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Wake up, Seattle. Portland's art world is gaining on you

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Portland had its party hat on last week, when the Portland Art Museum opened the Mark Building for Contemporary Art, a $40 million capstone in a juggernaut of a successful $125 million building drive launched 10 years ago by director John Buchanan and his wife, Lucy, development director, just after they took charge.

That's all private money, folks, raised checkbook by checkbook.

Across town from PAM's festivities, several dozen art galleries from Seattle, Portland, California, New York and Texas checked into the Affair @ The Jupiter Hotel for a happening little fair. In the not too distant past, the Jupiter was a sad-sack motel with noir credentials. Cleaned up, it looks like the perfect place to listen to the Beach Boys and watch the surf roll.

Surf doesn't roll in Portland, of course, but stepping onto the Jupiter driveway, I expected to see a pool from the contact high of the chlorinated visuals. No pool, but there was plenty of smart art from mostly young artists ready to charm their way into the audience's affections. The drab, the dull and the ordinary were outnumbered by the cocky, the cool and the fresh.

Need I say that Seattle hasn't had a fair in 10 years and never had one with this kind of bounce?

And that's not all.

Speaking of fresh, Portland's freewheeling, freelance art curator, Jeff Jahn, launched an impressive do-it-yourself survey of video and unorthodox sculpture titled "Fresh Trouble" in a huge industrial building shell on Southeast Belmont Street.

Portland has a nice street of small businesses and shops along Southeast Belmont, bustling without being San Francisco-style boutique. The University District or Capitol Hill each might have had a Belmont if Seattle encouraged innovative urban planning and enlightened landlords.

What do we have instead along the Ave and Broadway? Big chains and panhandlers. Wake up, Seattle. Portland is gaining on you.

Portland boasts a robust alternative art scene with some of the most exciting young video artists in the country, such as Matt McCormick, Vanessa Renwick, Laura Fritz and Harrell Fletcher, not to mention Miranda July, who matured in Portland and recently moved to Los Angeles.

None of these people exhibits at the Portland Art Museum, which is disconnected from the youth art scene of its own city to a remarkable degree. July is a star, Fletcher dominated the 2004 Whitney Biennial and McCormick is a hot ticket in Europe. No nod from the home team is a problem.

Making fun of PAM is the hip thing to do in Portland, but that can change.

After a decade of Buchanan rule, the museum is riding high and looking good.

When he got there, the museum was financially fragile and institutionally timid. Today, it's financially solid, successfully expansionist and institutionally brash.

Buchanan is a glad-hander who appears to think in exclamation points. Solid but modest exhibits of Chinese artifacts and French historical painting are given masterpiece fanfare.

He hyperventilates with the power of his positive thinking. Listening to him talk makes me feel trapped in a helium balloon. I long for gravity. Gloom would come as a relief, but this opinion isn't shared by Oregon's old and new money.

He asks, and they deliver. His knowledge of art is not immediately apparent, but he hires substantial curators to fill his gaps, and the most impressive hire in the team is senior curator in charge of modern and contemporary art, Bruce Guenther, formerly modern and contemporary art curator at SAM.

With the opening of the Mark Building along with the refurbished and expanded Center for Northwest Art that opened in 2000, it's Guenther's moment in Portland, and he's earned every second.

Comparisons between the Seattle Art Museum and the Portland Art Museum are rarely made, mainly because SAM is unquestionably the dominant figure.

Collections are the heart of a museum. SAM has world-class depth in Asian art. It beats PAM to a pulp in Northwest Coast Native art, European decorative, African art and post World War II European and American contemporary.

Surveying PAM last week, however, Portland's strengths shine, and those strengths are in fields Seattle is weak.

SAM opened in 1933 as an Asian art museum. Museum founder Richard E. Fuller shelled out $250,000 for an art moderne masterpiece in Volunteer Park, expecting the community to pony up equal amounts.

In the middle of the Depression, it didn't happen, and Fuller scaled way back. The museum designed by Carl Gould is half the size of the original plan. Fuller ran the museum as its unsalaried director for 40 years, being the mainstay of operations and acquisition budgets. Fuller was interested in Asian art, and his interests naturally prevailed.

The Portland Art Museum, founded in 1892, was a community effort. While Seattle was locked into the lotus position, a diverse band of Portland collectors were acquiring art on all fronts.

As a result, Portland lacks depth in any particular area, but overall, it can tell the story of European and American art far better than SAM has to date.

Guenther has a good eye and knows how to set up dialogues with the art he installs.

The Mark Building story begins with Claude Monet's "Waterlilies" from 1914. SAM doesn't have anything close. You want Paul Cezanne? PAM has a choice landscape and a figurative drawing, as well as a good grouping from other impressionists and post-impressionists.

PAM has a beautiful Brancusi head ("A Muse" from 1918); a late Marsden Hartley landscape in Maine; a tough Max Beckmann; a roomful of early Anthony Caro sculptures; and significant Henry Moores paired with a monumental Barbara Hepworth.

Color Field painting is ripe for re-examination, and Portland stands to profit when the movement's stock inevitably rises. PAM has fabulous Jules Olitskis, Larry Poonses and Kenneth Nolands, along with Helen Frankenthalers. (Because Guenther remembered Poons' masterpiece "Open Country" from 1968 and praised it with eloquent and specific detail to Seattle collector Virginia Wright, she gave it to his museum. "He remembered seeing it when I first bought it, and that touched me," she said.)

SAM is counting on acquiring the Bagley and Virginia Wright collection, but savvy curators from other institutions, such as Guenther, obviously can charm their way into a major acquisition or two.

In Northwest art, PAM presents a fuller and more substantial history than SAM has yet. I love the depth of early, pre-Northwest School figures such as the great cowboy cubist C.S. Price and Charles Heaney with his lyrical, lost worlds.

Context is king. Guenther placed an early mail sack collage by Portland painter Judy Cooke next to a cardboard collage by Robert Rauschenberg, and it's a bingo.

Guenther loves painting, and there are lots of good contemporary examples from the Northwest, California, Chicago and Europe, especially Germany. He's less enthralled by video. At the opening, the sole piece of video on view -- Matthew McCaslin's movable feast of eight screens full of sinking sunsets ("Alaska" from 1995) -- was completely on the blink. Not one screen sported a single sunset.

When SAM opened downtown in 1991, it acquired Jonathan Borofsky's "Hammering Man" for the entryway. The skinny giant who never stops hammering has become a signature piece for SAM, even though there are Borofsky men pounding away across the United States and in Europe, Borofsky's idea being a hum of workers.

PAM has its own signature sculpture now, Roy Lichtenstein's "Brushstrokes" from 1996, formerly exhibited at New York's Metropolitan Museum. Nearly 30 feet tall and a tribute to the power of the paintstroke, it's an edition of one.

Any comparison between SAM and PAM needs to wait till SAM reopens with its greatly expanded gallery space downtown in 2007 and the new Olympic Sculpture Park in 2006.

It's fair to point out that PAM's sculpture garden looks like a sculpture concentration camp, however, a small, concrete space walled off behind a high fence.

Because PAM's achievements are obvious and Portland artists compelling, Seattle would be wise to stop lording it over its neighbor to the south and think instead of hooking up. What Portland's Matthew Stadler and Randy Gragg have been advocating for years makes more sense than ever: From Portland to Vancouver, B.C., we are all one. All we need is a bullet train.

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