure trove.”
Dan Schneider, a Willamette grad who had donated a valuable collection of Northwest art, raised the idea of opening a real museum on campus.
“We have the history, we have a pretty good collection, we have this legacy — why not?” Hull remembers thinking.
In November 1993, on the morning of Hull’s 50th birthday, he rose early and wrote a proposal for the university’s long-range planning committee.
Then-president Jerry Hudson suggested that Hull share it at the board’s retreat at the coast.
“Bonnie and I loaded the car with various bits and pieces from the collection,” Roger said, referring to his wife. “We set up a display and I gave a little talk. It was inspiring, I hope.”
The Hulls used Roger’s 1995 sabbatical to visit small-college art museums on the East Coast. He borrowed the best ideas for the future museum — the slanted panels to view prints at Amherst, the variety of galleries at Williams.
Next, the university acquired the old US West telephone office at 700 State St. It was a dreary place, recalled Hull, with low ceilings and little light. But Monmouth philanthropist and artist Hallie Ford donated money to renovate the building, and Portland architect Jon Weiner helped transform it with galleries and a central atrium.
After a national search, the university hired its museum director: John Olbrantz, deputy director of the Whatcom Museum of History and Art in Bellingham, Wash.
The museum opened in 1998 with a skeleton staff. The university provided an operating budget of about $160,000, which was supplemented by the earnings of a half-million-dollar endowment from Ford.
“I had a big vision but couldn’t see how we would ever get there,” Olbrantz said.
Religion professor Lane McGaughy suggested an exhibit of ancient Greek and Roman sculpture. It was a bold idea for a small university, but Olbrantz began reaching out to potential donors and to national museums with work to lend.
“Within two years, we presented the first classical art exhibit in Oregon in a long time,” Olbrantz said. “That set the tone.”
Ford, one of the donors to the Greek and Roman exhibit, was especially impressed. On one of Olbrantz’s visits to her West Salem home, she asked, “What do exhibits cost?”
Anywhere from $500 to $50,000, Olbrantz told her.
“What could you do,” she asked, “with $100,000?”
Olbrantz called his friend Jim Romano at the Brooklyn Art Museum, and began working on a major exhibition of Egyptian art. Four years after the Hallie Ford had opened its doors, it presented “In the Fullness of Time,” a survey of Egyptian art and culture from 4,500 B.C. to the end of the Roman period.
Again, Ford was delighted. And so it came to pass that at Christmas 2004, when Olbrantz stopped by to deliver a poinsettia, she promised $1 million to endow a continuing series of major exhibits.
So far that gift has made possible “Timeless Renaissance,” a 2011 show of fragile and rare Italian drawings, and “Breath of Heaven,” the current show on the ancient Near East. A major exhibit of 18th and 19th century American art is in the works for 2018, the museum’s 20th anniversary.
“Most university art museums don’t have the resources to mount these kinds of exhibitions,” Olbrantz said.
Another key benefactor was Maribeth Collins, who had a soft spot in her heart for Willamette because her late husband, father-in-law, four children and one grandchild graduated there.
“John (Olbrantz) has never asked me for anything,” she said recently from her Portland home. “I’ve been really interested. Sometimes I say, ‘What is your most pressing need now?’ Being involved in it has been a really joyful thing for me.”
Collins has never added up her donations, she said. Over the years, they have included: two $1 million endowments to support two key positions, that of the museum director and the education coordinator; grants to remodel the basement to a state-of-the art storage area and workroom; and grants to purchase artwork, install “Portals Through Time,” fund staff travel, hire a marketing director and support major exhibits.
The endowments from Ford and Collins have been key to the museum’s excellence. Although the university’s contribution has grown through the years, it averages $450,000 a year. Olbrantz can supplement that with endowment earnings for special exhibits such as “Breath of Heaven.”
“We are an amazingly stable institution,” Olbrantz said. “We’ve never had a deficit in 15 years.”
Although blockbuster exhibits have helped spread the Hallie Ford’s fame, it’s the year-in-year-out focus on Northwest art that is the museum’s true niche.
