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Q and A with George Vogt

by:  L.E. BASKOW, George Vogt, director of the Oregon Historical Society says many Oregonians “know we exist but they’re not quite sure what we do.”

Every Friday, the Portland Tribune puts questions to a prominent - or not so prominent - local person.

George Vogt moved to Oregon 15 months ago with his standard poodle, Poster, and he isn't one to look backward. Well, maybe a little bit. Well, maybe a lot. Vogt is, after all, executive director of the Oregon Historical Society.

Poster mostly stays in Vogt's office but also roams the halls around Vogt's office. Come to think of it, Vogt does pretty much the same.

Vogt has held similar posts at museums in Wisconsin and Delaware, and he's had just enough time to take stock of the Oregon museum. Mind you, we didn't mean taking stock in a bad way, as in taking a museum's stock to another location. Although that can happen at museums. Let Vogt explain …

Portland Tribune: So what's with Poster?

George Vogt: We've given him the title here of assistant fundraiser, because more than once I have seen some hard hearts melt when they came in and saw the dog. When I came here I negotiated poodle rights as part of the deal.

Tribune: So if we were to visit your home, would we find it jammed with stuff?

Vogt: Not in a way you would think. I collect antique posters with an emphasis on World War I. I've just got a bunch framed. If you walked into my house now you'd see a lot of the World War I finger-pointing posters - 'I want you.'

I have them all framed up and put in one room we call the donor room, so no matter which way you look somebody's got a finger pointed at you.

The artist was James Montgomery Flagg. He decided he'd be his own model and he dressed himself up as Uncle Sam and painted himself in front of a mirror.

Tribune: So all our Uncle Sam pictures are based on an artist's self-portrait?

Vogt: Ever since World War I.

Tribune: What's a nightmare for a museum director? Fire?

Vogt: No. We have a good sprinkler system in place. The big nightmare that all museum directors have is inside theft. We had a $1 million theft in Wisconsin when I was there. The curator of the Native American collection looted about a $1 million worth of stuff.

Tribune: How?

Vogt: He thought he was destroying registration cards and didn't know there was another set so we could prove items were missing. We were tracking these items through various dealers.

Santa Fe and Denver are the two big areas you find a lot of dealers for Native American objects. One person told me a lot of the dealers are former curators who have been ousted from their jobs for one reason or another.

It's interesting what you get into in this museum business. I became much closer to the Capitol and state politics in Wisconsin than I ever wanted. And the curator in question is still in prison.

Tribune: What kind of politics?

Vogt: It was all Indian artifacts, and one of the tribal elders in Wisconsin said: 'George, some of our boys are down in Racine penitentiary. Do you want us to take care of it?'

Tribune: Wow. Sounds like you almost walked into a murder mystery. So what's a nightmare visitor for a museum?

Tribune: Our nightmare patron is the one who lives two blocks from here and walks by this place for 20 years and then one day asks us on the street, 'What's in there?'

It's more common than you (think). Only 3 percent of people who are residents of the three metro counties know they have a historical society with exhibits here. They know we exist but they're not quite sure what we do.

Tribune: Favorite exhibit?

Vogt: My favorite is not actually a history exhibit. A friend and I were on a trip to Paris and we went into the design museum, which is part of the Louvre. We wound up in a very edgy couture exhibit with wild designs. And in the French manner, they provided almost no information about the stuff - when it was made, who wore it. It was just, 'Look at these fantastic gowns. It's art. Enjoy.'

We were fascinated by the in-your-face aspect of the exhibit. American exhibits, whether art galleries or history exhibits, tend to be very text-heavy.

Tribune: Coolest exhibit at the Oregon Historical Society?

Vogt: I like the 9,000-year-old sagebrush sandals. They're the oldest things we have other than rocks.

- Peter Korn