Over ten years, Andres A. Verzosa, owner of Aucocisco Galleries, has created a thriving business while working to radically tran
- Photography by: Jeff Scher
Written By Joshua Bodwell
On a weekday morning in spring, the brick-lined Post Office Plaza at the heart of Portland’s Old Port district is empty. A few sparrows twitter about and collect twigs for delicate nests. The park’s benches are empty; its thin birches shimmer. Around the corner, just a few doors up on Exchange Street, Aucocisco Galleries is opening for the day.
Andres A. Verzosa, the gallery’s founder and director since its inception one decade ago this month, is at his big oak desk, fingers dancing across the computer keyboard. An art magazine has just published an enthusiastic review of an Aucocisco artist and Verzosa, 47, is spreading the news. He is pleasantly intense about such endeavors and moves through tasks — be it circulating press, working with artists, or sitting on the board of a local nonprofit — with fervent purpose.
Meanwhile, Aucocisco gallery manager Ashley Caros is preparing for the arrival of Grace DeGennaro. The artist’s new show, “Indigo,” is being hung today, and the gallery’s walls have been freshly painted. A pale light pours into the high-ceiling space, and the circa-1875 mosaic tile floor gleams. When DeGennaro arrives, Verzosa and Caros quickly unload her oils: ten moderately sized pieces and one massive painting. DeGennaro carefully unwraps the meticulously packaged works. “Gorgeous,” says Verzosa as he rests the lush, hypnotic paintings along a wall. “We’re going to make it look like a temple in here,” he says, “spare and elegant.”
This is how Verzosa has built a reputation as the director of one of the most critically acclaimed and successful contemporary art galleries in Maine: one carefully selected, stunningly presented, thoroughly publicized exhibition at a time.
To the uninitiated, running an art gallery may appear to be as simple as renting a space, painting it white, putting up some lights, hanging some art, and then waiting for people to show up. Yet everything at Aucocisco is about forethought, planning, and networking, as well as those ephemeral delights: good taste and good luck.
Andres Verzosa was born and raised in the same city his gallery calls home. After discovering a passion for art while a student at Deering High School, Verzosa majored in art history at the University of Maine before going on to the Maine College of Art (MECA). During his senior year at MECA, Verzosa opened a tiny art gallery in Portland. It was 1991, and he was twenty-eight years old. He called the gallery Congo Renaissance as a play on the potential rebirth of Congress Street. But Verzosa soon found himself swamped with schoolwork and closed the gallery after six months. The experience, however, was formative. In 1995, Verzosa’s thirty-year-old brother — a young but already revered singer-songwriter who had just signed a major record deal — was killed in an automobile accident. Verzosa fled to New York City. “It was just too painful to be here,” he says.
As the 1990s drew to a close, Verzosa returned to Portland. In 2000, he opened a new gallery and called it Aucocisco, a Native American word that means “resting place” and is believed by some historians to have formed the basis of the word “Casco.” With barely any money, Verzosa pieced together favors, passion, and generous amounts of sweat equity to open Aucocisco on Congress Street.
Verzosa quickly began attracting attention. In 2009, Aucocisco relocated to Exchange Street in the Old Port, and Verzosa has remained at the forefront of community building in Portland’s lively art scene. He helped create the First Friday Art Walk, a monthly event that has brought together dozens of art galleries, studios, museums, and alternative venues for coordinated receptions that regularly attract hundreds, if not thousands, of art lovers. Janis Beitzer, the executive director for Portland’s Downtown District, a nonprofit founded in 1992 to support and promote the economic vitality of the city center, calls the First Friday Art Walk “a real galvanizing event for the city.”
“Andy starting the Art Walk was something of a tipping point,” says Beitzer. Ten years ago, she says, Portland’s art scene wasn’t nearly as vibrant as it is today. Beitzer also credits, in part, the Art Walk and current profusion of galleries with attracting more fine dining restaurants into the city’s downtown.
Verzosa is also a past president of the Portland Arts & Cultural Alliance and currently serves on the board of the Quimby Family Foundation and the Maine College of Art. Since 2005, he has been the administrator of the Bernard Langlais estate and organized six recent exhibitions of the artist’s work.
