PNCA answers some questions about closing the craft museum

In a follow-up interview Pacific Northwest College of Art's Casey Mills and Mack McFarland talk about the museum and its next iteration

The news that Pacific Northwest College of Art is going to close the doors of the Museum of Contemporary Craft landed on Wednesday. We posted the news as quickly as possible on ArtsWatch, but lots of questions remained.

I interviewed interim president Casey Mills and PNCA exhibitions director Mack McFarland on Thursday to find out more about the absorption of the museum into a new Center for Contemporary Art & Culture, to be housed at PNCA, as well as the decision-making process and rationale behind this radical outcome.

Ai Weiwei: Dropping the Urn (Ceramic Works, 5000 BCE – 2010 CE), installation view, 2010, Museum of Contemporary Craft. Photo by: Jake Stangel

Ai Weiwei: Dropping the Urn (Ceramic Works, 5000 BCE – 2010 CE), installation view, 2010, Museum of Contemporary Craft. Photo by: Jake Stangel

The Museum of Contemporary Craft dates back to 1937, after all, and during its life it has been an important flagship for Portland’s large crafts community, especially those concerned with ceramics. More recently, it has helped make Portland part of the national and international conversation around craft and art, without losing sight of our local history. Its failure to make it on its own is a blow to the city in many ways, which I’ll be discussing in subsequent stories.

But first we need to understand what is happening and why PNCA took the path it did.

Here’s what we know:

  • The last days of the museum at its Northwest Davis location will be at the end of April, and the museum’s 14,300 square foot space will go on the market. Mills said a price hasn’t been determined and that he has no buyer in hand for the property. The museum shop will close in April.
  • Three full-time and four part-time employees will be let go; three museum employees will be absorbed by PNCA.
  • The museum, which is organized as a 501(c)(3) nonprofit corporation, will continue as the Center for Contemporary Art & Culture under the leadership of McFarland. The Center will comprise three exhibition spaces in PNCA’s 515 Building on Northwest Broadway.
  • Some of the museum’s planned exhibitions will be shown at the Center. One of those, for example, will be Design and Craft of Prosthetics. Other center exhibitions the next several months will include work by David Horvitz, Colleen Smith, Letha Wilson, and Futurefarmers, and the launch of an exhibitions program with artist-run spaces including Vox Populi (Philadelphia) and Machine Project (LA).
  • Portions of the collection, which is worth more than $1 million (the museum’s 990 tax form for the fiscal year ending June 2014 valued it at $1,285,873), will be shown at the center and PNCA’s materials lab, and the rest kept in storage. Images of the collection’s 1100 or so objects will be digitized, thanks to a Ford Family Foundation grant, and made available to the public.

PNCA’s position on the decision to transform the craft museum into a center that doesn’t have “craft” in its name is pretty simple. Since PNCA took over the operation of the museum in 2009 (when the museum was in a dire financial position), the museum has lost $200,000 per year on average, according to Mills, and more than that in recent years. The original financial plan for the museum developed by PNCA in 2009 started with deficits in that range, but by year three, the museum was expected to leave the negative numbers behind. Instead, they were getting worse, President Mills said.

Mills didn’t say exactly how large a deficit the museum racked up in the last fiscal year, but from a look at its 990s from the fiscal year ending in June 2014 (the most recent available), the $200,000 average since 2009 sounds about right. In 2014 revenue minus expenses equaled -$237,599 on a total budget of $773,496. The year before, -$281,862. And for the year ending in 2011, the number was -$153,379.

The only aberration? The year ending in June 2012, when the museum had a banner year, pulling in grants and other contributions at a rate almost double that of 2014. That year, revenue minus expenses landed in positive digits at $52,930. Unfortunately, it wasn’t a new normal.

In addition to the steady drip of deficits, PNCA, which has its own financial issues to deal with, realized that the integration of its faculty and students into the museum’s operations wasn’t happening thoroughly enough to make the museum crucial to PNCA’s mission, despite the efforts of both the college and museum.

Mills said that the board started considering the possibility of selling the space in 2013 after it became apparent that the museum wasn’t going to start breaking even anytime soon. One of the big problems was the underperformance of the gift shop in the museum: Early estimates assumed the gift shop would generate up to a third of the museum’s total budget. According to Mills, the shop loses money now.

A tax credit the museum had received when it moved into its building kept the property off the market until 2014, but then planning started for its sale. The sale of PNCA’s Goodman Building and the college’s move to its current space, which opened a year ago, put the museum on the back burner.

Although Mills said that PNCA approached other organizations about the museum, PNCA didn’t mount a public appeal for money nor convene the crafts community to talk about the fate of the museum, as previous president Manley had done when PNCA decided to take the museum under its wing in 2009.

So, in this light, PNCA had an underperforming asset, the museum, and decided to “fix” it, first by ending the drain on the parent organization, and second by bringing its collection and programs inside PNCA, where they are more easily accessed by its faculty and students.

At this point, Mills considers everything that has happened as the result of the museum’s original 2007 move into the Pearl District from its home on Southwest Corbett. That move wasn’t just geographic; it changed the culture of the museum (which had been known as Contemporary Crafts Gallery) as it raised its visibility and quality of exhibitions. And it was far more expensive. “I don’t think they ever recovered,” Mills said at the beginning of our conversation. “When an organization makes a large change and doesn’t bring everyone along, it suffers.” That included the philanthropic community and big parts of the craft community.

PNCA has just made another big change to the museum, of course, and we’ll be discussing its prospects in future stories. We’ll also
get into interpreting the history of the museum and assessing its importance and what could be lost under the new arrangement. After all, it’s possible to see the museum as something other than an underperforming PNCA asset.

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