Down East 2013 ©
Photograph by Robert Dennis
In the beginning there was the beach. The long, lovely sand bar at the mouth of the Ogunquit River defines the town of Ogunquit geographically, determined its fate as a popular York County beach resort, and explains the town’s motto, “Beautiful Place by the Sea.” But “Beautiful Place by the Sea” describes just about every coastal village in Maine and does not begin to do justice to what makes Ogunquit so special.
Yes, Ogunquit is a sandy summer resort community, but it is also a town with an artistic heritage that permeates its contemporary life. An active art colony during most of the twentieth century, Ogunquit has emerged in the twenty-first as an attractive arts destination. Tracing Ogunquit’s evolution from an artist-centered summer retreat to an audience-oriented vacation venue reveals how a town of just 1,200 year-round residents manages to entertain and delight as many as fifty thousand visitors a day in season.
On the one hand, Ogunquit is a beach town filled with bars, bistros, boutiques, bed-and-breakfasts, bungalows, and beach houses; on the other, it’s a village with a creative economy all its own.
“The place doesn’t necessarily determine the art, but the place does provide all sorts of stimuli,” says Stuart Nudelman, a photographer active in several Ogunquit arts organizations. “It’s a very special place. It has the art museum, the art association, the Barn Gallery, the playhouse, and a performance series. All these things combine to make it an environment for the arts to thrive.”
First Came the Artists
When painter John Laurent died in 2005 at the age of eighty-three, his passing marked the end of an era in the history of the Ogunquit art colony. Since the late nineteenth century, hundreds of artists, from the unknown to the immortal, have worked in Ogunquit, the creative hub of which was picturesque Perkins Cove. But at the time of his passing, John Laurent was the last artist left on Perkins Cove.
The first was Boston painter Charles Woodbury who discovered Ogunquit in 1888 and established a summer art school overlooking Perkins Cove a decade later. His students, mostly young women, were known locally as the Virginal Wayfarers. Woodbury and his fair followers took a traditional, pastoral approach to painting the landscapes and seascapes of Ogunquit and environs.
The idyllic life of these proper Bostonians was interrupted in 1902 when New York art critic Hamilton Easter Field and his sculptor protégé Robert Laurent, John Laurent’s father, came to town. Field was a champion of American modernism, an indigenous response to the dramatic changes in art ushered in by cubism in Europe. Where the Boston academics favored classical perspective and conventional subject matter, Field and his modernist followers espoused radical perspectives, broken picture planes, and the free use of color that eventually led to abstract art.
In the first three decades of the twentieth century, it was old school versus new school on Perkins Cove and, at least in terms of art history, the newcomers won. Ron Crusan, director of the Ogunquit Museum of American Art, says he had no idea until he came to Maine in 2009 “how connected Ogunquit is to the formation of American modernism.” Among the American modernists who worked in Ogunquit were Peggy Bacon, George Bellows, Marsden Hartley, Robert Henri, Edward Hopper, Bernard Karfiol, Walt Kuhn, Leon Kroll, Yasuo Kuniyoshi, and, of course, Robert Laurent. And it was one of Hamilton Easter Field’s students, figurative painter and tobacco heir Henry Strater, who was the prime mover and shaker behind the creation of the museum that memorializes these modernists.
The Ogunquit Museum of American Art is a contemporary seaside villa, a gallery on the rocks overlooking Narrow Cove. Opened in 1953, the museum has a collection of 1,600 objects with a strength in works by Ogunquit artists as well as by American modernists not associated with the Ogunquit colony, people such as Charles Burchfield, Rockwell Kent, and John Marin.
The Ogunquit Museum of American Art collection might also have included more than fifty works from the Hamilton Easter Field Foundation Collection, including an important painting by Stuart Davis, had it not been for a falling out between museum founder Henry Strater and Field heir Robert Laurent. Instead of going to the Ogunquit museum as originally intended, the Field collection eventually wound up at the Portland Museum of Art after a temporary stay at the Barn Gallery.
