Portland and the art of the soft opening
The Portland Art Museum reopened to the public Thursday July 16, after closing on March 14, 2020, to control the spread of COVID-19.
The museum laid off 51 full-time and 72 part-time workers, a third of its staff, on June 30, to cut nearly 40% of its budget.
Lucrative event rentals in the ballrooms in the Mark Building, however, will not resume while large gatherings are banned in Oregon. The Northwest Film Center's screenings, classes and programs will reopen on a separate timeline. An estimated 40% of the museum's fund come from earned income, which has essentially been zero since March.
Museum Director Brian Ferriso said the leadership team has "focused on the critical need to ensure the institution's long-term survival while at the same time finding every way we could to continue compensation and benefits for as long as possible."
To control numbers and to preserve social distancing, the museum is using a timed ticketing system. There was a steady trickle of visitors during Thursday's lunchtime.
Jeff Toreson rode his bike there from Southeast Portland on the opening day on his lunch hour. He's been working from home doing structural design for Jacobs, an engineering company.
"It's my birthday, I wanted to celebrate it kind of with something unique," he said. "I actually didn't know much about the exhibits that we're going to be going on today, so it's a pleasant surprise to see Robert Colescott's work. So right now, I'm just kind of soaking up everything, trying to learn more about Mount Saint Helens and American history."
The 28-year-old from Eugene is a fan of minimalism. He donated $10 for admission, which is free through Sunday, July 19. He has worked in museums before and said he finds them a pleasant place to visit alone or with friends. "Yeah, just put the headphones in, wander around a little bit. It's a good time so far," he said of the Volcano! exhibit.
He will celebrate more later. "Portland's in a good enough place where there are some bars open and outdoor spaces. So, there's plenty you can do if you get creative."
Black Lives Matter
Rachel Deck was visiting Portland from West Virginia. She said they headed to the museum because of the show by African American painter Robert Colescott, "Art and Race Matters."
"We thought it would be a good place to visit and since the whole Black Lives Matters going on, and the importance of racial understanding with the exhibit upstairs," Deck said.
Her family has, so far, done downtown Portland the Rose Garden and Cannon Beach. She said she feels better protected from COVID-19 here than at home in Charleston. "People here are more safe, because more people are wearing their masks," she said. "So, just as long as we stay far apart from other parties."
She said she found it courteous the other day when she passed maskless people on a hike who held up their bandanas to the mouths.
Deck is a senior at West Virginia University in the nursing program. She said she loves art because "It's a great way to express yourself and express your beliefs and stances."
Felicia Muriel moved to Portland in 2019 from Central California's San Luis Obispo area. She had been to the Portland Art Museum once before. "As soon as I saw that they were reopening and have free tickets, I was game. This Mount Saint Helens exhibit was a big draw for me."
Muriel writes user guides for software, and can work remotely, so visiting the museum or walking around her neighborhood near the University of Portland is a treat.
"I wanted to increase my museum-going here, so this is perfect and have flexible hours now because of COVID."
Muriel was aware that increasing COVD-19 case numbers mean the museum might close again.
"I think it's not an essential place," she said. "It's definitely somewhere that I think will be one of the first to close. So maybe that's in the back of my head to where I'm like, just in case, I'll visit."
Is she optimistic about the COVID-19 pandemic going away?
"I am in the long term optimistic, but just for the rest of the year, I think 2020, no."
Museum member Eileen Odom was playing catchup, having not visited it for a year and a half.
"I'm very interested in this particular exhibit (Colescott) and really pleased it was open. This is incredible," she said of the bawdy, technicolor paintings which play with racial stereotypes.
She heard about the reopening a month ago and said she picked opening day for a simple reason: "It was a day that had a lot of white space in the calendar. I was surprised that I could get the reservation in the noon timeframe."
Odom said she was impressed with the museum's efforts, but worried about future shut downs as COVID-19 cases have spiked in mid-July.
"They're clearly doing everything they can to make it very safe. It's just so hard to predict, it's not going well right now. I am also a member of the Japanese Garden and I was looking forward to going there more frequently. And as you may know, they recently closed again."
Lexie Lodgermilk was there from Atlanta, Georgia. After her senior year school trip to Dollywood in Tennessee was canceled, they decided to come to Portland. The Portland Art Museum was one of her first stops. "This was going to be more fun to see Mount Saint Helens. I'm very interested in history, and Portland is a place to learn about the West Coast's history."
Certain shows, such as the Diego Rivera one, have been postponed rather than canceled, but the museum needs to get back to full capacity. Asked if the rising number of coronavirus infections will affect the museum, Director Brian Ferriso told the Portland Tribune they would do everything to keep staff and visitors safe. If a member of staff gets the virus there will be testing quarantining. But he stopped short of saying the museum would immediately close down again, like the Portland Japanese Garden did this week.
Ferriso took over at the museum in 2006 just before the Great Recession, when donors had to be courted extra hard. "We had $20 million in debt then, which we paid off," he said. He stressed that fundraising in the future will be different, relying less on government money (the museum was left out of this week's federal arts bailout) and more on small public donations. Ferriso also believes the future of the museum rests in remaining relevant, and "relevant means something very different than it did 10 years ago."
As for when they will go back to the $20 entry price for adults (it will be $10 for the summer), Ferriso said he doesn't know. The COVID-19 teams meets every week to discuss potential plans.
See the Portland Art Museum's welcome back page.
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