Billing itself as the oldest continuously-running craft institution in the United States, the Museum of Contemporary Craft is no stranger to changes in name and location.
It was originally founded in 1937 as the Oregon Ceramics Studio on SW Corbett Avenue. In 1965, it rebranded itself as the Contemporary Crafts Gallery and then morphed again into the Contemporary Crafts Museum & Gallery in 2002. It finally settled on the current name when it moved into the Pearl District in 2007. Along the way, it became a central pedestal in the region’s artisanal scene.
Now the museum will undergo perhaps its greatest change yet: dissolving entirely into a new Center for Contemporary Art & Culture within the Pacific Northwest College of Art’s main campus building.
“The collection from MOCC will come into PNCA to be combined with our existing programs at PNCA,” says the college’s interim president Casey Mills. “So it would span not only craft, but craft, art, design, and show that these are actually all interrelated and that they actually feed off one another.”
The college took over the museum in 2009 during the height of the recession. The museum, already financially stretched from its ambitious move into a spacious building downtown, was on the verge of collapse.
“When PNCA purchased the museum, it was hoped that it would be something that could be used as a resource for its students and its faculty,” says Mills. “And what has happened is that, for whatever reason, it has not really been something that students and faculty have been engaged in, at least not sufficiently enough.”
At the same time, PNCA has not been able to make the museum financially sustainable. The college loses $30,000 a month, according to Mills. “I don’t think where we’ve been in a situation where we have lost less than $200,000 for several years.”
Before leaving at the end of 2015, the college’s longtime president Tom Manley convened a committee to evaluate the future of the museum. Mills says the committee looked at spinning off the museum or turning it over to another institution, to no avail. The conclusion was to sell its partial stake in the DeSoto building, which is managed as a condo, and add the proceeds to the college’s endowment.
The Curator and Director of Exhibitions for the college and the museum, Mack McFarland, will become the director of the new Center for Contemporary Art & Culture. He says the craft museum’s collection will be incorporated into the college and rotated on a regular basis through the Object Studies Lab, as well as being part of exhibitions.
“We’ll be utilizing the collection in a much more robust way,” says McFarland. “We will definitely do a follow-up on an exhibition we had last year at the craft museum called ‘Extra Credits,’ in which students came into the collection, really learned how to handle these objects, look at these objects, and curated small exhibitions out of the collection mixing it with their own works.”
An advisory council of faculty, students and alumni will help McFarland guide the new center’s exhibitions and programming, which will include the museum’s outstanding fall show, “Design and Craft of Prosthetics.” McFarland says they will also rely on guest curators and historians.
The sudden news of the museum’s closure has left many in the craft community reeling.
“Portland is — and always has been — a city of makers and craftspeople, and the Northwest has a history rooted in ceramics and traditional craft,” says Isaac Watson, a former college employee who was stationed at the museum but now runs Maker’s Nation, an online community for craft and small manufacturers. “So I think that losing the museum means there will no longer be a cultural home for the study, celebration, and chronicling of that identity. And I think that PNCA, in the process, is alienating a longstanding community of craftspeople.”
For many, the question is: what will the college do with the museum’s collection?
“My question is what kind of commitment will PNCA make to the collection itself?’” says Stephanie Snyder, the curator of Reed College’s Cooley Gallery who has reviewed a number of craft museum shows for “Artforum.” “Will they be hiring an art historian who specifically understands the history of craft and its relationship to the fine arts? Will it still grow? What’s the difference between a living museum collection and a set of object resources for visitors and students?”
For its part, the college says it will convene a committee to explore these questions and draw up a plan for the new center.
“It is so imperative that they honor the history of the museum and its collection, that they devote the resources and time,” says Snyder, “because they are now the stewards of that history and collection.”