Creativity and Capital
Master Builders John and Lucy Buchanan Join Forces for Explosive Growth at the Portland Art Museum

By Jim Pasero

John Buchanan remembers the day he met Al Gore. Then Vice President Gore was in Portland rounding up the support of local officials for his presidential run in 2000. “The day was over 100 degrees,” says Lucy Buchanan. Waiting for local officials to arrive, the Buchanans parked the Vice President in the director’s basement office of the Portland Art Museum.

For twenty minutes it was one on one: Al Gore, presidential candidate, meet John Buchanan, Director of the Portland Art Museum. “We spent about twenty minutes together and we had some things in common.”

What they had in common says Buchanan was that they’d both grown up in Nashville, they had a mutual famous friend in common, U.S. Sen. Bill Frist (classmate of John’s), and John Buchanan and Al Gore Sr. had traveled together on business.

John Buchanan met Al Gore Sr. when he was director in the mid 1980s of Memphis, Tennessee’s Dixon Gallery & Gardens. Morrie Moss, a Dixon trustee, encouraged Al Gore Sr. to become a trustee and he also encouraged Armand Hammer, world famous capitalist, to do a show of his famous European painting collection at the Dixon. While putting together that show, Al Gore Sr., Morrie Moss and John Buchanan traveled together to view Hammer’s collection in Los Angeles.

Back in the quiet of the director’s office that hot Portland summer afternoon, while the Vice President worked over his briefing papers, John Buchanan worked over his common connections with Al Gore Jr.

“I got nothing from him,” says Buchanan. “And I tried a number of things, but each time I got nothing.” Buchanan makes a flat hand gesture to demonstrate Gore’s deadpan response.

“I knew then,” says Buchanan, “that this man didn’t have it to be president. But you’re not going to print that are you?”

“And he didn’t carry Tennessee, because he never lived there,” adds John’s wife Lucy. John only shakes his head. Because in the art world, John and Lucy Buchanan’s world, not having personality is fatal.

If John and Lucy Buchanan weren’t able to get anything going with Al Gore during his visit, that’s about the only person they haven’t been able to get something going with during their phenomenal eight-year reign as Director of and Development Director of the Portland Art Museum.

Says Harry Parker, director of the Fine Arts Museums of San Francisco, “John has put Portland on the map. I see the references to the Art Museum in The New York Times.”

Waring Hopkins, an accomplished Paris-based art dealer, an expert in 19th impressionism, and a recent feature celebrity in the April issue of Town & Country, talks about the personal charisma of the Buchanans: “When John and Lucy come to dinner parties in Paris, they immediately become the center of attention, of enthusiasm and laughs, and these dinner parties can be pretty staid.”

The Buchanan’s litany of accomplishments since their arrival in Portland in 1994 does not require artistic hyperbole. The pace of accomplishments mirrors the pace of the Buchanans themselves. In a hurry, but with detail, lots of detail.


A simple snapshot of the Buchanans’ accomplishments: · A $2.5 million capital campaign to bring climate control to the 1933 Portland Art Museum building. · A $45 million Project for the Milleninium capital campaign to renovate Pietro Belluschi’s Portland Art Museum, the establishment of the Hoffman Wing, and the opening of new centers for Native American Art and Northwest Art.

· International blockbuster art shows in Portland: in ’96, “The Imperial Tombs of China;” in ’98, “The Splendors of Ancient Egypt;” in ’01, “European Masterpieces, Six Centuries of Paintings From the National Gallery of Victoria Australia;” in ’02, “Stuff of Dreams, an exhibition of treasures from the Paris Musee Des Art Decoratifs;” continuing today, “The Splendors of Imperial Japan, Art of the Meiji Period from the Khalili Collection.”

· Purchase of French impressionistic painter Paul Cezanne’s “Paris: Quai de Bercy—La Halle aux Vin.”

· The museum’s greatest exhibition to date, executed with the assistance of the last remaining Strogonoff, Baronne Helene de Ludinghausen: “Stroganoff: The Palace and Collections of a Russian Noble Family.”

· Purchase for the Portland Art Museum of Clement Greenberg: A Critic’s Collection.

