jeffrey thomas

ArtsWatch Weekly: artists at play

A look at the week that was in Oregon arts. A glimpse ahead at the week that's going to be.

When visual artists and show people get together, interesting things often happen. Some collaborations have become legendary: Isamu Noguchi’s sculptural set designs for modern dance icon Martha Graham; Léon Bakst’s expressionistic designs for Ballets Russes. The original designs and even the title for the musical Fiddler on the Roof were inspired by the paintings of Marc Chagall. More recently, the South African artist William Kentridge’s astonishingly absurdist designs for the Metropolitan Opera’s 2010 production of Shostakovich’s equally astonishing and absurd The Nose brilliantly suggested the tone of the Gogol story that inspired the opera. Last season, Portland Opera produced Stravinsky’s classic mid-twentieth-century opera The Rake’s Progress, based on William Hogarth’s famous eighteenth century series of paintings and prints, with David Hockney’s inspired modernized designs.

Pamina (Maureen McKay), Paageno (John Moore) and Sendak's set. Photo: Cory Weaver

Pamina (Maureen McKay), Papageno (John Moore) and Sendak’s set. Photo: Cory Weaver

Now Portland Opera is back with a new production of Mozart’s fabulist opera The Magic Flute, using sets and costumes designed in 1980 by the brilliant children’s author and illustrator Maurice Sendak, whose designs for The Nutcracker were also a mainstay at Seattle’s Pacific Northwest Ballet for many years. Sendak’s sets and to a lesser extent his costumes for The Magic Flute are immediately identifiable as his and his alone: in this case the collaboration is an overlay of artistic sensibilities, a discovery of parallels between two artists whose outlooks differ but mesh well. Sendak’s bright color sense and playfully exaggerated figurative style emphasize the childlike aspects of Mozart’s music and the opera’s slightly nonsensical tale. Sendak didn’t so much rethink his source material, the way that Kentridge and Hockney did, as find a level of mutual agreement, a seductive surface that allows the music to dive more deeply behind the mask. He created very traditional tableaux, but in his own  pleasing and agreeable style, and the result is … well, pleasing and agreeable and pertinent.


The Museum of Contemporary Craft

Yesterday, we reported that Jeffrey Thomas, interim director at the Museum of Contemporary Craft, had resigned after a year on the job, and that the museum and partner institution Pacific Northwest College of Art were going to start a national search for a successor.

We had several questions about the departure, specifically about what it might mean to the future of the museum and its relationship to PNCA, which bailed it out of financial difficulties a few years ago and has been the senior partner in the relationship. And we wondered how PNCA president Tom Manley viewed the last year at the museum under Thomas.  So, we sent him a few questions via email, and then we talked on the phone.

Basically, Manley confirmed, elaborated on and added to Thomas’s own description of the past year.

1. Memberships at the museum almost doubled in the past year, according to Manley.
2. Grants from foundations in support of exhibitions hit an all-time high. Manley said that for the upcoming “Generations: Betty Feves” exhibition, the museum raised more than $200,000 in grants, including one $100,000 and two $50,000 grants, a size in unprecedented in the history of the museum.
3. Thomas helped to establish a Design Council at the museum, part of an attempt to expand its mission.
4. A three-year exhibition schedule was developed, which helps marketing and fund-raising efforts going forward.
5. Collecting activity was restored at the museum, with major acquisitions as part of the museum’s “75 Gifts for 75 Years” show, honoring its 75th anniversary.
6. Thomas brought his marketing expertise to bear on the sales gallery, helping to activate it with pop-up galleries.
7. And he brought “some real personality” and “greater energy” to the museum, Manley said of Thomas.

Basically, Manley described the museum as an institution that was doing great work (he called curator Namita Wiggers a world-class curator, for example) and moving forward on a number of fronts. So, why not hire Thomas full-time?

Thomas became interim director a year ago when the museum was still struggling to find its way after PNCA essentially rescued it in 2009 by paying off and re-negotiating the terms of the museum’s $1.5 million debt. Manley said that Thomas, whom he called an “outside the box choice,” had special attributes that helped the museum get through that period.”We wanted to bring greater energy to the building, and I think he did that.”

But Thomas had never run a museum before, and the opportunities and challenges that a deeper marriage of the museum and the college raises require a different set of skills and attributes. Manley said that as he and Thomas talked, it became clear to both of them that going forward, Thomas’s strengths and weaknesses wouldn’t be as good a fit at the museum. Having spent a year already with the interim tag, Thomas decided to resign.

Going forward, Manley said that the partnership between the museum and college was strong, and planning was under way to create academic programs at the college around the museum. The joint operating agreement between the college and museum expires in 2014, and the boards of each have begun talking about how they will evaluate their progress so far and decide to “opt fully in or opt fully out,” Manley said.

