Art Nouveau

Five Things to Know about the New PMA

By Will Grunewald
Down East Magazine - Guide - Art

Courtesy of The Portland Museum of Art

Five years ago, on her second day of work at the Portland Museum of Art, chief curator Jessica May remembers museum director Mark Bessire casually saying to her, “You know, we should probably reinstall the collection.” Ever since, that’s been her primary project. And finally, after years of planning, the museum closed for a month this winter to undergo a complete overhaul. “We’ve allowed ourselves to not have too many preconceived ideas about what’s good, what’s worthy, what goes with what,” says May, the longest tenured of the museum’s three curators. “It’s like we’ve been around long enough to know what we’re doing, but we haven’t been around so long that it doesn’t still feel fresh.” She chatted with us about what you need to know for your next visit.

1 Heavy Lifting

Reinstalling the museum’s collection meant reshuffling some thousand pieces of art, from small wall hangings to a 3,500-pound marble statue of Ulysses S. Grant. “When you change the context of where a work of art is or how it operates in space, you really produce the opportunity to think freshly about it,” May says. Fortunately, the Grant statue didn’t have to travel too far: it was hoisted up and set on a new base — the large-scale equivalent of reframing a painting. “As simple as that sounds, it was quite a production,” May says. “That was a fun, scary day.”

2 Novel Niches

“We’ve been able to get some work out of storage that has traditionally been kind of complicated to show because it doesn’t follow the normal rules of being big and splashy in a gallery,” May says. In particular: small and mid-size sculptures — pieces that straddle the threshold between domestic- and museum-scale. Now, those works have their own gallery space. And the museum borrowed a collection of tools belonging to early-20th-century American sculptor Gaston Lachaise in order to give visitors a sense of how sculpting tools are used and what marks they make on pieces.

3 Creative Thinking

Many museums have taken to grouping artwork by theme (say, paintings of shipwrecks), instead of by chronology, geography, and style (mid-19th-century French impressionism, for instance). The PMA used to hew closely to chronological organization and kept a clear division between European and American works. In thinking about the reinstallation, May says, curators looked for innovative ways to combine both trendy and traditional approaches, like with a new gallery called Transatlantic Abstraction, examining American and European artists who pioneered novel ideas about abstraction in art.

4 More Décor

A core goal of the project was to maximize available gallery space, and the museum reopened with about 20 percent more artwork on display. May is especially excited about the decorative arts collection — glass, ceramics, silver, furniture — that’s now integrated into galleries around the museum. “It makes a lot of sense for a city with as much history as Portland, which was on many shipping routes, that houses in the colonial and early federal periods were full of extraordinarily beautiful things,” she says. “And it makes sense that a lot of those things would eventually find their way to the museum.”

5 New Stars

As curators worked through the museum’s collection, they found that several key pieces — “real splashes within American museum culture,” May calls them — were being overlooked. One, a landscape by prominent Hudson River School painter Asher B. Durand is “absolutely of incredibly high caliber,” she says. “We don’t really have a good sense of why it wasn’t a gallery standard.” The museum also owns a full-length portrait by James McNeill Whistler — strikingly painted only in shades of black — that has spent much of its recent time in storage. “It hasn’t really been part of the life of the institution,” May says, but “this is a major painting — an important painting.”

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Will Grunewald

Will Grunewald is Down East's associate editor.