On Board with Maine's Art Scene

By Silberman, Vanessa | Art Business News, December 2006 | Go to article overview
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On Board with Maine's Art Scene

Silberman, Vanessa, Art Business News

Mention the word "Maine," and many classic images spring to mind: jagged coastlines, lonely lighthouses, seaside villages and lobster feasts. But beyond its romantic imagery, Maine cultivates a lively artistic environment that often goes unnoticed.

For more than a century, artists have been retreating to Maine for inspiration. Drawn to the state's intoxicating beauty, artists such as Thomas Cole, Edward Hopper and Winslow Homer have called Maine home. Today, prominent artists continue to find the Maine landscape irresistible. Some, like Alex Katz, live in Maine year-round, while others, such as Wil Barnet and Charles Hewitt, take refuge there during the summers. Artist colonies and respected art schools such as The Skowhegan School of Painting and Sculpture, The Maine College of Art, and the more commercially driven Maine Photographic Workshop for aspiring photographers and filmmakers also attract a dynamic community of artists to the area.

Two areas in particular--Portland, Maine's largest city and busiest seaport, and the Mid-Coast region of Rockland/Rockport/Camden--have a rich artistic history that has expanded even further in recent years, making them must-sees on any art-lover's travel itinerary. In addition to the supply of Victorian-era B&Bs and award-winning restaurants, each boasts surprisingly sophisticated museums and art galleries.


For a city with a population of only 60,000, the variety and quality of art in Portland is astonishing. The wealth of cultural offerings, from the distinguished Portland Museum of Art, contemporary art galleries, nonprofit spaces and artist studios, not to mention the Portland Symphony and theater companies, rivals that of much larger cities. It's no wonder that Portland was recently named one of the country's top 25 art destinations by American Style magazine. A healthy population of artists makes its home in Portland, drawn to the city's cultural opportunities (including the Maine College of Art), leisurely pace and affordable housing. The resulting creative atmosphere is palpable.

Any visit to Portland ought to include a trip to the Portland Museum of Art. Founded in 1882, it is Maine's largest public art institution. Featuring more than 15,000 objects dating from the 18th century to the present, its permanent collection includes works by renowned Maine artists such as Marsden Hartley, Winslow Homer, John Marin and Andrew Wyeth, as well as European heavyweights such as Claude Monet, Rene Magritte and Pablo Picasso. Also part of the museum is the historic McLellan House, which offers visitors a glance into the elegant architecture of the Federalist period.

The museum is located in the Downtown Arts District along Congress Street, which is also home to the Institute for Contemporary Art (ICA) at the Maine College of Art, artist studios and a number of art galleries. ICA focuses on cutting-edge, experimental art exhibitions. Through recent (last fall) exhibitions like "From Baja to Bar Harbor: Transnational Contemporary Art," Director Toby Kamps is hoping to show that many Maine-based artists are concerned with global issues and are staking a claim in the larger dialogue of contemporary art. The exhibit features a selection of large-scale video and installation works by emerging artists working in different corners of North America, including Sam van Aken and Justin Richel of Maine, and Michele O'Marah and Julio Morales, of California. Van Aken's work, "Oh My God" from 2003, is a riveting sound installation consisting of a gallery filled to the brim with stacked stereo speakers, and inspired by the artist's response to television coverage of the 9/11 attacks.

Just a few doors down is SPACE Gallery, another innovative, non-profit exhibition venue that opened four years ago with the purpose of showcasing emerging artists with limited visibility in Maine, according to founder Todd Bernard. It is both an art gallery and a performance space for live music, creating interesting opportunities for the two media to collide.

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