Museums have a lot of names on the walls, but they’re not always the ones visitors recognize. At the Museum of Modern Art, viewers might stroll into the Kenneth C. Griffin Building without having any idea who Griffin is; at the Los Angeles County Museum of Art, they might go see a film in the Bing Theater without giving a second thought to the woman behind the Bing (Anna Bing Arnold). The Portland Art Museum in Oregon is taking a different approach, announcing an expansion project today that will take the form of a pavilion named after one of the most famous postwar American artists: Mark Rothko.
“I think, in the world of philanthropy, naming something for an artist is a little more unusual than naming something for a donor,” Brian Ferriso, director of the museum, told Hyperallergic.
Designed by Vinci Hamp Architects, the 30,000-square-foot Rothko Pavilion will be a glass-walled structure that connects the museum’s existing Main and Mark Buildings. The multilevel pavilion will house an additional 9,840 square feet of gallery space, a prominent “stair tower,” new space for the institution’s library, and a sculpture garden and roof deck on its third floor. The central feature will be the “community commons,” a free public area at ground level that Ferriso calls “an invitation to our community to enter and experience the great treasures of our museum. It’s an invitation to enter and use what we have.”
Museum galleries, wings, and buildings tend to get their names from the people who pay for them. In the case of the Rothko Pavilion, the unusual naming is made possible by a donor who gave a substantial gift for the project but wishes to remain anonymous. According to Ferriso, this is just the type of opportunity the Portland Art Museum has been mulling over for some time. Several years ago, a donor anonymously endowed a curatorial position, and the museum decided to name it after photographer Minor White. “That sort of planted the seed,” Ferriso said. “How do we recognize great artists when we have these incredibly generous anonymous gifts?”
In Rothko’s case, the answer included consulting with the artist’s children, Christopher Rothko and Kate Rothko Prizel, whom the institution had been in touch with since 2012, when it mounted a retrospective of his work. Rothko had strong connections to the city: he grew up there after emigrating from Latvia, and his first solo exhibition took place at the Portland Art Museum in 1933. That meant his children were open to more than just the naming of a new pavilion after their father; they also agreed to a partnership with the institution, which was announced today as well. The project will see them loaning paintings from their private collection of Rothkos to the Portland Art Museum for the next 20 years.
“We’re thinking at least one a year,” said Ferriso, who added that the list of works has not yet been finalized, but they will be “of great significance.”
The paintings will hang in light-controlled galleries that aren’t actually in the new Rothko Pavilion (they’re adjacent), but may nonetheless benefit from its creation. The project, Ferriso explained, is more than just an “architectural intervention. It’s quite extensive; it delves deep into our existing facilities.” This means updating climate control, lighting, and more — essentially, upgrading the institution’s old systems to new ones that are more energy efficient.
But while the expansion — which is expected to begin in 2018 — will mean material updates to the museum, Ferriso insists that, in spirit, it’s a response to changes that have already happened within. Over the last 10 years, “we spent a lot of time rethinking our programmatic offerings and how we approach the community. I think this project is a vessel to perform those initiatives better.
“We aspire to serve our community like a library does,” Ferriso said. “It’s about connectivity — with our audiences more deeply, connecting our audience with art, and, in this age, the audience with each other. People with art, and people with people.”