How Two Artists’ Transformation of a Portland Museum May Provide a Blueprint for Larger Institutions

It was the museum’s cornerstone display: a long-term exhibit on the history of the Indigenous Kalapuya, the original inhabitants of large swaths of land in Oregon’s Willamette Valley. For more than 15 years, “This Kalapuya Land,” at the Washington County Museum in Portland, presented a distorted narrative that was criticized for trafficking in stereotype, sugarcoating settler-colonialism, and treating Native life as past.

“It wasn’t made for people in the tribe but for their white audience, for people obsessed with pioneer culture,” Steph Littlebird Fogel (Grande Ronde, Kalapuya), an artist and writer, said. “It was completely outdated and problematic.”

The same might have been said of the museum itself—now known as the Five Oaks Museum—just two years ago. Founded in 1956 as a history museum to showcase artifacts of pioneers collected by their descendants, it remained stuck in the 20th century despite having expanded its focus, subjects of more recent shows being as various as the Hubble Space Telescope and steampunk art. Its website was unnavigable, its technology was ancient, and most troublingly, it struggled to attract nonwhite visitors. By the spring of 2019, the small museum was on the brink of closure, caught in a maelstrom of high leadership turnover and clashing agendas.

“The institution was facing, essentially, total failure,” Molly Alloy, the museum’s community engagement coordinator at the time, said. “It had reached a critical point where everything had to be done differently.”

Portrait of Five Oaks Museum codirectors Molly Alloy and Nathanael Andreini.

Five Oaks Museum codirectors Molly Alloy and Nathanael Andreini.

That May, after the Washington County Museum director officially resigned in lieu of termination, the board appointed Alloy and then-education director Nathanael Andreini—the only full-time staffers, both of whom are also artists—as codirectors. “We shared a kind of absurd vision of what the institution really could be for the community and for the museum field,” Alloy said. “We had a year to come up with this new way of being that was responsive to the community, about being imaginative in fusing genres like art and history, and empowering the staff.”

One of the pair’s first actions was to invite Fogel in as a guest curator to overhaul and critique “This Kalapuya Land.” Working with scholar and Grand Ronde tribal member David G. Lewis, Fogel directly annotated wall text, introduced contemporary art by 17 Native artists, and gave the display a new name: “This IS Kalapuyan Land.” The title doubled as acknowledgment of Indigenous presence and sovereignty across time. Changing displays to address historically ignored narratives is nothing new: The Metropolitan Museum of Art, for one, has invited Native artists and historians to write additional didactics for certain works in its American Wing. But Five Oaks’s reform ran deeper. As a whole, “This IS Kalapuyan Land” heralded the start of a new chapter of institutional unlearning and rethinking.

On January 1, 2020, Five Oaks Museum relaunched with a new look and a new name that connected it to a nearby historic site of trees where Kalapuya once gathered. It embraced a new mission (the words “Moving history forward” crown its “About” page) and diversified its board. It has steadily infused its programming with art, mounting “Gender Euphoria,” a show of contemporary trans and genderqueer artists and, most recently, “DISplace,” an exhibition of artwork that represents generations of Hawaiian life in the Pacific Northwest. With these changes, not only has the museum’s audience rapidly diversified (the museum is closed during the pandemic but has seen clear shifts on social media) but its membership has increased tenfold since 2019. Furthermore, its five-person staff operates in a workplace committed to equity—one that provides them with family health care and incremental raises to address existing pay gaps.

In 2019, Five Oaks Museum’s first guest-curated exhibition, 'This IS Kalapuyan Land,' marked a turning point in the institution’s approach to presenting Indigenous culture.

In 2019, Five Oaks Museum’s first guest-curated exhibition, “This IS Kalapuyan Land,” marked a turning point in the institution’s approach to presenting Indigenous culture.

In a year in which art museums around the United States have been forced to reckon with the reality that systemic inequities are lodged in their structures, Five Oaks’s metamorphosis offers a picture of what real institutional reimagining can look like regarding diversity, access, and inclusion. “Radical is the correct word,” said Mariah Berlanga-Shevchuk, who last year became the museum’s first cultural resources manager. She had moved to Portland to take the position, leaving her curatorial job at a museum in Los Angeles. “I knew I’d never find a museum like Five Oaks there,” she added. “I have worked at museums run by well-intentioned white women, by bad-intentioned white men, by leaders who like to represent the community but have no museum expertise. Now I work at a museum where the directors have experience, and care about the staff being their whole selves. The board actually listens to us. It has been radically different, in an extremely nourishing and generative way.”

Five Oaks Museum’s achievements stem, in part, from a considered structuring of its budget around five values: body, land, truth, justice, and community. “These very humane values—versus institutional values that keep people at an academic arm’s length—are intentionally infused, line by line, into the budget,” Andreini said. Nearly half the $485,900 annual operating budget is funded by Washington County, which owns the museum’s collection and archives, the rest coming from grants, donor contributions, admission ($5 for adults), and other revenue. “Somebody asked how we managed to do so much with so little,” Andreini said. “All we did was make choices. Anybody empowered to make choices ostensibly has the power to make choices that are kind.” When the pandemic forced the museum to close, the codirectors followed through on planned raises even as they reduced staff’s weekly hours.

