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Jan. 29, 2023

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Gorge’s hidden gem: Maryhill Museum

Remote site has offered eclectic collection of art for 75 years

By , Columbian staff writer
13 Photos
Photos by Steven Lane/The Columbian
When the Maryhill Museum of Art opened in May 1940, Time Magazine called it "the world's most isolated art museum."  About 100 miles from downtown Vancouver, the museum draws about 40,000 visitors a year, according to executive director Colleen Schafroth.
Photos by Steven Lane/The Columbian When the Maryhill Museum of Art opened in May 1940, Time Magazine called it "the world's most isolated art museum." About 100 miles from downtown Vancouver, the museum draws about 40,000 visitors a year, according to executive director Colleen Schafroth. Photo Gallery

MARYHILL — The whole tilting, stratified, gold-and-green landscape of the Columbia River Gorge is one massive museum.

And then, already goggle-eyed, you approach the Maryhill Museum of Art itself, perched in such an unlikely spot on the north side of the canyon that you can’t help wondering if the concrete mansion, with its emerald grounds and sculpture park, was somehow airlifted here directly from some stylish boulevard in Paris.

“The site is whammo,” said museum executive director Colleen Schafroth, choosing her words carefully, and so is its odd history, which began with railroad executive, visionary road builder, world traveler and deep-pocketed Quaker eccentric Sam Hill.

Hill’s original idea, circa 1907, was a mansion anchoring a 5,300-acre utopian agricultural community jointly named for his wife and daughter — both Mary.

That vision was torpedoed partially by World War I, and Hill was eventually convinced by his good friend Loie Fuller, a famous American dancer who found even more fame after moving to Paris, to make his unfinished mansion into an art museum and pursue the “betterment of French art in the far Northwest of America.”

And if that seems like an odd mission in a remote corner of the world that’s populated by many more cattle than people — let alone lovers of French art — well, you’re just beginning to catch on to the remarkable flavor of this place and its patchwork of world-class treasures.

“We have so many fantastic things because of Sam Hill’s connections, all sorts of connections all over the world,” Schafroth said. “Museums are always wonderful things but this one is completely unique.”

It’s just over 100 miles from downtown Vancouver to the Maryhill Museum of Art, with plenty of opportunities along the way to stop for good food, panoramic views, wine tasting and hiking excursions up those alluring canyon walls. Is there any more beautiful picnic-lunch spot in the entire region than the breezy sculpture garden and sunny south-facing patio here?

“It’s the perfect day trip,” said curator Steven Grafe. “A lot of people in the Portland area seem to think the Gorge ends at Hood River, but they are missing out on so much.”

There’s never been a better time to finally satisfy your curiosity about the oddity that everybody seems to know about but few bother to visit, Schafroth said — because this is its 75th anniversary season.

“We’ve had an exciting 75 year history, and the future will be even more exciting,” she said.

The museum is always closed for the winter. Beginning at 2 p.m. Saturday, March 14, museum members can attend an exclusive opening reception with guided behind-the-scenes tours. Yes, Schafroth said, you can buy memberships that day. The tax-deductible cost is $50 per individual, $35 per young adult (age 17-25) or $75 per household (including all persons residing at an address plus all grandchildren of members). Once you’re a member, admission is free for the year and comes with various other perks, too.

Opening day for the general public is Sunday, March 15. Hours are 10 a.m. to 5 p.m., and admission is $9 per adult, $8 per senior, $3 per youth (ages 7 to 18) and $25 for a family of two adults and related children.

Children and youth are especially welcome, said Schafroth, who worries about kids whose only exposure to art is through tiny windows in cellphones.

“We want young people to be awed,” she said. “Awed by the landscape and awed by the amazing things we have here. It should be amazing when you look at a Rodin sculpture or painting for the first time. It’s truly different when you see it in person than when you are seeing a digitized, colorized version. You get a jolt. I know I do. I hope I always do.”

Eclectic is excellent

Somebody once quipped that Maryhill is the sort of art museum that country bumpkins would throw together out of whatever seems pretty and classy.

