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rendering of the new Jordan Schnitzer Museum of Art at PSU

At a time when nearly every college gallery or museum seems to be under pressure the exciting news this week is that Jordan Schnitzer has given Portland State University 5M for a 7500 square foot, 2 level museum within the renovated Neuberger Hall. It reminds me a lot of two respected University programs that taught me a great deal decades ago, the Illinois State University Galleries and the INOVA program at the University of Wisconsin Milwaukee, both of which do museum caliber shows and similarly have a discreet director position that makes the space more than just an extension of the existing faculty and their prerogatives. Instead, those spaces expanded the cultural climate of the campus (INOVA in the early days was extremely daring, later they moved off the central campus and became less cutting edge but still good). What is great about PSU’s new museum is how visible this will be on the campus quad, inviting students to just stroll in.

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New rendering (top) and current Neuberger Hall (below)

Situated right on the Park Blocks the JSMA should add civic vibrancy to what is now just a mid-century curtain wall. I’ve long felt that university galleries expose students to art at a crucial time when they are building their intellectual apparatus. I experienced this first hand. Simply wandering into an exhibition on campus introduces an opportunity for curiosity and unlike most tests and quizzes there is no right answer and a museum scale setting gives it more weight. Overall, “Art” inherently encourages tolerance and flexibility… something our world certainly could use more of and possibly lost sight of until recently. The gift also makes PSU a much bigger cultural player and it was mentioned at the press conference how they could coordinate related exhibitions with the other museums and schools on the Park Blocks. It enhances the South Park Blocks “Museum District” count and considering Portland as a hot tourist destination it simply strengthens our civic cultural portfolio. PSU is still in the process of sorting out details like whether the Museum will have a collection or not but regardless the museum will have access to the Jordan Schnitzer Family Foundation’s vast lending library of art.

That is the easy part of this story, but it really requires more context in a time where University budgets and brass haven’t seen the value of even internationally important spaces like groundbreaking Rice Gallery in Houston, which sadly closed just last month. Spaces just do not fit narrowly proscribed “core” mission statements. Yet, they are important for that very reason, breaking up the cognitive biases we all develop. For a local example, June is the last month for the White Box space at the University of Oregon’s Portland Campus. Let’s not mince words, closing the White Box for simple storage space is a horrible philistine waste considering its excellence and 7 year history. I’ve personally curated internationally renown museum caliber exhibitions there like Donald Judd. In an era where culture has been treated as a simple luxury rather than an important alternative to self-fulfilling orthodoxy it is all it takes is is an admin who sees low hanging budgetary fruit and zero appreciation for the collateral effects of art exhibition programs. Conversely, last year when some at PSU considered closing the Littman Gallery the students themselves overwhelmingly rose up and saved the space. Frankly the Littman is great because it is more openly experimental than most other Portland spaces. What the new museum allows is more scope and scale for art on campus since the current Autzen Gallery is very difficult to find and the Littman has a short scheduling lead time. What’s more it is an update, the new museum will be outfitted with new media capabilities to support the multitude of ways that students learn from and experience art. Frankly, this new museum for PSU bucks the trend where admins increasingly pressure spaces by monetizing them as rental halls during the summer or simply cut their staff etc.

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rendering of the Wiewel Gallery

Lastly, what a difference the right admin can make here! Appropriately, the long serving and frequently seen at Littman Gallery openings retiring PSU President, Wim Wiewel, will have the entry gallery/discussion space named after him. In fact, during his tenure Wiewel came to all of the shows I curated at PSU. We can only hope Wiewel’s successor as President at PSU and the Director of this new museum both have similar vision and understanding as to Art’s power to expand possibilities.

Overall, with so much of Portland’s art ecosystem; studiospace, alternative spaces, university galleries under extreme pressure it is heartening to have some good news of an expansion rather than contraction.