Don Bailey’s Everyone’s a Winner, Too, featured in 'This IS Kalapuyan Land.'

Don Bailey’s Everyone’s a Winner, Too, featured in “This IS Kalapuyan Land.”

Also crucial to the museum’s model is the belief that it can better serve its community by flexing as little institutional power as possible. The codirectors, who are both white, view their collaborative leadership as one way to break down traditional hierarchies. “We did not enter into this with a desire to hold power,” Alloy said. “We see our success criteria as decentering the directorship and the museum’s authoritative voice, and leveling hierarchies to create more access and more voice for people.” A similar structure exists at the board level, with members voting last fall to replace the president and vice president positions with cochairs. “We’re figuring out a way that’s more collaborative, where people who might not be experienced in the museum or board world can be mentored,” Five Oaks board secretary Ameena Djanga, who joined last spring, said. “One thing I like is, we are so diverse in age, socioeconomic status, professional experience. It brings different perspectives and helps us understand the landscape of who lives here.”

Five Oaks also has a guest curator program in lieu of a permanent curator position (previous curators had departed, leaving the role empty). The strategy is simple: “Divest, divest, divest,” Alloy said. “It’s about trusting the community, knowing they have important stories to tell and rich competencies around how to tell them. And it only follows that they will draw people in.” Guest curators are chosen through an open call for proposals for two annual exhibition slots, and a panel of community members reviews applications. So far, the process has yielded explorations of long sidelined narratives, as in the ongoing “DISplace.” Five Oaks’s current guest curators, Kanani Miyamoto, an artist and arts educator, and artist Lehuauakea, used their term to cast an even wider net for artists by holding their own open call, the results of which represent diverse Hawaiian voices, from elementary school–age children to elders, who address notions of displacement and diaspora in wide-ranging media.

“Molly and Nathanael are radically reforming how the institution grants agency to Black, Indigenous, and people of color to hold space for their communities,” Lehuauakea said. “We had freedom to bring in voices that may not have ever had this platform. A lot of submissions came from people who never had any institutional engagement.”

The museum is dismantling barriers to access in other ways. It has invited students from Portland Community College, whose campus it shares, to visit and critique three of its past exhibits (many wanted to see more exhibits focused on Indigenous peoples). Education programs became free last fall to embrace an agenda of equal opportunity over revenue creation. On its Instagram account, biweekly takeovers by community members flood the platform with myriad voices. “I think that changes the idea of who participates in history, who is part of history today,” Five Oaks learning coordinator Victoria Sundell said. Internally, the museum has avoided traditional hiring practices such as requiring higher degrees or years of industry experience. Its guest curators and resulting staff, though small, are diverse in race, age, and perspective. “I’m 24, and I don’t have a degree in museum studies, but the directors place a lot of trust in me,” Sundell said. “At a different museum, I would be fighting to have my voice heard.”

Museum guests learned the steps to an Aztec dance with Huehca Omeyocan dancers at a free family event at Five Oaks Museum in 2019.

Museum guests learned the steps to an Aztec dance with Huehca Omeyocan dancers at a free family event at Five Oaks Museum in 2019.

Similarly, although Berlanga-Shevchuk has never previously worked in archives, she is in charge of managing the museum’s collection. One challenge she faces is making it more representative and respectful of diverse communities. In addition to removing objects that no longer serve the museum’s mission, editing offensive descriptions, and reinterpreting objects, Berlanga-Shevchuk is working with the Confederated Tribes of Grand Ronde’s cultural resources manager on the potential repatriation of Indigenous materials—mostly baskets, bowls, and arrowheads. “The deaccessioning work is one of the large ways that we’re trying to decolonize this museum,” she said. “At the same time, it’s impossible to decolonize museums. They are inherently colonial structures.”

Does Five Oaks—a small regional institution born out of unusual circumstances—present a scalable model for art museums that are awakening to systemic issues? “Theoretically—absolutely. There’s a lot here museums could take on board and do within themselves and their own communities,” Susie Wilkening, an independent museum consultant said. “Realistically, it seems they had three magical things come together: Humble leadership, a willing and engaged board, and a community that embraced what they were doing. Having those three things is going to be less likely for a lot of institutions around the country.”

What’s most unusual, Wilkening added, is the museum’s “huge pivot” away from white-centered history in such a short time. “And they are fortunate that they’re in a community that embraces that. There’s a lot of communities in this country that aren’t there yet.”

Fogel, the inaugural guest curator, acknowledged that, with “This IS Kalapuyan Land,” the new codirectors could very well have alienated their audience from the start. “But they took a risk in opening themselves to feedback,” she added. “They realize that the world is moving in a different direction.”

A version of this article appears in the February/March 2021 issue of ARTnews, under the title “What’s in a Name?”

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