The Barn Gallery is another 1950s landmark tucked away at the corner of Shore Road and Bourne Lane. The gallery traces its origins to the Ogunquit Art Association, founded in 1928 by none other than Charles Woodbury. In 1936, the OAA members began showing their art in the yellow barn of the Ogunquit House inn on Shore Road. Then, in 1958, Barn Gallery Associates was formed to build the association a proper gallery of its own. In 1966, Robert Laurent gave the Field collection to the Barn Gallery.
The relationship between the for-profit Ogunquit Art Association (the artists) and the Barn Gallery Associates (their supporters) was always a rocky one. In 1979, the Barn Gallery Associates, feeling the seasonal Barn Gallery was not a safe home for the increasingly valuable Hamilton Easter Field collection, donated it to the Portland Museum of Art.
In 2002, Barn Gallery Associates dissolved itself, giving its endowment of an estimated two hundred thousand dollars to the Ogunquit Museum of American Art and the Barn Gallery itself to the Ogunquit Art Collaborative, a non-profit formed to accept the gallery building on behalf of the OAA. Though the Ogunquit Art Association currently has close to seventy-five members, very few of them actually live or work in Ogunquit. Since the 1980s, in order to maintain both the quantity and quality of its membership, the OAA has widened its net to include artists from anywhere within a hundred miles of Ogunquit.
“Ogunquit is geared more toward visitors now than toward artists because the artists aren’t here,” says Ogunquit museum director Ron Crusan. “I can only think of a couple who live in Ogunquit.”
Painters DeWitt Hardy and Beverly Hallam are perhaps the best-known contemporary artists associated with Ogunquit, but neither of them lives in town any longer. OAA members who still do include painters Don Gorvett, Michael Palmer, and Norman West and photographers Isabel Lewando and Stuart Nudelman.
Beverly Hallam, who first visited Ogunquit in 1949 and moved there in 1963, has for many years now lived just down the York County coast at Surf Point. The Ogunquit museum honored her with a major retrospective in 2009. Recalling the wild parties at the Ice House in Perkins Cove and the artists’ costume balls that marked the last hurrah of the art colony in the 1960s, Hallam says simply, “It’s quieter now.”
Then Came the Actors
Art and theater are inextricably linked in Ogunquit. From 1913 until 1931, the Village Studio on Hoyt’s Lane hosted both art shows and amateur theatricals. Actress Bette Davis, who worked in Ogunquit as a waitress and a lifeguard as a teenager, performed at the Village Studio.
And two of Ogunquit’s best-known thespians were instrumental in establishing the Barn Gallery. Actor J. Scott Smart, who was famous as the radio detective “The Fat Man,” headed the fund-raising effort and actor John Lane, who owned the Ogunquit Playhouse for many years, gave the property where the Barn Gallery was built. Lane’s wife, Helen MacMillan Lane, was a painter and a member of the Ogunquit Art Association.
The Ogunquit Playhouse, which bills itself as “America’s Foremost Summer Theatre,” began in 1933 in the depths of the Depression in a downtown garage. By 1937, it was prosperous enough to purchase farmland on the edge of town to build what is considered to be the first summer stock theater in the United States built specifically as a theater.
Actor John Lane purchased the Ogunquit Playhouse in 1951 and the elegant Route One landmark, with its manicured lawns and yews, green awnings, and flags fluttering from the long, white façade, still possesses the air of 1950s formality that Lane cultivated there. The 660-seat theater brings Broadway to the beach, presenting five musicals a season. The 2011 lineup includes the old favorite Shhh!, the more contemporary Legally Blonde, and Miss Saigon, and a brand-new musical about the 1960s called Summer of Love. (The fifth production had not been announced at press time.)
In 1997, three years before his death, John Lane sought to ensure the playhouse’s continued existence by converting it to a non-profit. “Being a non-profit, you’re a real member of the community,” says Ogunquit Playhouse marketing director Cheryl Farley.