· The museum endowment grows from $8 million in ’94 to over $40 million in ’02.

· Renovation by 2004 of neighboring Portland landmark, the Masonic Temple.

The tenure of a master builder is more or less eight years—the length of two U.S. presidential terms—the length of time it took Margaret Mitchell to write “Gone with the Wind.” And the Buchanans are master builders.

So with all their successes, are the Buchanans satisfied? Complacent? Hardly.

Standing in the middle of the Art Museum’s latest blockbuster, “The Imperial Splendors of Japan,”—a collection that came to the Portland Museum because of John Buchanan’s diligence in cultivating a ten-year relationship with international art collector Dr. David Khalili—Buchanan has this to say on a July morning about the future.

“Want to break some news? I just got a fax this morning that has taken 20 years of work to conclude.”

“We just got the contract to open a Cezanne show at the Grand Palais in Paris from March 15th to July 5, 2004, and then the show will come to the Portland Art Museum—the only other place it will appear,” remarks John.

“The Grand Palais is the finest art venue in the world,” adds Lucy triumphantly. “All French museums vie for a spot in the exhibition.”

How did the Buchanans become lead organizers in such an important French art show, especially for an artist that Picasso once called “my one and only master?”

John explains: “When we bought a Cezanne painting it was a work that was done in Paris. Usually when you think of Cezanne you think of pieces associated with bathing parties or rural pieces from Aixen Provance. But in 1872 Cezanne moved to Paris. It was the low point in his life professionally and personally. He had just had a kid with his mistress. He suffered years of torment in Paris; it wasn’t typical. And I got involved in the pictures he did in Paris, and it turns out he did great pictures in Paris.”

And then John and Lucy Buchanan called on the man that both call “one of the most brilliant people in the world,” Dr. Rick Brettell. It was Dr. Brettell who made a discovery some years ago about the Portland Art Museum’s Degas painting, “Portait of Madame de Nittis,”—someone had, as Buchanan told The Oregonian, “mucked around with Madame de Nittis’ nose after Degas had painted her and made it slightly more acquiline.”

“Rick and I started to do some research on Cezanne’s Paris works (for John that meant doing the details as usual) on the wallpaper, the background in the pictures. And the French said how interesting, we never thought of this.” For the Buchanans and Dr. Brettell, the show means gathering up 50 of Cezanne’s works from private collectors and opening at the Grand Palais in 2004. A real coup.

“What to break another news story?” asks John. Two in one day. “We just reached agreement with the Egyptian and Danish governments to bring King Tut II to Portland in 2007.”

“It’s the show that’s reviewed in the New York Times today,” says Lucy. “It just opened at the National Gallery in Washington, ‘The Quest for Immortality: Treasures of Ancient Egypt.’”

And how will you celebrate such a day?

“By translating the contract from the Grand Palais,” laughs Buchanan.


And the Buchanan pace goes on—and on. To see the relentless Buchanan pace, see Clifford LaFontane, the designer who did the “Splendors of Dresden” and King Tut shows…see Clifford LaFontane up until 2:30 Friday morning at the Art Museum on June 1 making sure that everything is a go for the opening of “The Splendors of Imperial Japan”… see Boston-based architect Ann Beha, on her 39th trip to Portland, standing outside the park blocks in Portland contemplating the best ways to make the tomblike Masonic Temple feel more friendly...see Dr. Khalili, the owner of the Imperial Splendors exhibition just off a flight from London, appearing on “AM Northwest” to discuss the responsibilities that a collector has to art “to canvass, to research, to publish, and to exhibit”...see Penelope Striebel, the Art Museum’s New York-based European curator discuss how she pulled off getting the “Stuff of Dreams” show out of the Paris Musee des Arts Decoratifs: “I went to the museum in Paris and said, ‘Where’s your collection?’ And they said, ‘In storage.’ I said: ‘Why?’And they looked at me like I was mad. And I said, ‘Why don’t you use a show to organize the museum and show your best parts of it to the American public?’ I spent 11 days and nights at the museum and covered the place from the 19th century attic to the new stuff in the basement. I picked the greatest objects in the museum.” Like the clock from Marie Antoinette’s bedroom.