While the museum has done better financially in many ways, large individual donations have been more difficult to find during the recession, Manley said, and the “right-sizing” of the museum to match its revenue and expenses has been painful. Still, he was confident that the museum was “rebuilding the trust” with its larger donors and that its increasing stability, “the discipline the museum needs to thrive,” was building confidence among them.

The museum will need another interim director while a search is concluded for a permanent one. Manley said he hopes to have someone in place very quickly, during the next week or so, and that he hopes to have a permanent director working at the museum by July.

A good measure of how far the museum has come in the past couple of years is that the crisis days of 2008 and 2009, when the museum at first seemed likely to go out of business altogether and then was absorbed into PNCA, with a certain amount of anguish and worry, now seem like old history. But the institutions are still in a transitional period, really, and will be until their relationship becomes closer and permanent. And that means a certain amount of uncertainty is still part of the mix.


Why does the PNCA-MoCC partnership matter? I wrote about that in 2009 for The Oregonian.

A retrospective of Betty Feves work at the MoCC is a culmination of Jeffrey Thomas term as interim director.

At the top of today’s local arts news, Jeffrey Thomas resigned from his post as interim director of the Museum of Contemporary Craft, a job he’s held down since January of 2011. During that time, he helped plan the museum’s 75th anniversary, increase membership and develop a long-term exhibition schedule. “With all this positive momentum in mind, it seems like a good time to resign my position as interim director of MoCC.,” Thomas wrote in an email, “… and with the 75th anniversary concluding with this monumental retrospective of Betty Feves’ work, I think that it is a good time for the Museum to begin  its search for its next leader.”

As Lisa Radon, spokesperson for Pacific Northwest College of Art, which is the parent organization for the museum, pointed out in a post by DK Row, “He stepped in at a pivotal moment for the institution and made a lot of good things happen.” (Radon is a frequent contributor to Oregon ArtsWatch.) She also called the resignation, a “mutual” decision.

As we find out more about what this might mean for the future of the museum and its relationship with PNCA, we’ll let you know.

We’d heard through the grapevine that the Bureau of Development Services (BDS) had denied Portland Playhouse’s request to perform plays in their home in the  historic church building on NE Prescott St. and 6th Ave., which forced them to move their first three shows this season to other theaters. The BDS apparently determined that a “theater” was not a community service, and fell instead under the rubric of “commercial, retail sales,” and so couldn’t exist on a residentially-zoned street, according to Portland Playhouse.

That’s not the end of it, though, because City Council will have a chance to overturn this decision by the BDS, something the King Neighborhood Association has asked Council to do. That appeal hits the Council at 3:30 p.m. March 1 at City Hall. Support for the appeal can be registered by emailing or writing city council members through Karla Moore-Love ( Include case number (LU 11-187799 CU) and your street address, and cc Portland’s Art and Culture Director, Cary Clarke (

Are non-profit arts groups, including theater, a community service or a commercial enterprise? We’ve argued many times about the importance of the arts as way of building community, developing a more responsive culture and acting as a catalyst for a host of creative enterprises, even beyond their crucial role in the lives of individuals.

The sharp-eared NPR critic Tom Manoff noticed that a large section of a new work by Osvaldo Golijov, “Siderus,” which the Eugene Symphony played last weekend, sounded a lot like another piece of music. Actually, certain passages sounded exactly alike. Manoff posted about it on his blog, and mini-firestorm erupted over the matter, though it turned out that Golijov had gotten the other composer’s permission to use his work. Still, it raises questions about what a “composer” actually does, especially since the other composer in this case,  Michael Ward-Bergeman, wasn’t credited. You can catch up on the debate by visiting Manoff’s blog and Washington Post classical music critic Anne Midgette’s post on the matter.

Well, of course, Portland needs a Last Friday art walk to go with all the others, and so St. Johns has obliged. This Friday several galleries and other creative business will be open from 5 to 7 p.m. for your art-walking pleasure.

Back when Portland Center Stage was staging its African-American version of “Oklahoma!”, I asked director Chris Coleman what it would have been like if the only character in the musical played by a black actor was Jud, the show’s villain, and he just said, “Tense,” as I recall. Well, that’s exactly what the 5th Avenue Theatre in Seattle has done, and tension, not to mention controversy, has ensued. The director, David Armstrong, claimed it was just a matter of color-blind casting, “and at most, that people would see it as ‘bold’ or ‘interesting,'” as Seattle Times columnist Nicole Brodeur wrote. But so many Facebook comments have popped up that Armstrong has scheduled several audience talk-backs to explain the idea behind the casting.

We’ll stay in Washington State for one more: A State Senator has proposed that the state sell off $5 million of its art collection every two years and use the proceeds to help fund college tuition for low-income students. The word “cannibalism” came up on our Facebook site (which you should LIKE so you can play along at home more easily!), and that sounds about right. State governments should do many things, including increasing accessibility to higher education and collecting art for display in government buildings. The former should involve more money than the latter, but that doesn’t mean that buying art for public spaces should cease.



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