Major shows have been devoted to painters Jan Zach, George Johanson, Harry Widman, Carl Hall, Constance Fowler and Henk Pander, and sculptor Manuel Izquierdo, among others.
James Cuno, a Willamette grad who has gone on to lead Harvard University museums and the Art Institute of Chicago, said, “I think the commitment the (Hallie Ford) museum has made to the art of the region is extreme. It gives the art importance; it gives it identity. It preserves the legacy of the artists.”
Now president and CEO of the J. Paul Getty Trust in Los Angeles, Cuno visits the Hallie Ford when he attends meetings of Willamette’s board of trustees. He’s looking forward to seeing “Breath of Heaven,” which he called “a landmark in the history of Hallie Ford Museum and academic museums.”
Native American Ties
Northwest art also includes the legacy of the tribes that originally lived in this area. Willamette’s history on this score is checkered, given that it was founded by missionaries who hoped to convert their Indian charges and teach them “civilized” ways.
“I think the university and the museum have a responsibility to acknowledge that founding, and in acknowledging that, we have the opportunity to build new relationships,” said Rebecca Dobkins, the museum’s faculty curator of Native American art. “These relationships lead to trust building and renewal.”
Some signs of that renewal: The museum’s renovated Confederated Tribes of Grand Ronde Gallery was made possible by an endowment gift from the tribes’ Spirit Mountain Community Fund. The museum prominently displays work by such respected Native American artists as Lillian Pitt, Joe Fedderson, Rick Bartow and James Lavadour.
Historical artworks such as native baskets are displayed in the context of “conversations” with artists of today. For instance, the gallery juxtaposes pre-1900s woven bags next to modern works including the “Portals Through Time” windows.
“People are reanimating the earlier knowledge embedded in objects,” Dobkins said. “They are making it work for 20th century lives. That is so hopeful!”
The museum also partners with the Crow’s Shadow Institute of the Arts, located in a historic mission schoolhouse on the Confederated Tribes of the Umatilla Indian Reservation near Pendleton. The Hallie Ford museum safeguards a copy of each print and shares new work from the institute in a biennial show; the next one opens Nov. 9.
Looking ahead, Olbrantz has exhibits in the works for the next five to seven years.
Andrea Foust, the membership/public relations manager hired with a three-year grant from Collins, is working to broaden the museum’s reach.
Among her goals: to increase paid memberships, which start at $25 and offer free admission to the museum. At present, there are about 450 members. Foust hopes to have 1,500 members – 1 percent of Salem’s urban population — by 2015.
“Members have a contagious enthusiasm to share,” Foust said. “That helps build a family of people who support our museum.” That, in turn, provides the money that makes it possible to borrow works from institutions nationwide.
The museum expanded its gift shop this summer, using the expertise of local artist and gallery owner Mary Lou Zeek. That offers another opportunity to share the museum’s message and help its bottom line.
The museum hosts workshops for teachers who plan field trips. It offers scavenger hunts for visiting kids, with temporary tattoos of art for prizes. The community’s very youngest art enthusiasts can peruse an alphabet book based on the museum’s collection.
Such connections are at the heart of what the Hallie Ford museum brings to Salem, said Stephen Thorsett, president of Willamette since 2011.
“Look how many people it brings in: art historians, artists, anthropologists. A senior seminar on Dante goes there to look at prints; people studying sustainability go to use the print collection,” he said. “There are any number of events that reach beyond what an art museum might do.”
bcurtin@StatesmanJournal.com or (503) 399-6699
At A Glance
The Hallie Ford Museum of Art is at 700 State St. Hours are 10 a.m. to 5 p.m. Tuesday through Saturday and 1 to 5 p.m. Sunday. Admission is $6; $4 for seniors (55+); $3 for teachers and for students 18 and older; free for youth; free for everyone on Tuesdays.
This week’s events include: gallery talks, 12:30 p.m. Tuesday and 2 p.m. Saturday; “Appointment With Death” film, 7:30 p.m. Tuesday
For more information: (503) 370-6855 or willamette.edu/arts/hfma.