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November 8th, 2006 Stephen Marc Beaudoin | Q & A
 

Brian Ferriso

New Portland Art Museum executive director says what he really thinks about football fans and art snobs.

     
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IMAGE: AMY OUELLETTE
Brian Ferriso comes to his new job as executive director at the Portland Art Museum from a similar post in Oklahoma, where he remembers battling stiff competition for the entertainment dollar.

That competition: rabid Sooners fans who support University of Oklahoma football. (Oregonians got a taste of how fanatic Sooners are when even Oklahoma school president David Boren complained about a terrible ref's call that gave the University of Oregon the opening it needed to beat Oklahoma 34-33 this season.)

Ferriso, 40, spent the last three years as executive director of the Philbrook Museum of Art in Tulsa. There, he revitalized the contemporary art collections and curatorial department and oversaw the renovation of the Philbrook Gardens. But before starting his new job Oct. 30 in Portland, Ferriso told The Oregonian in an interview that "you're not going to change football fans into art lovers," and that you shouldn't "dumb down" your mission to bring in that audience. That comment landed him in WW's "Losers" section. Here, we give him a chance to respond and say much more.

WW: What did you mean when you said one can't "dumb down" art for football fans?

Brian Ferriso: It had to do with a situation at my last museum. There were some board members who wanted to judge success on attendance figures. Football is big in Oklahoma, and a staff member brought up that, ultimately, we can't make every football fan a lover of art. People can love football and art, and fishing and art, sure. About dumbing-down art: One thing I've seen happen is a marketing interpretation or story told around an exhibition that may not be true in order to increase attendance. Our marketing campaigns need to respect the art. Shows like The Art of Star Wars—call them what they are, they're not really art shows.

So, do you like sports?

I coached high-school wrestling and I was the captain of the rugby team...I grew up in New Jersey, I grew up with the Yankees. By the way, I have a friend I grew up with who lives here, and he loves "Winners and Losers."

Were you heartbroken to be listed in your first week as a "Loser"?

Yeah, I was.

How will you know you've succeeded here?

A lot of museums judge success by the number of people who walk through the door; 100 people once is a great thing, rather than 20 people once who have a great experience.

How do you define a great experience?

It's great lighting, good seating, great art, it's comfortable, it's not intimidating, it's people welcoming you at the door. Let's face it—these are somewhat intimidating institutions. If you're my boss and you say, "Bring in numbers," I'll do "The Art of the Gun," then "The Art of the Car," and then where do you stop?

How do you find new ways of inspiring that audience to attend?

The question is, what audience? You can't just say "that" audience.... I believe in showing the highest quality that you can. If you have quality, the numbers will follow. The staff here asked me, "Do you want the daily attendance report?" I said, "No, it doesn't matter to me right now." I wanna know if a lightbulb is out.

What enticed you to come here?

I accomplished everything I needed to accomplish at my last job. I've always tried to put myself into uncomfortable situations—uncomfortable in the sense of growing and learning. The other thing is, I think the city is a great arts community.

What is your quick-and-dirty appraisal of the PAM collection?

Mostly good.

Many museums are reconsidering the value of certain pieces of their collection and selling off, or "deaccessioning," parts of their collections. Will you be deaccessioning any works from the PAM collection?

I'm real cautious on that. The issue is that people may deaccess based on taste, and not on what's important. Everything goes in and out of taste, that's a really important issue to think about in museums. I drag my feet on deaccessioning. I really think one of the great opportunities is for us to continue and expand the contemporary and modern area. And counterbalance with the historic shows we've done.

What's your vision for Northwest artists in the museum?

The question of regionalism is really a difficult one. What's happening is, globalism and the Internet are forcing us away from regionalism.

Do you think that's a healthy trend?

It is what it is. What happens if there's a great artist right outside of your city limits? Because of globalism, I go to museums and they all start to look the same. All the curators are going to all the same art fairs, and then the question becomes, "What makes a museum unique?"

Some would-be museum patrons feel the pricing structure for museum admission and special exhibitions to be very aggressive ($10 general admission, plus $20 for the currently running exhibition). Are there any plans to reassess this?

