Night (and Day) at the Museums
- By: Edgar Allen Beem
As improbable as it seems, Sharon Corwin, director of the Colby College Museum of Art, may be Maine’s longest-serving art museum director.
She’s been in her job for three years.
In what some see simply as an extra-ordinary coincidence, the leadership of virtually every other Maine art institution has changed in the past year. The Portland Museum of Art, Maine Arts Commission, Bowdoin College Museum of Art, Ogunquit Museum of American Art, University of Maine Museum of Art, and the Abbe Museum in Bar Harbor all have new directors. And the Bates College Museum of Art, Farnsworth Art Museum, Institute for Contemporary Art at Maine College of Art, and the Center for Maine Contemporary Art are all in various stages of searching for new directors.
Beyond “What’s going on here?” this wholesale changing of the Maine art guard raises the question, “Will all these new directors mean new directions for Maine art?”
Donna McNeil, director of the Maine Arts Commission since January 2008, believes so. “The most dynamic changes happen when centuries turn. It’s millennial change,” says McNeil. “In terms of museum directors, you need people who can see and nurture the ways art is going to be delivered in the twenty-first century.”
Museum directors of old tended to be connoisseurs and scholars with a flair for cultivating donors, but the new breed of directors, according to McNeil, will need to be entrepreneurs and impresarios with a far wider skill set. McNeil also foresees the new museum leaders fostering a fresh, more cosmopolitan appreciation of art in Maine, one not quite so provincial as it has been in the past. “Regionalism doesn’t really work anymore,” she insists. “You need to connect globally.”
McNeil and others in the Maine art community tend to see the surprising selection of Mark Bessire to lead the Portland Museum of Art as a sign of bold new things to come.
Mark Bessire’s appointment in January 2009 as the new director of the Portland Museum of Art (PMA) was unexpected not because he is unknown, but rather because he is well known. Bessire came to Maine in 1998 to direct the Institute for Contemporary Art at Maine College of Art. For the past six years he has been the director of the Bates College Museum of Art.
The move from a pair of small academic galleries to the state’s flagship art museum is a big step for the forty-four-year-old Bessire. To begin with, he has very little experience fund-raising from corporations and private donors. “Most of the money I have raised was through grants and foundations,” says Bessire of his previous academic career.
But the charming and engaging Brooklyn native and father of two possesses a pedigree that suggests he may be up to the daunting task of securing funding from corporations and philanthropists in hard economic times. His father is a professional fund-raising consultant specializing in the arts, and his brother is deputy director of external affairs at the Institute of Contemporary Art in Boston. He will not want for advice.
Bessire’s ability to keep the Portland Museum of Art afloat financially is critical not only to what the museum is able to exhibit and acquire but also to the vitality of Portland’s Congress Street cultural corridor. “The key to great fund-raising is having a great narrative,” Bessire says. “I have no problem asking people for money for this museum, because I’m not really asking for money. I’m inviting them to get involved with an institution that is important to their community. Supporting it will reflect well on them.”
Bessire, who was recruited to head the Dia Art Foundation in New York before he accepted the position in Portland, has a reputation for promoting innovative, cutting edge art. Accordingly, a lot of people are eager (or anxious, as the case may be) to see how PMA exhibitions may change on his watch.
“I think he is going to be very respectful of the role of tradition,” says Bruce Brown, who championed fresh, innovative art in Maine for twenty years as curator of the Center for Maine Contemporary Art, “but at the same time there are going to be more adventurous contemporary programs [at the PMA].”
Some saw the recently concluded 2009 PMA Biennial as an indication of things to come. The event largely ignored established Maine artists in favor of young, emerging artists who were given large spaces for eccentric installations. However, Bessire points out that the biennial was planned well before he came on board. “All art at one time was contemporary,” says Bessire. “I am constantly interested in taking traditional matter and giving it a contemporary relevance.”
In a difficult economy, however, Bessire believes the PMA needs to focus on its core mission. “This museum has three important narratives,” he says. In addition to conveying the history and role of Maine in American art history, as well as exhibiting nineteenth- and twentieth-century European art, Bessire says the museum must put forward “art we might not see in Maine, the unexpected.”
It is the unexpected that a lot of people expect from Bessire, but he cautions that he will not decide what and who to show in Portland. “I’m interested in the vision part of the curatorial function,” he remarks, “not selecting individual artists.” That function, he says, will be left to the museum’s staff of curators.
In the near future, the PMA will be focusing on the ever-popular Winslow Homer in anticipation both of the centennial of the artist’s death in 2010 and the projected opening of the artist’s studio in 2012. Nothing unexpected there.
