Black Artists of Oregon exhibit, The Skanner spoke with Goodwin about making art collecting more accessible, and how he and the museum are working to give 24-hour exposure to featured Black artists.The week before the opening of PAM’s
This interview has been edited for length and clarity.
The Skanner News: How did your transition between the Blazers and the Portland Museum of Art come about?
John Goodwin: When I first moved to Oregon, I was a docent at the Portland Art Museum and enjoyed that a lot. The docent process takes about a year and a half before you’re equipped with enough information to share the stories of the museum and its collection to the public. I did it for several years and I enjoyed meeting some of the inner-city kids who looked like me and sharing the museum with them so that they would feel more comfortable in the space.
But I got busy. The Portland Trail Blazers hired me. I still came over and did tours when I could, but I was full-time working at the Blazers. My boss said you can give back to the community, and when they asked me what I’d like to do and I said the museum, financially. And then the museum thought I might be a good candidate for the board, so they asked me to join and I was doing that for three years. While I was a board member I was bringing in lots of patrons and folks who were generous and kind to the museum, and art collectors and thought-provokers, and so after that they decided because they were doing the $141 million campaign (to create the Mark Rothko Pavilion), maybe I’d be a good person to do that. I’ve been an employee of the museum for five years.
I’m thoroughly enjoying helping to raise the funds for the Rothko Pavilion, that’s my main goal. I’m also out in the community and connecting with artists and collectors and folks to help supplement the museum’s collection, but also to learn more about the art world and how we can help artists and art galleries and museums and all of us to play better together.
There used to be a time when museums and galleries and artists didn’t meet, but it makes no sense to do that anymore. We’re doing a much better job of that.
TSN: What are the challenges in bringing together those three entities?
JG: The curators, as you would imagine, do try to get to the galleries whenever they can, but they’re so busy with their exhibitions they might not always make it. I go to the galleries and talk with the artists and actually sometimes I will present new artists to our curators that they hadn’t been exposed to yet, just because they don’t have the time to see everything, and we collaborate on folks they should be looking at and things we might be able to show at the museum. With the galleries it’s a tricky kind of thing, because it benefits them if their artists are showing at the museum, so it’s not really a conflict but for the gallerist to try to promote their artist to the curators is kind of frowned upon – it’s an unspoken kind of rule you don’t promote your artists to museums. It’s a little bit easier for me because I go as a collector. I buy art. So it’s for my own collection, it’s not for the museum, so it’s easier for me to connect with them and the artist. For me, it’s just being a layperson out there looking at art and adding it to my collection rather than the museum’s collection.
TSN: How did you start collecting art?
JG: My collection started because my mom used to take me to auctions and yard sales and things like that and she would give me a certain amount of money to spend. If I got it, I got it, if I didn’t, she’d say, that’s the way it works. You should’ve saved your money for next time and then have more to spend.
It gave me a good sense of how the auction world works on a really, really low scale, because what we were looking at were traditional landscape paintings or prints or posters. As I was able to get a little bit better, sophisticated taste, then it changed a little bit and now I collect all kinds of different things.
TSN: As an art collector, how have you been able to promote artists of color?
JG: The one thing that I have done is I’ve let the museum borrow from my collection, because I collect mostly Black art or art of Black people. So that was something they didn’t have a lot of at the time, so they would borrow from my collection and see the work that looked like me.
I still allow other museums to borrow – I have a piece now that’s at the Museum of Contemporary Art in Chicago, which will soon be traveling down to the Pérez Art Museum (in Miami).
Those institutions don’t often have as much Black art as they have European art or Asian art.
If Black collectors collect good stuff, and allow museums to borrow it, then the public gets to see it.
Then the galleries think, wow, if the public likes it, then maybe I should collect it, or maybe I should market this artist. In turn, everybody wins because the artist gets a little bit better known and the public gets to see it, and then they want it more, and the artist can sell more work. It all helps out in the long run when we collect and let other museums borrow it like that.
