Rothko Pavilion will connect buildings and open Portland Art Museum to downtown

Not long after Brian Ferriso moved to Portland in 2006, he was riding the streetcar to his new job as executive director and chief curator of the Portland Art Museum. He was near the museum when he caught part of a conversation about the very building where he was now in the top position.

“I overheard some PSU students say, ‘What is that place there?’” Ferriso said in his office at the museum on Tuesday. “And the one student said, ‘I think it’s a museum. I’m not sure. I don’t think anything really happens there.’”

In the years since, the conversation has clearly stuck with Ferriso. And it’s a helpful way to think about the Portland Art Museum’s current project, an expansion begun in 2023 that the museum announced Wednesday would be done by late 2025.

Construction of the Portland Art Museum expansion project currently in progress, seen on Tues., April 2, 2024.

The expansion will link the original museum building to a neighboring building that has long been part of the museum, creating new indoor space in place of what was previously an open-air courtyard and the museum’s outdoor sculpture garden. It will also be made of glass, so people walking, driving or riding the street car will be able to see what is happening inside.

The centerpiece of the project, which the museum says will cost $111 million, is the Mark Rothko Pavilion, named after one-time Portlander, painter Mark Rothko. The pavilion will be a 24,000-square-foot, multi-story connector between the Main Building, designed by Pietro Belluschi and completed in 1932, and a former Masonic temple, acquired by the museum in 1992, now called the Mark Building.

“I believe the museum of the 21st century is not just about collections, although collections are very important,” Ferriso said. “It’s about collections, people and program.”

Brian Ferriso, executive director and chief curator of the Portland Art Museum, in his office at the museum on Tues., April 2, 2024.

Since he took over directorship of the museum in 2006, he’s worked to bring the people more strongly into the equation, making kids and school groups free, looking beyond the white, male world of “fine art” to highlight work from people from all different backgrounds. And he thinks the Rothko Pavilion will align the Portland Art Museum further with those goals.

“The new envelope and the new structure and the new spaces allow us to share our mission visually and physically with the community and transform the area,” Ferriso said.

The new building, made almost entirely of transparent bird-safe windows, will act as a new front door to the museum on Southwest Park Avenue, as well as a lobby. The upper floors will contain space for art as well as room to relax and an outdoor patio space.

Because the Rothko Pavilion will be so sunny, many light-sensitive works, including Rothko works, will not be shown in the new space. There will, however, be plenty of sculpture on display, including sculptures from the former garden, both inside and in the Rothko’s outdoor spaces.

The Rothko Pavilion project is about increasing accessibility for all visitors, in every sense of the word, including addressing the current layout of the museum, which is complicated, warrenlike, and can be confusing.

A rendering of the Portland Art Museum and the Park blocks.

“Some people didn’t always see everything that was available to them,” said museum spokesperson Laura Bartroff, “and if you had a wheelchair or a walker, a stroller, it’s even more complex.”

“We put universal design principles throughout the entire structure,” Ferriso said. “Universal design is taking ADA a little bit further and moving it forward so that every body and every person can move through the spaces in the same way.”

In practice, this means the new entrance will be closer to street level and not shunt those who need to use a ramp far off to the side. A walkway between Southwest 10th Avenue and Southwest Park Avenue will allow pedestrians to move freely between the streets, even when the museum is closed. And, it will give people outside another chance to look in the windows and see art on display.

Design rendering of the Community Passageway between Southwest Park Avenue and Southwest 10th Avenue looking east into the Jubitz Center for Modern and Contemporary Art.

Inside, the new design, created by Chicago-based architecture firm Vinci Hamp and Portland-based Hennebery Eddy Architects, includes more elevators, more bathrooms and an easier-to-navigate layout.

What is now the entryway will become an exhibition and possibly events space. The facade will remain the same, but the gates in front of the current doorways will remain closed, said museum spokesperson Ian Gillingham.

The pavilion will also allow visitors to travel more smoothly between the two buildings, meaning easier access to the Crumpacker Center for New Art, which is located in the Mark Building. As part of the project, the Crumpacker Center will get 4,000 additional square feet of exhibition space.

More new exhibition spaces will be opened in the main building as well, including a new gallery overlooking Southwest Jefferson Street, Gillingham said.

“But it might be more accurate to say that all of our gallery spaces will be available for special exhibitions, as we will bring a flexible and collaborative approach to exhibiting and programming throughout the transformed campus,” he added.

To make way for the pavilion, the main loading dock has been moved to the side of the building. Additionally, the museum’s Library & Research Center is set to be relocated to the first floor of the Mark Building, and the interior of the Whitsell Auditorium will also be “refreshed,” a change that will allow for food in the theater.

The museum has remained open so far during construction and will continue to be open, in a somewhat limited capacity, while the Rothko Pavilion is built.

Construction of the Portland Art Museum expansion project currently in progress, seen on Tues., April 2, 2024.

According to a press release, the museum has already raised $122 million towards a goal of $141 million, which includes the $111 million construction cost and $30 million for the museum’s endowment.

The project was initially projected to cost closer to $80 million, Ferriso said. But, after the pandemic, inflation meant the museum would need more to complete the expansion. The majority, 98%, of that money came from private donors.

It isn’t just inflation that has shifted the picture or arts organizations. The world has changed since the Rothko Pavilion was first conceived about a decade ago. Now, the museum is one of many organizations working to get back to pre-pandemic audience levels. They are also in downtown Portland, the epicenter of homelessness and drug use in the city and the focus of much revitalization work.

Though the state only contributed $2 million to the Rothko Pavilion project, Ferriso very much sees the work as part of the revival of the neighborhood.

“I believe that when you’re investing over a hundred million dollars in culture and education, I can’t think of a better way to transform or to help a city realize a brighter future,” Ferriso said. “I can’t think of a brighter light.”

A rendering of the Portland Art Museum and the Park blocks.

– Lizzy Acker covers life and culture and writes the advice column Why Tho? Reach her at 503-221-8052, [email protected] or @lizzzyacker

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