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The Curator Who Remixed Rockland

For three decades, Suzette McAvoy has been behind the scenes, turning two Rockland museums into major destinations for art lovers. In our exit interview, the former Farnsworth curator and retiring CMCA director reflects on a body of work that pushed the little midcoast city to reinvent itself as the “Art Capital of Maine.”

Exit Interview: Suzette McAvoy | Down East Magazine
McAvoy, in her office at the Center for Maine Contemporary Art, which she has steered for a decade.
By Will Grunewald | Photographed by Erin Little

In the 1980s, Rockland residents would never have thought to tout their hardscrabble downtown as Maine’s art capital. Back then, the city was reeling from the decline of commercial fishing. Boarded-up storefronts riddled Main Street, and, except during the annual Maine Lobster Festival, tourists headed elsewhere. Then, in 1988, the closure of a fish-waste rendering plant, which had long fogged the town with fishy stink, was addition by subtraction. That same year, 30-year-old Suzette McAvoy took a job as chief curator at the Farnsworth Art Museum. In that case, addition by addition.

McAvoy arrived to find a haphazardly organized collection and gallery space too limited to showcase much. Originally from upstate New York, she’d put in a few years at Cornell University’s Johnson Museum and the University of Rhode Island Art Galleries. At the Farnsworth, she devised a fresh, narrower focus on Maine’s place within American art, and in the years that followed, the invigorated museum became the mainstay around which restaurants, boutiques, and art galleries sprung up.

McAvoy left the job in 1995 but continued to curate exhibits off and on at the Farnsworth for the next decade. In 2010, after a stint running Waterfall Arts, in Belfast, where she lives, she took over as executive director of Rockport’s Center for Maine Contemporary Art. If the Farnsworth had been stagnant when McAvoy started, CMCA was in even worse shape, rendered almost penniless by the Great Recession. She helped CMCA regroup financially, then relocate. Its swank new facility opened in 2016, across from the Farnsworth in Rockland. Since then, both museums have anchored a downtown to which visitors, pre-pandemic, have flocked.

Last February, McAvoy announced that she would retire in September, coinciding with her 10th anniversary at CMCA. After COVID hit, the museum’s search for a new director stalled, and McAvoy stretched her tenure through the end of the year, a few more months of a career that transformed not only a pair of museums but also an entire town. 


What do you remember about the Farnsworth and Rockland circa 1988?

Both were much different. Wow. On Main Street, there weren’t all the galleries. There wasn’t even a coffee shop back then. I remember coming for my interview and driving around, looking for the Farnsworth. I couldn’t even find it, because there wasn’t any signage. The museum had its back to the community. 

It’s hard now to imagine how much smaller an institution it was, a fraction of its size — only the original brick building, which is now just the entry. I think it had two galleries on the main floor and two small galleries downstairs, one of which was devoted to model ships. So the first expansion, in ’94, was a high point.

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What was the collection like back then?

At the Johnson Museum, my boss told me, “What makes a museum great is what makes it unique.” People go to see the Turners at the Tate, in London, because that’s unique to them. I was asking myself what was unique about the Farnsworth, and I started to take a hard look at the collection. What became clear was that the core of artists connected to Maine was the real strength, and it became more and more apparent that the story of Maine’s role in American art needed to be told in a clearer way. That became the driving force behind the collection and the expansion of the museum. The Wyeths were already strengths within the collection but weren’t really expressed the way they are now. We also did some strategic deaccessioning of European works that didn’t really have any context to be shown here. And we transferred some of those model ships up to the Penobscot Marine Museum


Was CMCA on your radar in those days?

I definitely was aware of Maine Coast Artists [as CMCA was known until 2000]. I looked to it as identifying artists that I should keep an eye on for the Farnsworth: Who’s up and coming? What’s the latest that we should be aware of? 

And you wound up running it. 

When the opportunity to take over CMCA came up in 2010, I really thought it was important to keep the institution alive. After the national financial meltdown in 2008, the CMCA took a huge hit and had to lay off all its staff. Bruce Brown, the former curator, came back as a volunteer. So here was this institution that was on life support. It was really a matter of survival at first — rebuilding the board, rebuilding trust within the Maine art community, and strengthening our organization to a point where we could even conceive of a long-range plan.

That plan eventually involved a new home in Rockland.

