Portman’s love of art was evident in everything he did.
He supported the arts, he collected art, and he, himself, was a prolific painter and sculptor. The people of Atlanta continue to enjoy his contributions to the arts, from the magnificent bronze lions by Olivier Strebelle that he commissioned for Peachtree Center Avenue, to Paul Manship’s towering Ballet Olympia on Peachtree Street. Portman’s own work plays a prominent role in the lobby and plaza surrounding SunTrust Plaza and many other projects around the world.
Portman began creating paintings and sculptures in the early 1980’s, after years of integrating art into the architectural environment, including designing lighting fixtures, hardware and furniture. To quote Olivier Strebelle, University of Georgia Lamar Dodd Professor of Art and recognized sculptor, "No architect is more aware of the need of this mystery called art in our everyday life."
In 1979, Portman was elected Associate National Academician and to full Membership in 1994, at the National Academy Museum and School of Fine Arts in New York. In 1996, the Angel Orensanz Foundation elected him Member of the Senate of the Accademia Internazionale d’Arte Moderna. In 1997, the National Academy Museum and School of Fine Arts exhibited four projects: the Hyatt Regency in Atlanta, SunTrust Plaza in Atlanta, the Hyatt Regency in San Francisco, and Entelechy II in Sea Island, Georgia. In 1999, an exhibit curated by Barkin-Leeds, Ltd. "John Portman, A Retrospective Exhibition" displayed his work in the gallery at SunTrust Plaza in Atlanta. He served as a board member of the Atlanta College of Art, and is Trustee Emeritus of the Atlanta Arts Alliance. The High Museum of Atlanta hosted an exhibition of Portman’s architecture, paintings and sculpture entitled John Portman: Art & Architecture which opened October 17, 2009 and ran through April 17, 2010. The curated exhibition, which included over fifty works of art created by Portman, most of which had never been exhibited in public, then went on tour and was exhibited at the Shanghai Urban Planning Exhibition Center during the 2010 World Expo in Shanghai, then featured at the Capital Museum in Beijing in 2011.