Museums are like universities. Their level of excellence depends on funding.
Since its founding in 1962, the Columbia River Maritime Museum has been a blue-chip organization. The museum’s progenitor, Rolf Klep, laid that foundation. To build the nest egg for the budding collection of maritime objects, Klep pursued and haunted Portland’s monied class.
Even within the context of such a well-funded institution, Peter Brix’s recent $1.5 million gift is a game changer. Executive Director Sam Johnson called the Brix donation “truly transformative.”
Brix’s gift contains two directives. One is to create exhibits of regional, national and international significance. These exhibits will use renowned exhibit designers. And he directs that such exhibits occur every two to four years. Johnson says we can expect exhibits on shipwrecks — here and globally — and on river commerce. This directive will also dedicate one of the museum’s large galleries to the culture of the indigenous peoples of our region.
The second directive is to complete the digitization of the museum’s library and its collections records. This will allow the museum’s holdings to be searched online.
“This is like getting a grant from the National Endowment for the Humanities,” Johnson said.
When the Clatsop County Historical Society received an unexpected $1 million gift from the estate of Ed Parker in 2000, the society gained an improved institutional life. When the Astoria City Council in 1999 made a $1.3 million urban renewal grant for purchase of the Liberty Theatre, that decaying property was placed into local, nonprofit ownership.
Like those magnificent donations, the Brix gift will change the cultural landscape of Astoria and the lower Columbia.
While Brix was not part of Rolf Klep’s founding board of directors, he has served for more than 35 years. Moreover, he plays the role of being the museum’s muse. He’s turned a portion of the wealth from his Columbia River maritime business into the intellectual and historical exploration of the storied world Astoria inhabits.