TSN: In your five years so far at PAM, have you seen any kind of cultural shift in terms of how museums are viewing or valuing Black artists?
JG: I have. It’s been so interesting, because when I first came there, we were already working on the Hank Willis Thomas exhibition. I realized that way before that, 10 years before, Carrie Mae Weems had a major survey at the art museum and for a Black female artist to do that was huge, and one of the things I find most astounding is that (artist) Mickalene Thomas was living in Portland when we had some of the photos of Carrie Mae Weems up on the wall. Weems grew up in Portland, so for Mickalene Thomas, this young artist, to come into the museum and see this Black woman’s photographs in the museum, made her know that she could do it too. Thomas wrote in Vogue Magazine that her coming into the Portland Art Museum and seeing this Black woman’s photos of Black people on the wall – that’s when she decided to become the artist she is today, and now she is tremendous. It just shows the power of seeing yourself on museum walls.
Thomas is going to be in the show, too. One of my friends in New York let me borrow one of her giant pieces. It’ll be full circle. (Weems and Thomas) are going to be showing side by side. Then recently, Thomas did the photo shoot of Carrie Mae Weems for the cover of New York Times Magazine. So it’s really come full circle.
TSN: What’s your advice for beginner art collectors?
JG: Always collect exactly what you like. Don’t let any gallerists or any artist or any museum or any curator tell you what to like. You have to like it, and love it, because you might live with it for a very long time. Go away from it and come back, and if you can’t live without it, then purchase it.
Sometimes a gallery will say ‘This is going to be a great investment’ or ‘This is something you should be looking at – I know it’s not your style but you should get it anyway,’ and that makes no sense to me because nobody really knows whether it’s going to be an investment or not. The artist can be really really hot today, and then decide they don’t want to do art anymore and then the market dries up. So you just can’t speculate as an investment, it just doesn’t work.
What I’ve collected has been mostly art by young Black artists, so that they get a good start, and also you get a better price when they’re younger and starting out. That’s where a lot of folks, when they’re first starting out (collecting), should be looking – at PNCA, the art institutions, at artists’ master’s thesis shows, go see them.
You can collect beautiful stuff that’s really reasonable, and also not only are you getting a value, but you’re helping the artist get on the map.
And I also like for folks to look at prints, because prints are a lower price point usually, and it gives you an opportunity to collect something by an artist that I would never be able to afford, like a Warhol or Jeffrey Gibson or something like that. Maybe start with a watercolor or a drawing by the person, and then work up to an oil. Rather than waiting, waiting, waiting until you have enough money for an oil painting, go ahead and get something by the artist so you can start appreciating them right away.
TSN: Will we see more artists of color in the museum’s permanent collection?
JG: One tremendous thing is I’ve been looking at Black art in Oregon for 20 years, and a lot of these artists that Intisar (Abioto) has discovered (for the Black Artists of Oregon exhibit) I didn’t even know. So it’s a tremendous advantage for me.
That’s the way it kind of happens: You’ll get exposed to something you haven’t seen and then maybe the museum purchases something, or I purchase something, and then it gets on social media, then other people get to know who the artist is.
We’re doing the Black Art and Experiences, which is going to be a section in the museum that will only be for up-and-coming Black artists. There will be something on view 24 hours a day every single day that shows Black folks that there is something in the museum that looks like them. It’s a $5 million campaign and we’ve raised about $1 million towards it already, so we know we’re going to get there – we’re going to carve out a permanent position for Black art.
It’s part of the Rothko Pavilion we’re building. When we create the pavilion, we’re going to have a 24-hour, seven-days-a-week passageway where people can transition from 10th Avenue to Park Avenue. What we’re doing is the Mark Building has a glass wall, and so we’re going to expand that glass wall so that you can look inside the museum all the time, and we’ll have the Black artists on display in that section, and it will be well lit. The museum is much more transparent at that point.