PNCA Narrative History

The story of PNCA is in many ways the story of Portland: a city relentless in its pursuit of innovation and cultivation of the artist’s voice. The College, now in its 100th year, continues to embody these qualities, which are vital pieces of our rich history, bustling present, and evolving future.

Ambitious Beginnings

PNCA’s origin can be traced to 1891, when a cadre of Portland artists channeled their city’s pioneering spirit into a weekly artistic pursuit of the paper-and-charcoal variety. Artist Harry Wentz, architects Albert E. Doyle, Joseph Jacobberger and John B. Reid along with Seth Catlin, an architecture student; and merchant grocer Fred Weber, formed a modest sketch club and, further cementing their forward-thinking ways, allowed a handful of women to join. Among them was young Anna Belle Crocker, an art student and secretary to well-known banker William Ladd ; an unrepentant dreamer whose energy and commitment would make the Museum Art School’s founding a reality.

In 1909, the School of the Portland Art Association would open its doors as the first museum art school on the West Coast. 

One year later, the club inspired the creation of the Portland Art Association by local merchants and businessmen, including W.H. Corbett who, two years later, famously purchased giant Greek and Roman casts and installed them (temporarily) in the old Portland Library on Southwest Stark Street; ideal subjects for the sketch club, which descended upon the gallery to capture the behemoth figures.

The year 1905 was a benchmark for the Portland Art Association as it saw the donation of $30,000 by William Ladd’s arts-enthusiast mother, Abigail, and Mr. Corbett’s offering of property at Southwest Fifth Avenue and Taylor Street as the Museum’s first official site. Four years later, the School of the Portland Art Association would open its doors as the first museum art school on the West Coast. 

This ambitious endeavor was largely the brainchild of Anna Belle Crocker, who was soon appointed Curator and Principal of the Museum Art School; a role she would play until her retirement in 1936.

In 1914, the Museum Art School awarded its first three-year-study certificates and within the next years, enrollment reached 127 students. In keeping with demand, tuition, which had been lingering around $40 per class/per term, jumped to $50. Concurrent with growth among the student body was a movement within the board of trustees to acquire space for a new Museum and Art School, an endeavor that became official in 1930 when the trustees negotiated the purchase of a South Park blocks parcel in exchange for the Southwest Fifth Avenue and Taylor Street property. 

Coming of Age

Thanks to the G.I. Bill, the end of World War II saw a renewed vigor in arts education, a trend that played out loudly for the Museum Art School. New York artist and former student Louis Bunce returned to his alma mater in 1946 to teach Abstract Expressionism and his students, such as acclaimed printer, portraitist, and future Museum Art School instructor George Johanson, say Bunce was a force of nature. “[For him] Art was very serious,” Johanson told the Oregonian in 2007. “Bunce made you see that and that’s what made him a great teacher.” One year later, the school enjoyed the arrival of another of its great teaching mentors (and affable rabble-rousers), Michele “Mike” Russo of Yale University’s Graduate School of Art. With his artist-wife Sally Haley in tow, Russo ushered in a new era for the school with an unabashed commitment to experimentation and a contagious zeal for provocation: his Cubist-inspired nudes still grace countless Portland walls today.

The Museum Art School thrived in the coming decades. It received accreditation and membership from the Northwest Association of Schools and Colleges in 1961 and, in 1968, added a Liberal Arts studies curriculum to its roster (the class of 1969 was the first to receive the BFA degree). The 1970’s saw further expansion into the L. Hawley Hoffman Wing ; designed by Portland architect Pietro Belluschi ; and constant flux at the College’s helm until 1982, when renowned Portland arts supporter and educator Sally Lawrence was appointed Director of the School ; by then renamed the Pacific Northwest College of Art. Lawrence was ultimately appointed President, a post she held until her retirement in 2003.

A crucial milestone of Lawrence’s tenure was the separation of the College from the Museum in 1994 (the Oregonian compared the event to “a sprout moving from the greenhouse into the open air”). The evolution of this 84-year relationship afforded the College financial independence and administrative freedom from the Museum, and completing this rite of passage, moved the College to the Goodman Building in 1998, a 92,000-square-foot campus headquarters at 1241 NW Johnson Street in the Pearl District.

The Future is Present

Dr. Thomas Manley, formerly of Pitzer College, was appointed PNCA President in 2003 after Lawrence’s long tenure. Manley has guided PNCA through what may well be its most auspicious era yet. In 2007, the College received a gift of $15 million from longtime local arts supporter Hallie Ford (the largest gift to an arts organization in Oregon’s history) and the following fall the MFA in Visual Studies program was launched, the College’s first, under the auspices of the Ford Institute for Visual Education (FIVE).

In 2007, the College received a donation of $15 million from longtime local arts supporter Hallie Ford, the largest gift to an arts organization in Oregon’s history.

In 2008, the College initiated the process to acquire the 1916-era former federal building at 511 NW Broadway on Portland’s North Park blocks as a gift from the U.S. Department of Education.

As PNCA prepared for this brick-and-mortar expansion, its educational and public programs continued to grow. In 2007, the College launched its first graduate program, the MFA in Visual Studies. In 2009, the College integrated with Museum of Contemporary Craft, a partnership that cements PNCA’s position as Portland’s most well-rounded, diverse, and, at 100 years-old, most established arts institution. That same year, the College added a second graduate program, the MFA in Applied Craft and Design, offered jointly with Oregon College of Art and Craft, the only inter-institutional degree of its kind in the nation. Since then, PNCA has added four new graduate programs: an MFA in Collaborative Design in 2011, an MA in Critical Theory and Creative Research and a Low-Residency MFA in Visual Studies in 2012, and an MFA in Print Media in 2014.

In June 2012, PNCA launched a $15 million philanthropic campaign, Creativity Works Here, to support its strategic move to renovate the historic building with a striking design by noted architect Brad Cloepfil of Allied Works Architecture. Creativity Works Here was led by honorary co-chairs Arlene Schnitzer and Dorothy Lemelson, along with a campaign cabinet of volunteer community leaders. PNCA alumna Arlene Schnitzer kicked off the campaign with a lead gift of $5 million to name the Arlene and Harold Schnitzer Center for Art and Design. The campaign met its goal in January of 2015.

Classes began in the new campus building on February 2, 2015 signaling a new era for arts education in the Pacific Northwest and serving as a dynamic platform for the arts on Portland’s North Park Blocks.

Since its founding in 1909 as the Museum Art School, PNCA and our alumni have embodied Anna B. Crocker’s determination, ambition, and imagination. PNCA faculty and alumni represent a roster of our region’s most influential artists and culture makers, past and present: Louis Bunce, Michele Russo, Lucinda Parker, Manuel Izquierdo, Lee Kelly, Jack McLarty, Mel Katz, Judy Cooke, Charles Voorhies, Michael Brophy, MK Guth and others.

PNCA continues to build upon this rich legacy to create a vibrant, collaborative, Portland-style learning community for the visual arts. The College’s spirit and dynamism attract the attention of creative practitioners worldwide and provide a strengthened base for Northwest artists and the new generations of students they will teach.


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