Looking around Maine at the remarkable turnover in museum directors, Bessire says he sees it as part of a national phenomenon driven by the expansion of museums over the past twenty-five years. Rapid growth has placed extraordinary demands on those who lead these institutions, he explains. “Fewer people want to be museum directors because the demands and expectations of a director have risen to such a high level,” he says. “It’s very hard for directors to meet those expectations — excellent scholarship, good communication skills, management skills, art world contacts, and a willingness to fund-raise all the time.”
Few places in Maine bear greater testament to the slow rate of the tides of change than Augusta, where it can take years or even decades to move legislation. The same can happen in the arts community, according to the Maine Arts Commission’s Donna McNeil, whose office is located in Maine’s capital city. “There can be institutional entrenchment,” McNeil says, adding that she is enthusiastic about the potential for new art and media that the emerging class of museum directors could bring to Maine.
McNeil’s predecessor, Alden Wilson, was the consummate entrenched bureaucrat, the nation’s longest serving state arts administrator when he stepped down in 2007 after thirty-three years at the Maine Arts Commission. During his long tenure, Wilson became one of Maine’s most effective champions of the creative economy, persuading the state to invest in the arts as a form of economic development.
Donna McNeil is an artist herself as well as an agent of change. Trained as a painter, she ran a gallery and frame shop in Amherst, Massachusetts, before coming to Maine in 1990. Since then she has served as director of the Congress Square Gallery, assistant to the director of the Joan Whitney Payson Gallery, director of the Barn Gallery in Ogunquit, director of the Ram Island Dance Company, and contemporary art associate at the agency she now leads.
As director of the Maine Arts Commission, McNeil, like Wilson before her, has worked to get the arts “a place at the table” when it comes to promoting a more prosperous Maine. Both have argued that the arts, historic preservation, and the natural landscape form the foundation upon which the future of Maine rests. “We are part of the economic engine,” she insists.
It is also McNeil’s mission to make Maine state government more arts friendly and to encourage artists to take more risks. She is a proponent of the commission’s Good Idea Grant program, which funds new directions in artists’ work. She believes artists need to change their view of the government when it comes to funding art projects. “When [artists] look for support,” says McNeil, “they don’t typically look to government. With Barack Obama as president, the NEA [National Endowment for the Arts] is [now seen] as a more friendly place. Artists will look to the government differently in the future. That’s my hope,” she says. In a state full of traditional painters, potters, and photographers, McNeil is excited about new art forms — multi-media, multi-disciplinary, high-tech.
“Art is going to be experiential in ways we have never seen before,” McNeil predicts. “Artists are functioning in context. It’s not about your conversation with yourself any longer. It’s about your engagement with the world. As we fund projects at the Maine Arts Commission, we fund them in the hope that things really astonishing and profound will emerge out of the process.”
The expectation of profound change can be felt throughout practically all corners of the Maine art world. The newcomers include George Kinghorn, who arrived last year from the Museum of Contemporary Art in Jacksonville, Florida, to head the University of Maine Museum of Art; Ron Crusan, who came from the Lyman Allyn Art Museum in New London, Connecticut, earlier this year to take over the Ogunquit Museum of American Art; and Kevin Salatino, who will be coming from the Los Angeles County Museum of Art in August to direct the Bowdoin College Museum of Art.
Bessire, Colby’s Corwin, and McNeil will have to wait a bit longer to meet their new counterparts at the Center for Maine Contemporary Art (CMCA) in Rockport and at the Farnsworth Art Museum in Rockland. Both midcoast institutions are still searching for new leadership.
CMCA has had an unfortunate history of turnovers at the top. During his twenty years as curator there, Bruce Brown served under eight different directors. That instability continued earlier this year when a new director quit after only a few days on the job. “We did hire someone who did not work out,” admits artist Dudley Zopp, co-chair of the CMCA board. “She resigned quite suddenly for personal reasons.” In the meantime, Zopp and co-chair Judith Daniels are holding the CMCA reins. “We have impressive candidates to consider and hope to make an announcement soon,” says Zopp.
At the Farnsworth, chief curator Michael Komanecky is serving as interim director until a permanent replacement can be found for Lora Urbanelli, who left Rockland last year after three years on the job in order to be closer to her family in Philadelphia as head of the Montclair Art Museum in New Jersey. The Farnsworth faces significant financial challenges due to its rapid expansion in recent years and the loss of one of its primary supporters, credit card giant MBNA (since taken over by Bank of America). The museum was forced to close its Wyeth Center for the winter and to reduce its hours of operation by closing on Mondays and Tuesdays.