Earle Shettleworth, Jr., director of the Maine Historic Preservation Commission, has worked on numerous arts-related projects with Verzosa and calls his approach to running Aucocisco, “refreshingly creative.” Says Shettleworth: “Andy cares passionately about the artists he represents and has strived tirelessly to find the right institutional and private homes for the works of such noted Mainers as Bernard Langlais and photographers George Daniell and Rose Marasco.”
Thomas Denenberg, deputy director and chief curator at the Portland Museum of Art, has been impressed with Verzosa’s mixture of established and emerging artists. “His gallery is ever interesting, showcasing established figures as well as being a place for young artists to get their start,” notes Denenberg. “Andy’s enthusiasm and ecumenical spirit is infectious.” Aucocisco’s current stable of up-and-coming talents includes Nicole Duennebier, Hilary Irons, and Christopher Keister, two of whose paintings Verzosa just stewarded into the permanent collection at the Portland Museum of Art. Verzosa takes his mentoring of emerging artists particularly seriously. He devotes large amounts of time to his artists and perpetually encourages them to be innovative.
“When you live so close to the bone, as so many creators do, there’s no steady paycheck, and too many artists end up taking day jobs and lose track of their art,” Verzosa says candidly. He makes it his mission to keep artists doing what they do best: making art.
“Andy is an amazing gallerist,” says Lauren Fensterstock, another emerging artist represented by Aucocisco and a 2010 Maine Arts Commission Fellow. “What I appreciate most about Andy’s work is his strong sense of long-term planning. He takes the time to understand my personal goals and has helped me build a multi-year plan to achieve them. There are few people that I trust equally for an honest perspective.”
The revered Maine painter Dozier Bell has been represented by Aucocisco since 2002. While the artist is at a different stage of her career, she values Verzosa just the same. A two-time winner of the coveted Pollock-Krasner Foundation grant and one of only seventeen artists featured in the 2009 Portland Museum of Art Biennial, Bell calls Verzosa “a hard-working dealer in the old style. He cares about his artists’ careers, their lives, and what they need to make their art, as well as about sales,” she says. “Being an artist can be very difficult, and a dealer who’s also a true ally is a rare find.” These days, Verzosa laughingly describes himself as a “lapsed artist.” He feels that representing and helping artists has become a part of his identity now. “I’m just more excited about helping other artists,” he says.
“Oh, I am standing on the shoulder of giants here,” says Verzosa of his place in the art world. “In terms of economy, leadership, and community, I am just trying to make whatever positive difference I can.”
A better gallery equals more sales; more sales equals more money in the pockets of artists. And, at the end of the day, that is what gets Verzosa up in the morning and pushing onward.
At last, it is time for Verzosa to hang the one massive piece in Grace DeGennaro’s show, a stunning eight-foot by five-foot painting entitled Serape.
“Well, let’s try it,” Verzosa says finally, having eyed the painting for several minutes. He knows that the hanging is not the culmination of this show, nor is the reception. It is the beginning. Now come the feverish e-mails, the magazine and newspaper ads, and the cultivation of reviews. The tasks he seems to execute with relish.
Verzosa moves the big painting away from the wall, as he has hundreds of times in the past decade. DeGennaro holds it steady while Verzosa places a chair between the wall and the painting, and climbs atop it. He disappears, covered by the massive painting.
DeGennaro and gallery manager Caros each grip one side of the painting and raise it, quickly closing the gap between the wall and the art. Verzosa crouches, his shoes searching for traction on the chair top. The ladies hoist the painting upwards like a giant shimmering black sail. Verzosa is silent, hidden.
“Stop!” Verzosa says suddenly. “Okay, Grace, up on your side. Ashley, down on yours. Okay, okay. Right. Stop! I’m on the hook now,” he says, meaning that he has managed to slip the thin picture wire over the hook in the wall.
As DeGennaro and Caros hold the painting, its top resting against the wall and its bottom kicked out at a sharp angle, Verzosa slides out from behind. He takes hold of the painting and eases it against the wall. Everyone holds a collective breath.
Finally, the painting is in place: beautifully hung, completely square. Everyone steps back. DeGennaro beams as she looks at her painting hanging on Aucocisco’s wall. For now, her painting has finished its journey: from her mind, to the canvas in her studio, to the gallery.
“Perfect,” Verzosa says quietly.
- Photography by: Jeff Scher