Image credit: David Martínez
Sitting at the end of the Oregon Trail in downtown Portland, not far from the Williamette River, in the heart of Chinook Indian Country, is the Portland Art Museum. Locally referred to as “PAM,” the museum was founded in 1892, making it the oldest such institution in the American West. When I visited across two days, April 10-11, 2015, the galleries, including a special exhibit titled “Italian Style, Fashion Since 1945,” spanned three stories. Comparable to other regional museums, such as the Phoenix Art Museum in Arizona, PAM strives at providing visitors with a carefully curated array of lesser works by historically important artists, in addition to exemplary works by unknowns, a collection of Asian art and artifacts, not to mention regional settler-colonial American art (featuring Oregon sculptor Chris Antemann), and what strives at being a comprehensive collection of Indigenous art (primarily from North America, including México).
Like many museums in mid-size cities, PAM aspires at mimicking the magic of loftier collections, such as New York’s Metropolitan Museum or the Chicago Art Institute, without (hopefully) losing its connection to local communities. As a tourist, I can sincerely say that I enjoyed my visits, even though as I strolled through the European galleries I felt myself yearning for the Louvre, which I visited a few short weeks earlier. However, the one space in which I didn’t find myself comparing PAM’s exhibits to more prestigious establishments was in the Native American gallery, especially when I was looking at the Pacific Northwest Coast collection. While I’m unaware of which items on display are actually indigenous to what is today the state of Oregon, I nonetheless experienced an authentic connection between work and place, which was accomplished in a different way when looking at works by local non-indigenous artists. An unexpected delight was an exhibit titled “Breaking Barriers: Japanese Women print Artists, 1950-2000.” I was particular enchanted by the work of Oda Mayumi, whose goddess images are powerful and lyrical expressions of the feminine spirit inherent throughout nature and the cosmos. In the end, as I headed across the street to the Behind the Museum Café, I felt satisfied.