The Hallie Ford Museum of Art (HFMA), which opened to the public in 1998, exists to support the liberal arts curriculum of Willamette University, and to serve as an intellectual and cultural resource for the City of Salem and beyond, through the collection, preservation, exhibition, and interpretation of historical and contemporary art with an emphasis on regional art.
The museum is a vibrant artistic hub offering access to historical, regional and contemporary art, and a wide variety of public programs.
Willamette University, the first university in the West, was founded by Methodist missionaries in Salem, Oregon in 1842. Over the years, Willamette developed a significant collection of European, Asian, Native American, and historic and contemporary regional art, and in 1998 opened Hallie Ford Museum of Art to showcase its growing collection.
The story of Willamette’s art collection has its genesis in Native American baskets that were given to the early Methodist missionaries by Clatsop Indians on the Oregon Coast and Kalapuyan Indians in the Willamette Valley. In the 1930s, the Native American collection was significantly enhanced with the addition of several hundred baskets from E.C. Cross and M.E. Polleski, two prominent Salem collectors at the turn of the century.
Over the years, other objects were donated to Willamette, including: works by Barbizon painters Camille Corot, Charles-Francoise Daubigny, Victor Dupre, and Diaz de la Pena; works by Constance Fowler and Carl Hall, both of whom taught at Willamette; a number of works by American and European artists, including James Abbott McNeill Whistler and Larry Poons; and a wide variety of works by historic and modern Oregon artists, including Harry Wentz, Louis Bunce, Jack McLarty, and Jan Zach, among others.
Milestones leading up to the opening of the museum in 1998 include:
Mark Sponenburgh and his late wife, Janeth Hogue Sponenburgh, donated their collection of European and Asian art to Willamette. Mark taught for many years at the University of Oregon and Oregon State University. The Sponenburghs’ collection consists of approximately 250 objects, including wonderful examples of Ancient, European, Middle Eastern, and Asian art acquired during their extensive travels. Both Mark and Janeth were enthusiastic about seeing their collection used as a teaching resource.
Willamette alumnus Dan Schneider suggested to Art History Professor Roger Hull that Willamette should have a museum of art. Dan had helped his alma mater, St. Olaf College in Minnesota, establish an art gallery and felt that Willamette, with its large and diverse collections, was poised to do the same. Professor Hull agreed and quietly began to advocate for a museum of art on campus.
Professor Hull proposed the museum to Willamette’s Board of Trustees and, while on sabbatical in 1995, visited university museums of art in the East, including the Bowdoin College Museum of Art in Maine and the Williams College Museum of Art in Massachusetts. Slowly, a vision for an art museum at Willamette began to emerge.
In 1996, with the support of long-time benefactor Hallie Ford and her foundation, the Ford Family Foundation in Roseburg, Oregon, Willamette purchased the vacant US West Communications building adjacent to campus. Originally constructed in the mid-1960s for Pacific Northwest Bell, the International style building was designed by Salem architect James Payne. Willamette enlisted Portland’s Soderstrom Architects, under the supervision of architect Jon Wiener, to transform the former telephone company building into a museum of art featuring permanent and temporary galleries, collection storage spaces, a lecture hall, and offices. Warm colors, natural materials, and curves throughout the building create a warm, dynamic, and lively interior spaces that Director John Olbrantz often calls a ‘jewel-box.’ Windows animate nearly every space, particularly the double-height Atrium Gallery, which opens visually to adjacent galleries.
Over the years, many donors have lent their support to Hallie Ford Museum of Art:
Maribeth Collins, a long time Willamette benefactor, made a significant gift to the capital fund drive. Melvin Henderson-Rubio, a Willamette alumnus, endowed the major temporary exhibition space on the first floor. Another alumnus, who wished to remain anonymous, endowed the lecture hall on the second floor in honor of Roger Hull and his many years of service to Willamette. The Confederated Tribes of Grand Ronde endowed the Native American Gallery, while Maribeth Collins endowed the Director’s and Education Curator positions. In 2005 Hallie Ford provided a major endowment gift to support art historical exhibitions, and in 2007 Maribeth Collins funded a complete reconfiguration and renovation of the collections storage areas, including state-of-the-art storage systems.