“You have a responsibility to give back. We do outreach and education to introduce the art form to a new generation of school children.”
In order to reach a larger and broader audience, the playhouse has extended its season from the traditional ten-week straw hat season between Fourth of July and Labor Day to twenty-two weeks between May and October. And where it once mixed a few comedies and mysteries in among the musicals, it is now all musicals all the time. The result has been a dramatic attendance increase from forty thousand in 2005 to ninety thousand in 2010.
Ogunquit also has a non-profit performing arts group that is a town committee. Ogunquit Performing Arts was established in 1978 with a $250,000 endowment from a local benefactor. Ogunquit Performing Arts also extends the traditional season into the shoulder months on either side of summer. It produces the Elizabeth Dunaway Burnham Piano Festival in April, the Chamber Music Festival in June, and the two-week festival of the arts known as Capriccio in September.
Stuart Nudelman, who chairs Ogunquit Performing Arts, describes Ogunquit as “a self-contained cocoon six or seven months a year,” but come spring the town comes to life and stretches its wings. “Both the museum and the playhouse have expanded their seasons at both ends of summer,” says Nudelman, “and that has allowed the hospitality industry to expand as well.”
The Fun Continues
Ogunquit is one of the smallest towns in Maine, just a four-square-mile sand wedge between Wells and York, but it packs a lot of fun into such a small space. Between the beach and the arts, the village supports about three dozen motels and inns, another three dozen bed-and-breakfasts, more than a dozen arts and crafts galleries, and more fine restaurants than most towns ten times its size.
Ogunquit is also a well-known gay vacation spot, which only adds to the lively arts and nightlife. Many of the artists attracted to the Ogunquit art colony have been gay, among them such prominent figures as Hamilton Easter Field and Marsden Hartley, and the town has been considered gay-friendly for decades. There are many gay-owned businesses and there is even a Gay Ogunquit Web site.
Dancing at Mainestreet Video Bar, comedy acts at the Oxygen Lounge, and the piano bar at the Front Porch are popular with gay and straight, locals and tourists alike. And the highlight of many a summer evening at the Front Porch is The Judy Show, a one-man cabaret in which impressionist Michael Holmes performs as Judy Garland, Carol Channing, Mae West, Bette Davis, Billie Holiday, Katharine Hepburn, Pearl Bailey, Peggy Lee, and Tallulah Bankhead. (The real Tallulah, Carol, and Bette, as it happens, performed in their day at the Ogunquit Playhouse.)
So what makes Ogunquit so special is not just its embrace of the arts, but the open-mindedness that comes with embracing the creative spirit. “I think people in the arts generally are very open and tolerant,” says Ogunquit Playhouse marketing director Cheryl Farley. “Artists tend to be a quirky bunch and they are very accepting of other quirky people.”
Jonathan West agrees. He has lived in Ogunquit all his life, his father’s family having been in the hospitality business. His mother’s family were fishermen. Back in 1976 West purchased his parents’ home just off Route One on Bourne Lane and turned it into Jonathan’s, a roadhouse now filled with paintings and drawings by Ogunquit artists and known throughout the region for a year-round folk, jazz, and comedy concert series that features such performers as Judy Collins, Arlo Guthrie, Tom Rush, Leon Redbone, and comedians Bob Marley and Paula Poundstone.
“It was once said, ‘Ogunquit, where it’s normal to be different,’ ” West says. “I understand that statement quite well. Ogunquit has always been a sort of ‘sandbox with a view’ for people of all types to gather and play. Over the years the cast has changed, but the characters remain the same. The arts have always influenced what goes on. The artists and patrons of the arts were always part of the scene and the primary reason for its uniqueness.”
So if Ogunquit ever does want to adopt a more precise motto than “Beautiful Place by the Sea,” it might do well to consider “Ogunquit, Where It’s Normal to be Different.”