winter 2008 Edition
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ten years of fine art

The Hallie Ford Museum of Art opened in October 1998 with a three-person staff and a traveling exhibition of contemporary Oregon art. It was open only five hours a day, five days a week — the number of hours Director John Olbrantz could afford to pay the part-time receptionist and security guard.


This fall, as the museum celebrated its 10th anniversary, its full-time staff of eight worked tirelessly to prepare for The Art of Ceremony, an unprecedented exhibition of ceremonial regalia from all nine of Oregon’s federally recognized tribes that brought tribal members to campus for a Procession of Nations and celebratory feast. The museum is now open six days a week with expanded hours and has an endowment of more than $4 million.

“It’s hard to believe we’ve been around for 10 years,” Olbrantz says. “It seems like yesterday that we cut the ribbon to officially open the museum.”

It was Mark and Janeth Sponenburgh’s donation of 250 art objects to Willamette in 1990 that sparked the museum’s creation. Art History Professor Roger Hull remembers the University had no way to properly care for the donated objects, or for a collection of nearly 260 Native American baskets acquired by Willamette in the 1940s. Discussions about the possibility of a museum eventually led philanthropist Hallie Ford to donate $2 million to bring the idea to life.

Willamette purchased a nearby telephone company building and transformed it into a museum with two temporary exhibition spaces and four permanent galleries, made possible by gifts from Maribeth Collins, Melvin Henderson-Rubio, Bruce and David Roberts and the Confederated Tribes of Grand Ronde.

John Olbrantz John Olbrantz

Just two years later, the museum presented its first significant historical art exhibition: Best of Both Worlds: Human and Divine Realms in Classical Art, a collection of Greek and Roman works on loan from the Museum of Fine Arts, Boston. “These exhibitions set the tone for what we wanted our major historical art exhibitions to be,” Olbrantz says. “They focused on quality, not quantity, and on scholarship, not showmanship.”

The expertise of professors and three faculty curators — Hull, Rebecca Dobkins (anthropology) and Ann Nicgorski (art) — led to a unique array of exhibitions, many of which solidified the facility’s reputation as a supporter of regional artists. Rick Bartow, Fay Jones, George Johanson and James Lavadour are among the Northwest artists who have been featured.

During the past decade, the museum has acquired a number of significant artworks, including pieces of Egyptian art, Greek pottery, Roman glass and historical and contemporary regional art. Fourteen exhibitions have traveled regionally, nationally and internationally, enhancing Willamette’s profile worldwide. The museum has published 10 books and an array of brochures, building its reputation for rigorous scholarship and original research. Annual visitation has increased from 10,000 to15,000 the year it opened to more than 30,000 the past few years.

The anniversary is a milestone, but not a resting place. The museum recently completed a $1 million renovation of its basement and Print Study Center, creating a state-of-the-art support space for the collections, exhibitions and staff. This fall the building’s façade got a facelift with the installation of 45 panels in the second-story windows, created by artist Dick Elliott using safety reflectors. Renovations of the permanent galleries are also underway.

Coming Soon

Mary Randlett: Artist Portraits,
Jan. 10–March 8, Study Gallery

Harry Widman: Image, Myth and Modernism,
Jan. 31–March 29, Melvin Henderson-Rubio Gallery

From Hestia’s Sacred Fire to Christ’s Eternal Light: Ancient and Medieval Lamps from the Bogue Collection,
March 14–May 17, Study Gallery

James Thompson: The Vanishing Landscape,
April 11–May 17, Melvin Henderson-Rubio Gallery

Senior Art Majors,
April 11–May 17, Melvin Henderson-Rubio Gallery