Getting lost in a work of art is one of my favorite ways to escape reality. A thought transformed on canvas or stone transports you into an artist’s mind at the moment inspiration strikes.
At the Portland Art Museum, the West Coast’s first museum dedicated solely to artistic endeavors, great masters from the past and present display their works in a sprawling collection of galleries and an outdoor sculpture garden. I’ve been to the museum many times and love exploring all the dramatic and intimate spaces, but the layout can be a bit confusing. Here a breakdown of how I make the most out of my visits to the Portland Art Museum.
The Belluschi Building
Begin your visit on the top floors of the Belluschi Building, the Museum’s main building, where one of its most recent collections celebrates the work of Pacific Northwest artists. Works are arranged chronologically, with pre-1960s pieces housed on the third floor and post-1960s and contemporary art on the fourth.
Native American Art
Over 5,000 artifacts representing more than 200 native cultures are presented in the Museum’s Native American collection. Beautiful examples from Northwest Coastal, Plains, Woodlands, Southwest, Californian, and Arctic tribes fill the room, and Pre-Columbian art from Meso and South America, western Oregon and the Columbia Plateau are grouped together in their own galleries.
Rotating exhibitions are shown in an intimate third floor gallery, called the Rubinstein Alcove. Regional artists spanning every genre have presented there.
European Artists, American Impressionists, and the Silver Collection
European art ranging from Classical Antiquity, to the 19th century masters are housed in a series of galleries on the second floor, including 18th-century French Impressionists and post-impressionists, and several Picasso lithographs. The Museum hosts rotating exhibits in their Master Series in this room, which gave me the opportunity to see El Greco’s The Holy Family with Saint Mary Magdalen, 1590-1595, on a visit last year.
Visit the American Impressionists gallery and you’ll quickly recognize a familiar landscape in Albert Bierstadt’s Mount Hood. Along with landscapes, this collection also includes portraits and still lifes. Of special note are several paintings by Childe Hassam and J. Alden Weir, produced during their visits to Portland in the early 1900s.
Over 100 pieces of 15th-century to mid-Victorian age pieces are part of a silver collection that were gifted to the Museum by private collectors. Look for the beautiful Rococo cup and cover with the maker’s marks of prominent Victorian aged silversmiths, Lewis Herne and Francis Butty.
The museum’s famous Asian art collection includes items going back 8,000 years and reflect Portland’s strong cultural ties with China, Japan, and Korea.
The museum’s world-renowned collection of Chinese art is a comprehensive group dating from the Neolithic Period to modern day. Furnishings, decorative arts, impressive group of ceramics excavated from the imperial tombs of the Han and Tang dynasties fill this gallery.
The Japanese collection, now totally nearly 4,000 objects, contains paintings and decorative arts from the Edo (1615-1868) and Meiji (1862-1912) periods, and around 800 Japanese woodblock prints.
In the Korean collection you’ll find works from the 4th century to present day, including a folding screen decorated with calligraphy depicting the eight Confucian virtues.
The Asian collection is complete with a smaller, though no less impressive, group of Islamic and Indian paintings and South Asian Buddhist art that displays the high level of artistic achievement of these cultures.
Lower Level Gallery
Don’t forget to visit the Belluschi Building’s lowest level to see the rotating exhibits that feature artists from around the world. When I visited recently there was a Rococo inspired, room sized porcelain sculpture on display.
The Mark Building
A comprehensive collection of contemporary and modern art is found in seven large galleries in the Mark Building.
Installations are ordered chronologically in the Mark Building, tracing the evolution of Modernism through a variety of media, including traditional paintings and sculpture, works on paper, decorative arts, new media and time-based art such as video and sound works. I have seen paintings by pop artist Roy Lichtenstein, Cubist Marcel Duchamp, and the Abstract Expressionist and former Portland resident, Mark Rothko, among many other amazing artists.
The lower level displays the work of graphic artists in the main building and photography in the mezzanine floor. The museum has acquired many beautiful images of Oregon and the West, most notably, Ansel Adams, Edward Weston, and Imogen Cunningham. Myra Wiggins, Lily White, and Sarah Ladd, local Portland and Salem photographers working during the Photo-Secession Movement at the turn of the 20th century.
This is just a small sample of the amazing collection the Portland Art Museum holds. Plan to spend a day roaming the galleries, and don’t miss any areas because you never know what masterpiece is lurking right around the corner of this wonderful museum.
Things to know before you go:
The Portland Art Museum opens every day at 10am, except Mondays.
Children 17 and under are always free.
Free admission on the first Thursday of every month from 5-8 p.m.
New exhibits and special events are always happening at the museum so check their calendar as you’re planning your visit.