Design rendering of the Portland Museum of Art’s Rothko Pavilion.

City Council Approves Portland Art Museum’s New Rothko Pavilion

The Portland City Council has voted in favor of the Portland Art Museum’s controversial expansion plans. The proposal to build a $50 million glass-walled structure that will add 30,000 square feet of space and connect the institution’s two existing buildings, creating a new entranceway, was opposed by the public when it was introduced during a city council meeting in April. As a result, the city postponed the vote on the project. The museum returned to city hall with its new proposal for the addition, which is named after Portland-native Mark Rothko, last week.

Currently, the museum’s two buildings are divided by a pedestrian thoroughfare with heavy foot traffic. The only walkway connecting the buildings is underground. While the thoroughfare is owned by the institution, there is a city easement that requires an eight-foot-wide public passage way between the hours of 7 AM and 11 PM. Though the museum maintains that its Rothko Pavilion will be open to the public during these hours—allowing both bikes and pets to pass through—neighbors are still concerned about accessibility and the disadvantages of losing the public plaza.

“There’s so many reasons for that passageway to stay open,” Portland resident Wendy Rahm said in an interview with Aaron Scott for Oregon Public Broadcasting. “Probably the most important is to accommodate those with disabilities. Other reasons to keep the passageway open 24/7 is that it’s part of the comprehensive plan that promotes walkability in neighborhoods. This certainly will not promote walkability.”

Earlier this month Scott profiled Portland disability rights advocate Joseph Lowe, who uses an electric wheelchair. The museum currently has an exhibition series and storytelling project about marginalized voices in the community, including those with disabilities. Lowe was in the process of being featured in the series, until he saw the initial renderings for the new construction.

“I had hesitations of wanting my story put into the exhibit of the ‘Object Stories’ section,” said Lowe. “I’m here showing my story as an example of how to knock down barriers, but if the museum was creating a barrier, it kind of made me hypocritical.”

In response to Lowe’s and the public’s concern regarding accessibility, the institution established a disability advisory board this summer to help the museum create a proposal that better served the community’s needs. 

Commenting on the latest plans for the Rothko Pavilion, Larry Cross, the commissioner on the Portland Commission on Disability said, “This museum expansion greatly excites me because I and thousands of other people will be able to more fully enjoy and appreciate the museum and its treasures. I think it should be viewed as the Rothko Connection—it’s connecting these buildings, and it will create one seamless museum campus, dramatically increasing the accessibility and visitability of the museum.”