It is also part of the Buchanan pace to rattle off his three favorite writers, Peter Taylor, Truman Capote, and Dominick Dunne, and then later admit that he vacations with one of the three—Dunne.

The Portland Art Museum didn’t always have this frenetic Buchanan pace. There was a time when... K.C. Cowan, the host of OPB’s Oregon Art Beat, remembers touring the museum. “I went to the museum with my third grade teacher, Mrs. Crawford, to look at Native American art. Mostly what I remember was that the place was so dusty. I just wanted to dust it.”

John Hampton, one of the major sponsors of Clement Greenberg: A Critic’s Collection, speaks to that pre-Buchanan, dusty feeling that hadn’t changed much since K.C. Cowan graduated from Mrs. Crawford’s class. “Three families,” says Hampton, “the Schnitzers, the Marks, and the Meiers, decided to do something about the trouble with the Art Museum.”

Phil Bogue, the museum’s acting director from 1993 to mid-1994 told “The Oregonian” a year later, “My first impression was that they (the Buchanans) were too much for Portland. But it didn’t take long for me to come to the conclusion that they were just what we needed.”

Pete Mark, longtime museum trustee, describes the Buchanans as “phenomenal...they have taken a museum from its beginning and turned it into a world class institution.” Pete Mark ought to know because he, probably more than any other individual, was responsible for bringing John and Lucy Buchanan to Portland.


After we interviewed in Portland, says Lucy Buchanan, “Pete called us every Saturday at home in Memphis. He believed that this museum could be something really special.”

John Buchanan was born to older Nashville parents. Lucy, originally from Huntsville, Ala., is one of four children. John and Lucy met at Vanderbilt and were married in 1980, moved to Washington D.C., where John worked for the Association of American Museums. John’s first job as a museum director came in the mid 1980s in Peoria, Ill. Three years later when John directed the Dixon Gallery and Gardens in Memphis, Lucy would be persuaded by the trustees to leave her job in the private sector and take over the museum’s development department.

How did John Buchanan visualize the Portland Art Museum that Thanksgiving weekend of ’93? “John saw the huge art building and the huge art temple,” says Lucy, “and we also saw curator Donald Jenkins’ ‘Floating World’ show. John was impressed by the show and by the building’s architecture.”

“I’m project-oriented,” says Peter Mark, and while John may have had an eye out for the museum’s potential, Mark, who has a sharp eye for talent, was so impressed by John Buchanan that he traveled to Memphis to meet his references. Reports were glowing. Mark began making the weekly calls.

Harold Schnitzer, another longtime trustee of the museum, remembers well the three-month long courting process to hire the Buchanans. “John saw the possibility of remodeling the Masonic Temple and converting the art school to gallery space. He had a vision when he came, and he could see the potential in changing the museum’s culture.”

One other thing about Buchanan impressed Schnitzer. “He brought an architect from Boston with him who had done work for him at the Dixon (Ann Beha). It was pretty gutsy to bring an architect out with you when you’re looking for a job.”

Ann Beha recalls why she made the trip west with Buchanan. “He called me one day about nine years ago and said he was interviewing at a prominent museum in the Northwest. He said to me that he had to go out and make sense of this space, and I said ‘John, do you want me to come?’ And he said, ‘Would you do that for me?’”


John Buchanan’s mind combines the best qualities of an architect, general, salesman, and showman. But on a winter day in Portland in 1994 when the Portland Art Museum was searching, almost pleading, for a new leader, what Buchanan needed to be was a top-notch negotiator, and he was. The Buchanans and the Marks were meeting in Pete and Mary Mark’s library.

“We had him up at the house,” says Mark, “and we started to talk about the job and I told him the board had said okay, and John said to me, ‘I’m not going to take it,’ and I said ‘why?’ ‘Money,’ said John. ‘I don’t feel I can raise the money in Portland to do it (make the museum successful).’”

It was a brilliant move on John’s part. “At that point Mary and I looked at each other,” says Mark, “and we made a commitment (a $1 million commitment). We’d never done that before.”

In one frank conversation with Pete Mark, John and Lucy Buchanan ushered in the era of million dollar contributions to Portland cultural institutions. “The Buchanans raised the level of giving in Portland,” says Schnitzer. “Seldom had million dollar gifts been given to a cultural institution. It
was rare.”

