Hallie Ford Museum of Art Thrives at Historic Willamette University
The Hallie Ford Museum of Art is a relative newcomer at historic Willamette University in Salem, but it has already had a major impact on the arts scene in its first 11 years of existence.
John Olbrantz, the art museum’s first and only director, came on board just a few months before the facility opened in 1998.
“I was presented with this sort of blank canvas to have fun with,” Olbrantz says. “I’d been the first director of the Bellevue [Wash.] Art Museum and was director of the San Jose [Calif.] Museum of Art and worked in Bellingham [Wash.]. After having been at it for 20-plus years, I was intrigued by the whole notion of establishing a university museum of art from the ground up.
“Colleagues had always told me, ‘You belong in a university museum of art,’ ” Olbrantz adds. “I came down and applied, and I couldn’t agree more. It’s been a great fit for me.”
Methodist missionaries founded Willamette University in 1842, the first university in the western United States. Throughout its storied history, the university has collected artworks donated by benefactors and also had Native American baskets gifted to the missionaries who founded Willamette in the 19th century. However, there was no central venue to display the items.
Two years before the museum opened, the US West Communications building in Salem went on the market, and Willamette supporter Hallie Ford donated funds to help purchase the building and turn it into the museum named for her. Maribeth Collins, another key Willamette backer, funded the director’s position held by Olbrantz.
Olbrantz says he’s been gratified by the strong support of donors.
“I was really surprised at the generosity of so many of our donors willing to step up to the plate and help underwrite exhibitions, to help provide gifts to endow positions and exhibition funds, and acquisitions. It’s been great,” he says.
The two-story museum has a series of galleries on the first two floors, plus a main-floor lobby for receptions. The basement has recently been finished and houses collection vaults, a matting and framing shop, workroom, carpentry shop, and offices.
Another recent addition is 45 reflector panels by the late artist Richard C. Elliott of Washington State that were installed on second-floor windows. A possible addition of uplighting outside the museum would illuminate the reflectors so the building “will look like a jewel box,” Olbrantz says.