We had to go big, and we needed a platform for showing contemporary art as it is today. CMCA has been around since 1952. For the first 15 years, it didn’t have a permanent home, mounting exhibitions in temporary spaces — the old town hall, an old schoolhouse. In the ’60s, they bought the former Rockport firehouse, which had actually been built as a livery stable in the late 19th century. 

It was off the beaten path in a residential neighborhood, and it was still, at its bones, an old livery stable, with uneven wooden floors and lots of limitations in terms of the scale and type of art we could show. In 1952, nearly every painting fit on an easel and nearly every sculpture fit on a pedestal. That’s not true today. And other things were unheard of, like sound art and video installations and projections and multimedia pieces.

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The current space is a far cry from an old livery stable.

It became really evident that we weren’t going to do better than this location — in town, within easy walking distance of the Farnsworth and the Strand Theatre and the galleries and the restaurants. [Japanese-born architect and part-time midcoast resident] Toshiko Mori and her team designed this new building for us. The whole idea was to turn a traditional museum inside out — to be at street level, to be completely transparent with floor-to-ceiling windows. I mean, if you think of traditional museum designs like the Met or the Philadelphia Museum of Art, they’re like high temples to art, with imposing staircases and columns. Even our offices are completely open, because you normally never see the people behind the art.

And then the fact that we have polished cement floors, we can have any scale, any size, any weight of art in here. We really had to worry about weight loads in the old building. All our walls have ¾-inch plywood behind them now, which means you can hang anything anywhere — you don’t have to hit a stud anymore. It was the culmination of a lot of slow, steady rebuilding of the institution.

You say slow and steady, but from almost defunct to filling this new building within six years, it’s a pretty stark turnaround.

I remember back in the early ’90s, when director Chris Crosman proposed the capital campaign for the Farnsworth and people said, oh, it can’t be done, this is too small a community. It succeeded on a big scale, and that gave me belief that it could be done with CMCA too. We were really fortunate early on to get two grants from the Quimby Family Foundation that helped get us by. And then the artist [and midcoast summer resident] Nellie Leaman Taft left a sizeable bequest that was a complete surprise to us and gave us the seed money to move forward. 

On our opening day in June of 2016, we were expecting maybe 600 people, and we had 1,800 show up. It really proved the old adage that if you build it, they will come.

Has the pandemic put a dent in that upward trajectory?

It has certainly had an economic impact. We’ve seen an impact on attendance, largely due to the cancellation of big public events — First Fridays, our annual gala, all the Rockland festivals, like the Lobster Festival and the Blues Festival. We operate on a lean budget anyway, and we had to cut it by a third. But we got both a Payroll Protection Program loan and an economic-recovery grant from the state. Those two things have really helped. 

We’re lucky in the architecture of the building too — we’re all on one floor, we don’t have an elevator or stairs, we don’t have confined spaces, so it’s easier to social distance and easier to maintain cleaning standards. At this point, we’re hopeful we’ll recover within a year to where we were pre-COVID. I think all arts institutions are looking at, okay, we can survive this year, but if this starts going into next summer, that’s going to be harder.


Unpredictability of the coming months notwithstanding, you’re leaving Rockland with two first-rate museums.

I think Rockland gets to call itself the “Art Capital of Maine” because of the synergy between the museums. Both help to tell the full story of Maine art. At CMCA, we’re a non-collecting institution, so we’re concerned with the art of today, always looking to that next generation. There’s a saying that all art was once contemporary. Andrew Wyeth in the late ’40s and early ’50s was very much part of contemporary art. In the 19th century, Thomas Cole and Frederic Church were coming to Maine for the first time, and they were at the forefront of contemporary art. The part CMCA plays is to give a platform to show that Maine art is not just lighthouses and lobsterboats. 

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If lighthouses and lobsterboats are a sort of shorthand for how a lot of people think about Maine art, how do you sum up what the contemporary scene is really like?

It’s hard to define Maine art right now. There’s the long legacy of landscape painting here, and that continues to be a strong thread, although that can be very broadly interpreted through extremely abstract responses to the landscape. There’s also an attention to craft and handwork and issues surrounding the environment — that relationship between humans and the natural world. It’s an effect of how we live here. 

There are up-and-coming artists like Reggie Burrows Hodges, who’s a figurative painter from Lewiston who just won a Joan Mitchell Foundation grant. I think of people like Lauren Fensterstock and Aaron Stephan, two really great contemporary artists in Portland. Lauren has a show at the Renwick Gallery at the Smithsonian right now. Aaron has done public-art projects around the country. And they’re just the tip of the iceberg. Plus, with groups like Indigo Arts Alliance, in Portland, there’s growing diversity within the Maine art community, which hasn’t been the case in the past.