It’s the kind of crack that gets curator Grafe grumbling. “Eclectic is not a pejorative” is the theme of a paper he’ll present at a professional conference later this year, he said.

During a preview of the museum early last week, Grafe strolled through rooms and hallways full of Russian religious icons and Romanian palace treasures and memorabilia donated by Queen Marie of Romania, another Hill friend; 20th century American and European realist paintings; sculptures by the French master Rodin; American Indian clothing and artifacts, including Alaskan and Eskimo treasures; posters and photographs from the career of dancer Loie Fuller; and a huge collection of miniature French fashion mannequins and stage sets from the postwar Théâtre de la Mode.

That was an effort to restart the French fashion industry, Grafe said, with top designers making do with small swatches of fabric to show off their visions. The exhibition of impeccably dressed 27-inch dolls toured Europe in 1946 but then languished in a San Francisco basement until socialite and art patron Alma de Bretteville Spreckels got them to Maryhill.

“We have some pretty crazy stuff,” Grafe said — who added that he struggles to find a balance between showing the items that he knows draw traffic, like the fashion mannequins and Romanian palace treasures, and the works that deserve serious attention from art lovers and scholars.

Grafe is particularly proud of a new exhibition of 20th-century American Indian paintings that he curated himself. It wasn’t yet on display when The Columbian toured last week, but it will feature 35 works by some of the most important Southwest and Southern Plains Indians, he said.

The historical subtext of these paintings is especially interesting, he said. In the early 20th century, Native American children were still being forced to abandon their language and customs and learn the white man’s ways at school; then, during the Great Depression, the government started encouraging young Indians to produce art as a way of making money. The government was teaching a white man’s version of Indian art back to the Indians, Grafe said. You can trace the development and deepening of their art across the timespan of the exhibition, which is 1935 through 1985, Grafe said.

Maryhill’s 75th anniversary season also will feature exhibitions of glass art and glass-blowing demonstrations, woodcuts, photographs of life and landscapes in Wasco County around the turn of the 20th century, photographs of the construction of the Columbia River Highway drawn from Sam Hill’s private collection, and American Realist paintings by R.H. Ives Gammell and his students. Gammell is noted for a series of allegorical paintings called “The Hound of Heaven,” based on a poem by Francis Thompson; several of these will be on display.

There’s plenty more going on at Maryhill all season long, from student exhibitions to poetry readings, lectures, field trips, Shakespeare performances, art instruction and even an “appraisal fair” set for Oct. 24. Visit to see the whole rundown.

Stone and wind

The Maryhill Museum and its environs can surprise you in “a hundred ways,” Schafroth said. One of them is Stonehenge.

That’s the ancient and mysterious British monument that Sam Hill famously re-created on a bluff a few miles east of what eventually became his museum. This Stonehenge honors the dead of World War I, especially those from Klickitat County. Hill, a Quaker, wanted to use the original design — misunderstood in his day to be the site of ritual human sacrifice — to lament that people were still being sacrificed to “the god of war.” Visiting the site — which is both whimsical and slightly eerie — is free.

As you admire the countryside around Maryhill — with its wineries, river views and towering wind turbines — keep in mind that 5,300 of these acres are actually museum property. That’s another Sam Hill legacy, and leasing the land is key to the museum’s continued viability, Schafroth said. It brings in approximately $800,000 of the museum’s $1.3 million annual budget, she said.

The museum draws about 40,000 visitors a year, Schafroth said. Remember that standard $9 adult admission price? It doesn’t begin to pay expenses. “The sad fact is, it costs $30 per person” to provide the great museum experience that Maryhill aims for, she said.

Schafroth said she’s always got her eye on gasoline prices. The recent price dive has been good for the museum, she said, but that’s starting to fade again.

“When you’re paying $4 a gallon, you’re going to think three times” about making a long trip into the Gorge, she acknowledged.

“We’re in the business of bringing great things to people. If you can’t get people here, you can’t fulfill that mission.”