“For many years MBNA was a major supporter,” explains Komanecky. “Their departure left a major hole financially. We’re still in the process of rebuilding our base of supporters to replace the loss of MBNA.” The credit card company had been contributing several hundred thousand dollars a year to close the annual operating deficit created when the Farnsworth expanded.
A big part of that expansion was the addition of a Wyeth study wing to the main museum and the purchase of a neighboring church to display works by the Wyeth family of artists. With the death earlier this year of Andrew Wyeth, former director Lora Urbanelli says, “The Farnsworth is about to enter a new era of relations with the Wyeth family.” The Farnsworth became a bit too much of a Wyeth museum during the MBNA years, in part because CEO Charles Cawley was a Wyeth collector. Urbanelli sought to balance the museum’s exhibition schedule with more diverse art. “I would like to see less emphasis on the regional view,” says Urbanelli, “but at the same time people are fiercely proud of their regional assets. There is a tremendous momentum toward trumpeting regional pride. Maine is a place steeped in its own identity and that’s a wonderful thing.”
The sea change in Maine’s artistic leadership comes at a time when all museums are facing financial challenges following a period of unprecedented growth and expansion. Make no mistake about it, who’s in charge has a profound effect on an art institution. And the incoming director class of 2009 will find some of their predecessors hard acts to follow.
Mark Bessire, for example, takes over for Daniel O’Leary who, during his fourteen years (1993-2008) at the helm of the Portland Museum of Art, oversaw the restoration and re-opening of the McLellan House (the historic mansion that had been closed since the opening of the Charles Shipman Payson Building in 1983), the acquisition of both the Winslow Homer Studio at Prouts Neck and the Charles Quincy Clapp House behind the museum, and the purchase of the YWCA next door. In the process, Daniel O’Leary helped make the Portland Museum of Art the anchor of the city’s cultural corridor, drawing visitors downtown again after decades of retail exodus.
During his seventeen years (1988-2006) as the director of the Farnsworth Art Museum, Christopher Crosman helped turn downtown Rockland from a struggling seaport into an art mecca with the Farnsworth and its Wyeth Center expanding to take over an entire city block. In Rockland’s case, a museum director’s vision essentially transformed a city of eight thousand from a detour into a destination.
In his thirty-six years (1966-2002) as director of the Colby College Museum of Art, Hugh J. Gourley III took the museum from a single room in an art-music building to one of the biggest and best college art museums in the country. Gourley’s selfless charm and impeccable good taste inspired major collectors such as the Jettes (Hathaway Shirt) and the Lunders (Dexter Shoe) to give both of their art and of their financial resources, adding treasures and wings to the museum such that it essentially became the public face of Colby College. Gourley put the museum, Colby College, and, one might argue, Waterville on the map.
Bruce Brown, who turned the Center for Maine Contemporary Art into the state’s premier launching pad for new talent during his tenure (1987-2007) as curator, says, “It boggles my mind to think what Colby has managed to accomplish in a mere fifty years. It’s going to be the biggest museum in the state of Maine. My feeling is that whoever took Hugh Gourley’s place would be a short-timer. Who could possibility fill his shoes?”
Indeed, Gourley’s immediate successor, Daniel Rosenfeld, didn’t last long. Hiring Sharon Corwin as curator in 2003 may have been his most important legacy. “I’m not sure we’re in a world where anyone stays at an institution for thirty-six years anymore,” says Corwin of the go-go Gourley years. “New people bring new ideas and new visions.”
Corwin, who has been a steadying influence since being elevated to director in 2006, believes it is just a coincidence that so many museum directors have left Maine museums over the past year. “There’s an incredible sense of collegiality in Maine museums, and I imagine that would continue even with the changing of the guard,” she says. “I’m eager to meet my new colleagues and welcome them to Maine, which is a wonderful place to work.”
Ultimately, whether the sweeping change of command in the Maine art world results in anything astonishing and new or in a respectful maintenance of the status quo remains to be seen. Most museums plan their exhibition schedules several years in advance, so it will take time for any new directions to become apparent. Still, the Maine museum buzz these days is as much about administrators as it is about art and artists.
“The windows of Maine’s institutions, including the Maine Arts Commission, have been opened,” says Donna McNeil. “Opening a window and letting a little fresh air in can be good for any relationship, but it is curious that all this happened at once.
“We wait to see what breezes in and how the new voices will guide and care for our cultural landscape.”
- By: Edgar Allen Beem