At the CMCA, we’re engaged with the larger dialogue of our time. Artists here are concerned with issues of the environment and identity and politics and culture.

Does that broadening of forms and themes make it harder to know what really feels like Maine art these days?

When I was at the Farnsworth, working on the Kenneth Noland exhibition was a big thing. He was sort of an unexpected artist to be here in Maine, because he’s known for his geometric abstractions. But he was living in Port Clyde at the time, and that really expanded the idea of what Maine art could be. 

At the CMCA, we define it as art by people who have a longtime connection, or they’re from here, or they continue to come back. But that’s always been the story of Maine art. People like Homer and Wyeth who we now accept as Maine artists, they didn’t live here full-time and weren’t from here. Hartley spent most of his career in Europe and other places in the U.S. Plus, so many artists arrive here through places like the Skowhegan School [of Sculpture & Painting]. Artists fall in love with the state and find ways to come back, people like Alex Katz and Lois Dodd and Robert Indiana and David Driskell. 

A lot of people have tried to figure out what it is about Maine that draws artists here. There’s a sense of isolation that artists need to create. And there’s the beautiful light and natural surroundings. There’s also this sort of independence in Maine, where you’re allowed to do your work and people aren’t going to think it’s crazy.

Is it fair to say that Maine hooked you too?

I honestly never expected to spend the bulk of my career in Maine, but it’s ever interesting to me how so many artists are here, and I’ve found that I really love working with living artists. I love going to their studios and hearing them talk about their process. Here, they’re accessible in a way that they aren’t necessarily in big cities, where you have to go through their dealers, and there are more politics and hoops to jump through. Here, you can pick up a phone, and they’ll say, sure, come on over.

And the Maine arts community is statewide. People will drive from Eastport to come here for an opening, and more from Blue Hill and Portland. I’d never experienced that before coming to Maine. My experience in upstate New York was that nobody would drive from Rochester to Ithaca to come to an opening. 

With retirement nearing, have you had much chance to reflect on your part in that community? 

Just like the CMCA as an institution, I really don’t look back often. But when I do, I’m astounded and pleased at how far this museum has come. People have said to me, don’t you find it limiting to only show artists connected to Maine? But you know, you can go to contemporary-art centers around the country and see the same two-dozen artists who are big names and have no connection to that place. Here, all the artists have a relationship to Maine, and it’s exciting to me to share that story with the world. 

21 Winter St., Rockland. 207-701-5005. cmcanow.org


FRESH FACES

McAvoy’s CMCA replacement, starting in January, is transplanted Minnesotan Timothy Peterson, who comes to Rockland from the college town and Twin Cities exurb of Northfield, where he was executive director of a multi-disciplinary art space. CMCA is one of several prominent Maine art museums that welcomed new leadership in 2020.

Jacqueline Terrassa
Colby College Museum of Art

Puerto Rican artist and educator Terrassa took over as the Colby museum’s director in the fall. Terrassa started her career working in community art centers and has most recently overseen learning and public engagement at the Art Institute of Chicago. Colby’s president lauded her history of helping museums transform their community engagement programs. Before moving to Maine, she told Puerto Rico Art News, “If the institution is comfortable with where it is, then I should not be there.” 

Shalini Le Gall
Portland Museum of Art

Le Gall took up with PMA in early 2020 after five years running academic programming at Colby’s museum. A few months later, the museum announced her promotion to chief curator and director of academic engagement. Le Gall spent eight years teaching and studying in Paris, and her expertise is in 19th-century European artists, but her focus at PMA is on community engagement and social impact. “Museums, of course, represent a certain symbol of privilege,” she told Maine magazine last summer. “That is not lost on us. We are aware of that every day. And we are working to expand our audiences.”

Amanda Lahikainen
Ogunquit Museum of American Art 

Last April, the Ogunquit Museum announced new director Lahikainen, replacing former director Michael Mansfield, who left to head up Rockport’s Maine Media Workshops. Lahikainen was recruited from Michigan, where she chaired the art department and ran the gallery at Aquinas College, but she and her husband already owned a summer home in Lamoine. She’s said she couldn’t resist the opportunity to move to Maine full-time, working out of OMAA’s striking seaside campus. She told the Portland Press Herald last spring, “You walk onto the property and you feel at ease.” — JESSE ELLISON