From the Field

Why Museums Matter

June 2, 2016

As of the close of AAMD's 2016 Annual Meeting in Cleveland, on May 24, Brian Ferriso, Director of the Portland Art Museum, Portland, OR, became president of AAMD. At that time Ferriso delivered thes following remarks on his mentors in the art museum field and why museums matter. 


Reflecting on this opportunity to be President of AAMD, I returned to the moment that inspired me to pursue a career in art museums.  It was in the early 1990s, while I was reading Kirk Varnedoe's A Fine Disregard.*  In that book, which I am sure many of you have read, Kirk shared his experiences as a rugby player and how they informed his understanding and appreciation of modern art.  What captured me was Kirk’s love of art and rugby, two things that were major influences in my life at that time.  I subsequently wrote Kirk asking if he would be willing to meet with me.  Within a week he wrote back inviting me to his office at MoMA to discuss art, museums and rugby.  Although it was a short meeting, it was one that left an indelible mark on my life.  What impressed me most was Kirk’s generosity to share his experiences and insights freely—a quality that I later found within AAMD and in particular with two previous Presidents. 

Mary Sue Sweeney Price,** past Director of the Newark Museum, was my boss for 4 years and is a mentor and dear friend.  Mary Sue’s deep commitment to Newark and the Newark Museum, her inner strength, encouragement and thoughtful criticism fortified my resolve to pursue this career.   Another supervisor and mentor has been Kim Rorschach.***  As many of you know, Kim has led a number of successful museums, including the Smart Museum of Art at the University of Chicago, the Nasher Museum of Art at Duke University, and now the Seattle Art Museum.  As my supervisor and now AAMD colleague and friend, Kim has always been supportive, honest and authentic.  She, along with Mary Sue and Kirk Varnedoe demonstrate what makes our profession and organization strong, successful and meaningful.

Ultimately, Kirk, Mary Sue and Kim were generous in their time and counsel, and revealed to me the power of engagement, leadership and shared learning.  As we launch the next 100 years of this organization, I am pleased that these fundamental outcomes form the basis of our new strategic plan.  They are powerful mandates that I am committed to making sure continue in deep and meaningful ways. 

Although I, like all of you, had these influential people and experiences that inspired my desire to lead an art museum, the day-to-day demands of our jobs can often dampen our spirits.  Endless emails and meetings, human resource issues, critics, blogs, budgets and unrealistic expectations from donors, staff and trustees can take the luster off pretty quickly. 

Last week, however, I was fortunate to be forced to remind myself of why we do what we do.  I was with a trustee discussing our upcoming campaign.  The trustee was excited by my vision, although she felt guilty about contributing.  The trustee’s philanthropy had primarily been focused on our local hospital and she had a difficult time resolving the debate between saving lives versus changing lives.  At that point, I was challenged to articulate why museums matter.  I immediately recalled the days following 9/11, when art museums became a place of solace and reflection.  When art museums reasserted their ability to provide hope and wonder, celebrating humankind’s greatest artistic treasures and challenging us to see the world in a vision unobstructed by rhetoric.  In presenting our collections, exhibitions, and programs we reaffirm what it means to be human, creating an enduring sense of understanding, appreciation and empathy in our communities for all those that participate.  Although I told the donor this reason, in many ways I reminded myself at an important moment in my career why we matter.

Thank you for this opportunity to be President of AAMD.  I am honored and humbled. 

Brian Ferriso
President, AAMD
The Marilyn H. and Dr. Robert B. Pamplin Jr. Director
Chief Curator
Portland Art Museum
May 24, 2016


*Kirk Varnedoe was the Chief Curator of Painting and Sculpture at the Museum of Modern Art from 1988-2001.

**Mary Sue Sweeney Price served as director of the Newark Museum from 1993-2013 and President of AAMD from 2005-2006.

***Kimerly Rorschach served as President of AAMD from 2012-2013.