The Portland Art Museum Has $27 Million, But No Legal Right to Build Its Rothko Pavilion

Bike and disability advocates, and museum neighbors, are against the expansion.

Model of the view of the east entrance plaza of the new Mark Rothko Pavilion at the Portland Art Museum. Image courtesy of Vinci Hamp Architects.

Oregon’s Portland Art Museum fundraised $27 million for its new Rothko Pavilion, an expansion set to break ground next year, apparently without securing the legal rights to build on the proposed site.

“It’s a pretty big error in judgment,” planning consultant Peter Finley Fry told the Willamette Week.

The planned expansion would enclose a pedestrian walkway and sculpture garden that currently splits the museum in two. Bike advocates, neighbors to the museum, and disability advocates have been staging opposition since shortly after the pavilion—which is supported by a partnership with the family of Mark Rothko—was announced in October.

Opposing parties argue that enclosing the walkway would force low-income neighbors to walk through the museum lobby to get home; and when the museum is closed, they would, in some cases, have to take longer and less convenient routes.

“I wonder if that’s part of the idea, to create a structure that will make the homeless and poor feel unwelcome,” museum neighbor Geoff Wren told the Willamette Week.

Bikes and pets would not be allowed to cut through the Rothko Pavilion at any time.

“The fundamental question is whether the inconvenience for those people is vastly outweighed by the benefits of having a much better museum…People can legitimately disagree on that issue,” said the museum’s chief advancement officer, J.S. May.

Members of the museum board insist that they had informal indications from the city that the pavilion would be approved, despite a 1968 ordinance that the walkway between the museum’s two buildings “will not be used for any purpose other than an open mall.”

The museum reportedly did not ask city council for permission to build the expansion until they had already made it halfway through the funding campaign. At a city council meeting on April 20, city commissioner Dan Saltzman introduced a proposal to change the 1968 rule, but ultimately pulled it back after 24 attendees opposed it. He will reintroduce the proposal with amendments next month.

In a statement emailed to artnet News, museum director Brian Ferriso refuted the notion that the expansion was planned without public input.

“We have been in discussions with the city, neighborhood associations, those living near the Museum, the arts community, and others about a potential pavilion for more than four years, and are following all the steps of the approval processes,” Ferriso said. “We welcome and value the input of the public and have participated in multiple forums over the years to gather feedback from the community. We believe the project will be of great benefit to the people of Portland and strengthen the Museum’s contribution to the community and our region.”

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