What’s Currently on View at the Portland Art Museum?

Shortly before I moved to Portland, I visited the MoMA to see “Inventing Abstraction: 1910-1925.” While moving through the galleries I remember recognizing a familiar work by Marcel Duchamp, and with an appropriate amount of blasé  expertise saying to my brother “Oh, I’ve seen that work so many times! They bring it out for every one of these modernist exhibitions.” I realized as soon as the sentiment left my mouth how pretentious I sounded, and I knew I needed to get out of there quick before New York’s own style of provincialism made me unable to appreciate the privilege of living in a city so rich in history and culture. But before we left that day, I dragged my brother and his friends to see one of my favorite installations of the permanent collection at the MoMA. The Migration Series, by Jacob Lawrence, shows the Great Migration of African-Americans to Northern cities during the 20th century in simple, geometric shapes over the course of 30 panels, like an art historical comic-book that takes up a whole wall.

Jacob Lawrence (American, 1917-2000), The 1920’s…The Migrants Cast Their Ballots, 1974, screenprint on paper, Gift of Lorillard, © artist or other rights holder, 76.4.8 “During the post World War I period millions of black people left southern communities in the United States and migrated to northern cities. This migration reached its peak during the 1920’s. Among the many advantages the migrants found in the north was the freedom to vote. In my print, migrants are represented expressing that freedom.” Interview with Jacob Lawrence from the Kent Bicentennial Portfolio: Spirit of Independence. New York: Lorillard, a Division of Lowes Theatres, 1975.

You might be able to tell that Jacob Lawrence is one of my favorite artists, so I was excited to learn that the Portland Art Museum has a nice dozen of his works in their collection. Rightly so considering what a significant and prolific artist of the 20th century he was in addition to living and working in Seattle for 20 years.  All of these reasons are why I was surprised when searching the online collections to see that none of his works are currently on view.  It seemed to me quite a disservice to not have his legacy accessible to Portland audiences, but knowing that room in the galleries to display work is never enough compared to all the works that are in the collection I figured it was an anomaly or some other temporary situation. That was until I started doing research to write an essay on African American art history and, wanting to connect it to Portland, looked into what works readers could go see that represent the trajectory of American art history over the past century.

It was what I didn’t find that shocked me. Not just no Jacob Lawrence on view but no Elizabeth Catlett, Hale Woodruff, Carrie Mae Weems, Kara Walker, or Romare Bearden! Not even works by Diego Rivera or Jose Clemente Orozco are on view, and that’s when I started wondering what kind of story about who makes art in America is the Portland Art Museum telling to its audiences without these and many other artists on their walls. To continue with even more research, I realized I’d need an outlet for my efforts. Thus was a new blog conceived, and a few weeks later notcurrentlyonview.tumblr.com was born. I decided to think of Not Currently on View as a Public Art History project, meaning that I’m interested in questions revolving around public access to art and in bringing the cloistered field of art history into the light of public scrutiny. As a public art institution where art history is done thanks to taxpayer support, the Portland Art Museum is the site for how these questions play out in our own communities, or to quote my own about page:

Not Currently on View is meant to create a forum to discuss the role and responsibility of public art institutions in the 21st century. This includes questions such as who is included in the ‘public(s)’ that museums serve; what kind of art historical narrative is being presented to these ‘public(s)’, and how does that narrative reinforce or undermine entrenched ideas about audienceship and engagement?

I hope you will join me in asking these questions, and I look forward to conversations that will deepen our understanding our how art serves our communities.

Jacob Lawrence (American, 1917-2000), Confrontation at the Bridge, 1975, screenprint on paper, The Vivian and Gordon Gilkey Graphic Arts Collection.                                             In 1965 hundreds of civil rights marchers left Selma, Alabama, on a peace march to Montgomery. Just outside Selma, at the Edmond Pettus Bridge, the marchers were met with resistance from local law enforcement officials and townspeople. The marchers, led by the Revered Martin Luther King, Jr., and others, were repeatedly turned back. After several days of stalemate and verbal and physical abuse, the determined marchers were allowed to continue. Regarding the choice of subject batter for this work, Lawrence has commented: “I thought it was part of the history of the country, part of the history of our progress; not just the black progress, but of the progress of the people.”                                        – Peter T. Nesbett, Jacob Lawrence: The Complete Prints (1963-2000), (Seattle: University of Washington Press, 2001), 32.

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