In fact, the Buchanans have been so successful at fundraising in Portland that they have created some resentment among the local artist community. Local artists whisper that the Buchanans are committed only to the museum, to themselves, and not to giving back to the city’s local artists. The Buchanans don’t see it that way, nor do their supporters. “When you’ve done a phenomenal job like John and Lucy,” says Pete Mark, “you’re going to be criticized.”

Adds OPB’s K.C. Cowan, “If the Buchanans bring in a show that is so spectacular and that brings people to the art museum for the first time, and then they go to local galleries, and then come to the ‘Rental Sales Gallery’ at the Masonic Temple and buy local art, how can that not be good? Isn’t that what Republicans call the ‘trickle down’ effect?”

Duane McDougall, former CEO of Willamette Industries, made the decision to be the chief sponsor for the Imperial Splendors of Japan show. What impresses McDougall most is that the Buchanans have, as he puts it, “built a model for program building in Portland, a model for how this community can get positive momentum going.” And they’ve done it without government money.


In a city that Harold Schnitzer describes as “slow moving,” how have the Buchanans been so successful?

“People were skeptical about a person with a big vision,” says Schnitzer. But that, according to Schnitzer and the Baronne Helene de Lundinghausen, is the reason John and Lucy Buchanan are so successful.

“John sees very big, and so do I. We’re the same sign; we’re both Leos,” says de Ludinghausen. “If you start small you never get anywhere. To achieve anything you have to think big. If it’s not big, it is not that appealing.”

Harold Schnitzer remembers when the Buchanans first laid out their vision of bringing a blockbuster show to the Portland Art Museum. The show was The Imperial Tombs of China. “John told the board the show would cost $2 million—well that was a lot of money, but then John said it would bring a gate of $4 to $5 million. It was a big blockbuster show that made us money and put Portland on the art map. When a person delivers like John did, you begin to get respect for that person.”

The second component to the Buchanans’ success is their ability to “seize the initiative.” Waring Hopkins remembers them seizing the initiative when they were at the Dixon: “John and Lucy walked into a booth we had in Paris in ’92. For 10 years we’d been assembling works by Jean-Louis Forain. John came to the gallery and we showed him the photos. They were looking for a mid-level Monet. But then John had a brainstorm. The Dixon wanted a Monet, but with their budget they couldn’t afford a top painting. But it occurred to him and Lucy almost simultaneously. Why didn’t John and Lucy try to buy the whole collection? Instead of a mediocre Monet, they opted for a whole collection and made the Dixon the Jean-Louis Forain home.”

Hopkins says he saw the same brilliance in play a few years later, only this time the beneficiary was the Portland Art Museum. “John did it again with the Greenberg collection”—a survey of mid-century American art. “John pounced on the whole collection instantly.”
Bruce Guenther, chief curator of modern art and contemporary art for the Art Museum talks about how important that acquisition is. “John and Lucy are brilliant at spotting opportunities that have value beyond the surface appearance, and the Greenberg Collection is just that. It is the largest collection of modern art to come to the museum and it has demanded gallery space 12 months a year, which really provided the compelling reason for the renovation of the Masonic Temple.”

The third component to their success is in the details—lots of details. Comments exhibition designer Clifford LaFontane: “Some people are great builders but they delegate the details, and they can delegate the vision away with the details. John doesn’t do that; he makes the details part of the museum.” Harry Parker of San Francisco Museums of Fine Arts says, “I relate to them because we’re both obsessed with cleanliness issues and public spaces. People notice.” Parker remembers a trip the Buchanans took to the Bay Area. “He came down here and saw me weeding the flower garden before the opening of a show, and he said ‘what the hell are you doing?’ And I said ‘You ought to know John,’ because I feel similarly when I go to Portland and see how meticulous he is.”

Part of paying attention to the details, says Ronna Hoffmann, “is John’s incredible ability to hire the best, but if you disappoint him you’re not around much longer. Which is healthy. You don’t want to work for John unless you plan to work and you love your job.”

“He makes people do things they would never do on their own. John pushes people and that’s fantastic for people in general,” says the Baronne. “Most people have no idea where they can go.”