I think everything is open to discussion. It comes down to balancing your budget. An art museum needs to be about art. It's not about parties, it's not about corporate sponsorships, it's not about the gift shop or fundraisers. If I were to say anything about the Portland Art Museum, I would say that it's been extremely entrepreneurial. John [Buchanan] addressed very important issues: climate control, building maintenance, capital campaigns and expansions. And he did it through a very aggressive entrepreneurial drive, and as a result, prices are less than ideal. I mean, they're high.

Are there any pressing museum physical needs?

(Looks around office, smiles.) Isn't this the greatest office? Isn't it ridiculous? I had a really good office last time, but it didn't have a bathroom and it wasn't this big. It's gonna take me a while to grow into this one.

Let's talk about cultural philanthropy. You probably know that Oregon ranks very low in terms of per-capita state spending on arts and culture. Amid this, and a fragile economy, Portland Art Museum has managed to raise very significant amounts of money, frequently outpacing your colleagues at the other cultural institutions in town like the Oregon Ballet, the Symphony and Portland Opera. Why is it that the PAM has demonstrated considerable private fundraising success while the other $1-million cultural players in town have generally not?

First and foremost, museums are fortunate because we have places, people can go there. Cities of this size have struggled to keep symphonies and ballet companies afloat. They have a different mission than we do—there are some real differences. We need to make sure our mission statement says it's not what we do, but it's why we exist. That art is critical to our human growth and existence and education. It's not cancer research versus art funding. You need both for a great city. You need to take care of the body, the mind and the soul. The conversation really needs to be: The symphony is just as important as, um, Planned Parenthood or cancer research or homeless. You need both. People become inspired, they become taken away from their daily lives. I believe people support institutions that are fiscally responsible, have quality programs and really use their resources effectively, and I think the dollars will follow.

You may have heard of a unique mechanism designed to provide support statewide to arts-and-cultural organizations called the Oregon Cultural Trust. Founded in 2002 with an ambitious goal of raising $200 million for a permanent statewide arts endowment, they've only raised just over $7 million to date.

(Laughs.) They're not quite on schedule, are they?

Not quite. I hear from many arts administrators that there is a lack of trailblazing leadership for cultural philanthropy at this level. Many of the most powerful philanthropic families—such as the Schnitzers, Marks and others that the PAM has in its "back pocket"—are not rallying the forces behind increases in statewide arts funding, but they are leading the charge with institutional fundraising. How do you view your role, and your connections with such culturally philanthropic families, as advancing the conversation about arts and culture support across the state?

I don't know much about the Oregon Cultural Trust, and it's an interesting concept. I am excited by the opportunity...I grew up being intimidated by art. Being able to talk about art in a meaningful way, and what it can do for people, I embrace the opportunity.

I talked with one arts administrator in town who characterized PAM's fundraising success as "sucking the blood out of cultural fundraising in Portland."

(Laughs.) It's just a dog-eat-dog world. Yeah, the Buchanans were aggressive. I find that people get asked for a lot for money. For example, there are people who can write checks for both [the museum and the symphony], but they will use the museum as an excuse, an out. Rather than saying no, they'll say "It's the Portland Art Museum, they took all my money."

Have a favorite hangout spot yet?

There's a show called Beer Nuts, and they go to these bars and breweries. It's like a funny PBS show. I was watching the show and it was about Portland and so I found out about some places there. I love my weekends. I put on football and drink beer, and to be honest with you, I don't do that much with art on the weekends. I want to find those good pubs.

If you had one minute with WW readers—why should they visit the PAM?

I was someone who didn't grow up in an art family—I grew up in the shadows of New York City, where I was going to be someone in the finance world. I was fortunate that people in my life exposed me to art and encouraged me to look at art. Come look at a great work of art, you may find something.

Current hotshot overrated artist?

Oh god, I'm gonna get hate mail on this one. You know, I think...umm, can I get back to you?

How do you feel about Damien Hirst?

I really like his sculptures.

How about his sharks in formaldehyde?

I think they're creepy, and I like it. It's weird.


Ferriso, who's married with two kids, says he enjoys "kicking back on the weekends with a beer and watching TV." He also is an avid rugby fan.
 
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