The Portland Art Museum has begun looking for a new Curator of Modern and Contemporary art.

Bruce Guenther, last to hold that position, stepped down last October, after fourteen years on the job.
Along with the search comes a conversation about what’s next for Portland’s art scene.

Kristan Kennedy is visual art curator for PICA, Portland Institute for Contemporary Art, and a visual artist. She told us the next person to do this job could have a potentially important role helping creating connection.

“Portland is an off-center market. Dave Hickey would have called it a province. Even just the ease and freedom of being off-market allows you to take certain risks you wouldn’t be able to take other places.

“When artists audience looking to interact with culture here their job is to run around town to 51 artist spaces, events at PICA, Reed, PNCA, the Feldman, heading to the museum… and in your mind you’re cobbling together this huge long lineage, the idea of context.
“When you have a curator like Julia Dolan taking over the museum with her Carrie Mae Weems retrospective, that both is historical and contemporary and relevant, those are the motions in the museum I’m really excited about. A new curator having that kind of freedom within the collection … that will be a statement within that institution that will radically change the landscape here.”

Other stakeholders are hoping the Museum will choose someone who’ll be a force affecting the art that’s bought and sold in the region. Elizabeth Leach, the owner and director of Elizabeth Leach Gallery. Established in 1981, it’s one of the city’s top galleries, and on of the few with a national profile.

“What the galleries need is a leader at the institution who is going to curate cutting edge shows and engage with the galleries in a dialogue about how to build collectors.

“This community is very interested in contemporary art. Bruce Guenther did a great job. The change offers a fresh slate. We have more galleries than we’ve ever had … and more people moving here passionate about contemporary art.
“A lot of time people will start at the museum, on the board or the contemporary arts council. Trips they take, they’ll start to see how exciting contemporary art is, and how much they want it part of their lives. it’s all relationship based. Maybe they start a relationship with a gallery owner. It’s a symbiotic relationship.”
“I hope the museum will introduce some of the candidates to the community, or at least a kitchen cabinet, so that Brian can get a read on what the galleries and collectors and artists think. I think it would be important to make sure the curator … is open and curious and not too stuck on one thing or another… The art world is a moving community, a dynamic, interesting community based in ideas that reflect our world. I’m sure we will get the right person, and I think [the Museum] will have a choice of candidates.”

Leach says she’s looking forward to working with the Museum and other institutions on a new art event aimed at high-end collectors, curators, and artists, set to launch in 2016. It’s called CAMP45 Contemporary. She suggests the new curator could have a key role to play.

In 2004, Corvallis collector Sarah Miller Meigs created an endowed fund for contemporary art exhibitions at the Museum. The gallery bearing her name has hosted works by Cy Twombly, Cindy Sherman, Mike Kelley, Jesper Just, and many others. Miller Meigs also curates her own space in northwest Portland, the Lumber Room. She says she’d be glad to see a new modern and contemporary art curator chose to grow the fund she created, and use it to take on bigger ideas. Miller Meigs says uncomfortable moments are part of growth, and she hopes the Museum won’t shy from them in the hiring process and beyond.

“I would like to see them take a risk, and maybe find someone who pushes them a little out of their comfort zone, and who is excited, intelligent, well-studied in art history, who has a different way of looking at an institution.

“I think it’s a great opportunity for the Museum and our community — an opportunity to expand beyond our region and activate.
“The Museum has an opportunity to participate in the community more, if they choose to hire someone who can bring that energy.”

Portland Art Museum director Brian Ferriso shared some details on the search.
“We started about two months ago and we hired a recruiter who specializes in curators and curation. We developed a job description, went through what we were looking for, and posted it, I believe, in early February. Since then we’ve spoken to several candidates. We also have a long list and a short list. I’m going to be in New York in March meeting with a few candidates. Also we’ll do interviews in Portland when the time is right.

“I have [about] five things on my mind for this position:
  • “First and foremost this position has to have a strong grounding in art History. To understand what art is today, you need to understand where art has come from.”
  • “I think this also has to have strong convictions and ideas, but at the same time, maintain an open mind. They have to believe what they believe, and know what they don’t know.”
  • “One of the things we talk about trying to accomplish is to be an institution of Portland and not in Portland. That’s a important statement for me, and for our staff and board. The curator needs to embrace that idea. We are an institution of our city and our state. We’re not just placed here. The person [for this position] needs to help us achieve that larger goal.”
  • “The other aspect I”m looking for is oversight of the Modern and Contemporary program in a global level, using that knowledge and vision to help [artists] who happen to live here in a  global context.”
  • “I’m certainly looking for a little more emphasis on contemporary side [of acquisitions] given our limited acquisition funds. We can be active in contemporary. Modernism, we’ve missed the boat on some artists. We’re not going to be able to purchase in that area. Contemporary, in the last twenty years or so, is something that we’re looking for, to be of the moment. Ultimately I’d love to see us acquire major contemporary pieces annually, and then, when we look back in ten years, 20 years, that we have this body of work in our collection that reflects what’s happening in the world, that’s a strong educational collection, helps us understand the world in which we lived in 2015-2018. When I was in Milwaukie and head curatorial there,  as I looked back on that collection, in the ‘60s and ‘70, the curators were buying pieces by Kenneth Noland, Eva Hesse, major pieces which at the time were very contemporary, and today they are a cornerstone of that collection. I think we need to replicate that.”

Ferriso says the search will likely extend into summertime. He does not plan on public meetings with the candidates but says the Museum’s curatorial staff will get to talk to finalists.