“John and Lucy encourage people to get the best out of themselves, to be creative. They come up with a new type of working environment and help people flourish in it,” adds Beth Sorensen, Director of Public Relations and Communications for the Portland Art Museum.

The final element to the Buchanans’ success in Portland might be integrity.

“John and I are friends,” says Waring Hopkins, “but I remember a trustee of the Portland Art Museum who was crazy about a painting for sale in my gallery. John discouraged the purchase. He didn’t think the painting was good enough. It wasn’t done behind my back. We didn’t agree. He made his point; I made mine. John wanted the best for the collector.”

There’s also a lot of fun mixed in with the integrity. “John gets along with people,” says the Baronne, “he likes people and people like him. He’s a perfectionist, but he has a great sense of humor; it is an unusual combination. When we are together it is just one stupidity after another; were having a great laugh. Anybody who saw us together would think those people are not doing anything.”


“We knew this was going to be a serious time in our lives,” says Lucy, reflecting on their lives in Portland and their accomplishments.

Other reflections on the minds of the Buchanans this summer are the place of the Portland Art Museum in civic life and the lack of vitality of the city’s economy.

“The way the city markets Portland is in a brand fashion; it is not strategic,” says John. “They market clean air, that people love being here, but Oregon has some other things to market as well.” Like the Art Museum. “The Museum will spend several hundred thousand dollars marketing Portland. We take out full page adds in playbills in Manhattan. It’s more money than POVA spends. We are subsidizing the marketing of the city.”

“We have the responsibility to the city,” says Lucy “to maintain a huge part of the park blocks. If the sidewalk buckles in front of the museum, we have to replace it. It’s not the same with the Schnitzer (Concert Hall); there, the city would help out. But we want the museum to look impressive.”

“I see the politics and tax structure of the city at certain points as being obstacles for achieving greatness, true greatness,” says John. “I’m not sure that our community and our state are ready for true greatness. I’m not that sure they think that’s a desirable goal. There aren’t big companies in this city. When we begin to see headquarters moving away...see the city not have the capital to reinvest itself, that’s the wake up call.” “John and Lucy Buchanan are people who have a plan in life,” says Ronna Hoffman. “They know where they are going, and it wouldn’t be a surprise at all if one day John ends up as the Director of the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York.”

How does John feel about staying in Portland? “As long as there are new challenges, we’re staying,” he says. And they’ve got a new challenge in remodeling and renovating the adjacent Masonic Temple, which will one day be the new home for the museum’s collection of modern art.

“The Masonic Temple is a remarkable building, a real landmark for city,” says architect Ann Beha. “It’s Egyptian, it’s massive, imposing; it’s also tomblike. What I see in this building is nothing but opportunity. The building will provide a home for the administrative offices and be a major center for contemporary art.” By September, according to Beha, the planning for the Temple’s future should be finished.

Curator Bruce Guenther describes what the renovation of The Temple will mean. “The museum will finally have a series of rooms devoted to the largest single part of its painting and sculpture collection of 20th century tell the story from avant garde art of Paris to the new world and American vision of abstract art (the Greenberg collection) and finally to the international vision of art.”

Masonic Temple aside, Harry Parker thinks he knows another reason why John Buchanan won’t be leaving Portland too soon: “In the future John will have lots of opportunities,” says Parker, “and maybe it’s only me who sees him this way, but he cares a lot about the look of the Portland Art Museum. He is comfortable there. He is a homebody.” “It’s true;” nods Lucy, “John’s a real nester.”

And as for Lucy, what does she want? “When people ask me what I pray for? I tell them that what I pray for is three or four large corporations who would move to Portland and make a difference. That’s what I pray for.”

As for John, he’s got his definitions down.

“Greatness:” says John Buchanan, “how one reinvents one’s act, that’s the true test of greatness. Are artists one trick ponies or are they masters, like Rembrandt, Picasso, Monet, Matisse? Seeing them reinventing themselves, that’s the key to greatness.”

You get the feeling he is unaware that he might be talking about his own and Lucy’s successful metamorphoses through the years.

“After all,” says Lucy, “we do know Picasso’s granddaughter.”

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