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See the CMCA’s Latest Shows from the Comfort of Home

Interactive virtual tours of the Rockland museum are their own works of art.

a virtual tour of the Center for Maine Contemporary Art
By Will Grunewald

Tracy Miller seems like a painter in whose studio one might enjoy hanging out, considering the subjects of her still lifes: beer cans, billiard balls, cake. Miller, who splits time between New York City and the Down East village of Harrington, has five such works hanging in Rockland’s Center for Maine Contemporary Art, part of an ongoing exhibition, Skirting the Line: Painting Between Abstraction and Representation. On a sliding scale from Jackson Pollock to Norman Rockwell, Miller and the show’s four other artists would scatter around the middle.  

All of them are women, a nod to the 100th anniversary of women’s suffrage and a #5WomenArtists social-media campaign started by the National Museum of Women in the Arts (the skirting in the title is intentional wordplay, chief curator Suzette McAvoy says). Their few dozen paintings offer brightly colored reinterpretations of classical genres, from still life to landscape to figure study, but museumgoers wound up with very little time to appreciate any of it in person — the exhibition opened on March 14, and the CMCA temporarily closed on March 16 due to the ongoing coronavirus pandemic. 

Still, unlike at most other shuttered museums, the general public can keep visiting the galleries, in virtual form. The virtual tour uses a web platform, Matterport, primarily marketed as a real-estate tool — a way to show properties to prospective buyers from anywhere. A handful of arts institutions have availed themselves of it in recent years — Barcelona’s European Museum of Modern Art, Seoul’s National Museum of Korea, Washington’s National Gallery of Art — but few if any have made such regular use of it as has the CMCA. 

Local photographer Dave Clough, who specializes in shooting real estate and architecture, pitched the idea, and the first show he captured was the 2018 Biennial. He’s since done seven more, all archived on the CMCA website. “At first, it was mostly a novel way to document those exhibitions,” McAvoy says, but staff also realized the educational potential and developed lesson plans for virtual field trips (students at Frenchboro Elementary, a one-room island school, count among recent virtual visitors who wouldn’t otherwise have had access). As for delivering a free experience to the general public amid a pandemic: “We weren’t really intending it this way,” McAvoy says, “but it became invaluable.”

A virtual tour of Skirting the Line starts just inside the main doors, and guests navigate from there by clicking circles superimposed on the floor, marking where Clough set his 3D camera. The sensation is like moving around in Google Maps street-view mode, but with more freedom to roam and in higher definition. (New York’s Guggenheim Museum offers a tour using Google street-view tech, and it’s much less engaging.) 

The first painting visitors encounter is Feverdream, by Camden artist Meghan Brady. It’s an imposing presence — 13 feet tall, 25 feet wide — and sliding from dot to dot on the floor, the viewer gets a sense for it up close, at a distance, from the right, from the left. Thick, tortuous lines of orange, yellow, and pink indeed look how a fever dream feels.

Clicking the orange dot on the far wall pulls up an audio introduction from McAvoy, and snippets of her commentary appear throughout the exhibition, lending the appreciation-deepening effect of a guided tour (in one clip, she describes Tracy Miller’s array of vibrant still lifes as a “democratic cornucopia” — and as a visually fun, spiritually brooding reflection of consumer culture). Green dots, meanwhile, open captions to individual pieces, with links to artists’ websites. 

Inside the main gallery, starting at the center of the room gives a chance to take in the whole space. Approaching each work incrementally, as if stepping through actual physical space rather than its proxy, heightens a sense of realism. Occasionally, it’s nice to gaze up at the daylight angling through windows in the sawtooth roof, and, after finishing a visit, retracing one’s steps to the lobby feels like a satisfyingly familiar routine. 

There is, however, no virtual exit, no opening the glass doors. Through them, one can see the courtyard that houses a sculpture by Ogunquit artist Jonathan Borofsky. Stretching skyward, cutouts of human figures stand atop each other, painted red, green, blue, yellow. The hard angles that trace their profiles give the impression that they’re pixelated. The title of that work is Digital Man.

When the CMCA reopens, Skirting the Line will extend so visitors have time to view it in reality too (21 Winter St., Rockland; 207-701-5005; cmcanow.org).

The Art of Online Engagement

The CMCA isn’t the only museum interacting remotely with Maine art lovers. The Portland Museum of Art has turned over its home page to “Explore from Home” content — video tours of exhibitions, all-ages art activities, digestible essays by museum staff, and more. The Farnsworth Art Museum has started a podcast series based around works in its collection (and has long offered a virtual spin through the Olson House, where Andrew Wyeth made some of his most famous paintings, including Christina’s World). The college museums at ColbyBates, and Bowdoin have huge troves of digitized works to skim through, as always, and Colby has lately been posting home art projects and online jigsaw puzzles of works from the collection. Ogunquit Museum of American Art curator Ruth Greene-McNally has been keeping up a steady stream of blog posts, with smart commentary and occasional fun add-ons, like a crossword puzzle about museum pieces. And at UMaine’s Zillman Art Museum, museum educator Kat Johnson has been making how-to “Studio Session” videos about working in different media, from coffee- and tea-ink painting to using potatoes for printmaking.