By Susan Conley
Photographs by Patryce Bak
“Then it’s just you and Picasso”
This is a story about a teenage boy in New York City named Mark Bessire who knew he wanted to run a museum when he grew up. Art was his family’s pastime—a passion passed down to the boy from his parents like an inheritance. The boy experienced art viscerally. He bought his first painting, a Darby Bannard, for $150 with cash he’d saved from a paper route, and was hooked.
When the boy got older, he dreamed of a museum. It would be a vibrant, open place in a forward-looking city that lacked pretension, a museum where he could build a cutting-edge collection and stage art from the margins—presenting non-Western exhibitions and contemporary work alongside local artists. The boy moved to an island in Greece, then to a village in Africa. All the while he fashioned this museum in his mind. Then, in 2009, Bessire found the Portland Museum of Art (PMA), or rather the museum found him. When the PMA hired him as director, it was the kind of happy ending that lives in a fable.
Here’s what you need to know about Bessire from the start: he’s humble and self-deprecating and immensely likable. He walks the halls of the PMA with the ease of a man who’s found his calling—able to draw on a vast, intricate catalogue of art that he maintains in his capacious mind. To be around Bessire’s sense of purpose is infectious.
This may be why everyone’s smiling when I visit the museum on a Wednesday in late May. Spring has finally committed itself to Portland, and sunlight streams down through an octagon cut high in the ceiling. The security guards, whom Bessire knows all by name, are smiling. So are the docents and visitors and other staff. Even the art seems to be smiling.
I’m not making this up. Winslow Homer is upstairs happily chatting with Andrew Wyeth. Marsden Hartley is talking to Marguerite Zorach. In a striking example of Bessire’s bent to shake up the permanent collection, he’s hung these Maine legends together in a long conversation. He says the museum “can’t sequester” its famous artists in separate rooms, offering simply an “encyclopedia experience” that traces only the chronology of the story. Instead, a small museum like the PMA needs to have all kinds of stories and voices going at once.
When Bessire and I sit down in his airy office overlooking a small slice of the Portland harbor, he confesses that he doesn’t like to talk about himself. Ever. It’s a modesty passed down from his genial Southern parents, who moved to New York from Kentucky in the 1960s. They raised Bessire and his older brother in a house in Brooklyn Heights, filled with mid-century Danish furniture and a whole lot of minimalist art.
His mother, Louise Bessire, has been an educator and political activist and chaplain. She became friends with renowned art critic Lucy Lippard at Smith College, and Lippard helped introduce the Bessires to the New York City art world. Bessire’s beloved father, Henry Bessire, who died in 2012, oversaw the development arm of Lincoln Center. He later became vice-president of development at Princeton University. He had a keen understanding of the vital role that art plays in the lifeblood of a city, and he knew the importance of making the ask—another genetic marker that shows up prominently in his son’s DNA.
Bessire tells me that “knowing when to ask and if to ask and how to ask,” is no small thing for a museum director. In fact it can mean everything. Let’s just say Bessire has a knack for it. Call him a cultural magnetizer. I’ve seen friends with no intention of letting money be wrested from their wallets and pocketbooks listen to one of Bessire’s electrifying art talks and decide “on the spot,” as one woman recently whispered to me on her way out of the museum the other night, “to give any money we can to the museum this year because Mark’s so inspiring.”
I ask him, Why art? Why museums? “Rarely,” he says and smiles, “do you get to have an unmediated experience with anything in your life anymore. But museums give you that. Yes, we’ve edited the collection. But if you stop intellectualizing it, and stand alone with the art, then it’s just you and Picasso.”
He’s not remotely talented as an artist himself, he claims. He adds that it can be a tricky thing for museum directors who want to be artists. “I’m lucky. I don’t have that conflicting pull that other directors might.”
Bessire family weekends in New York City were always about art. His family “made the rounds,” hitting their favorite galleries in SoHo and on 57th Street. In high school Bessire was crazy for football, lacrosse, and art. When he wasn’t on the playing field, he’d ride the subway to the Metropolitan Museum after school with friends and “wander around.” He went to New York University as an undergraduate and got a master’s degree in art history from Hunter College. Then all signs pointed to a doctorate—the first rung on the ladder of museum directing. But Bessire paused and asked himself one question: should he pursue the doctorate or something a little more radical?
J. Carter Brown, director of the National Gallery of Art, was an early member of what’s become an informal cabal of museum legends that dispenses advice to Bessire (Richard Armstrong at the Guggenheim Museum, Jim Cuno who runs the Getty Museum, and Adam Weinberg at the Whitney Museum of American Art). Brown told Bessire, thou shalt not get a PhD. Bessire needed to scale the ladder a different way and Brown told him to go get a master’s of business administration.
“I love numbers and I understood derivatives. But statistics almost killed me. The business degree was hard for the art history student,” Bessire says laughing. Maybe it was this vanguard move to the Columbia MBA program that allowed Bessire to deftly steer the PMA out of its recent financial trough. He took the job as director and immediately went “into triage mode.” He had to ask hard questions. For the PMA the abiding one was, “Do we retrench or do we grow.” Bessire chose growth. Thank goodness he stuck out that statistics class in graduate school.
Now he leans back in his chair and says, “Let’s be city planners for a moment and ask how we build a healthy art ecology in this city?” Bessire envisions a rich ecosystem—one in which a student can attend Maine College of Art (MECA) on Congress Street; when her work matures, she might stage a show at Space Gallery further up the road. Later, when her art’s in full bloom, she could land an exhibit at the PMA and the art food chain would be complete.
Take the exiled artist Ahmed Alsoudani, whose show, Redacted, will arrive at the PMA in the fall of 2013. Born in Iraq, he came to Maine by way of Syria and attended MECA, where his work “blew people away” and caught Bessire’s attention. Alsoudani’s paintings depict war and violence but are filled with bright, sometimes garish colors. They sell for hundreds of thousands of dollars on the international art market. In interviews, Alsoudani explains that he’s a Maine artist, because Maine is where he found support and discovered his voice. “This is how Maine impacts artists,” Bessire says. “It’s crazy. How many states can claim they’ve had such a role in so many artists’ lives?”
Bessire knew nothing about Maine when he crossed the old, gritty Veterans Bridge in his car in 1998. He came to Portland for a curator’s job at MECA’s Institute for Contemporary Art, after working for two years at the Fogg Museum in Cambridge, Massachusetts. Bessire says he “took one look at the piles of metal slag” in Portland’s working harbor and was smitten: “Here was a real working city.” He stayed at ICA for five years. In 2003 he became director of the Bates College Museum of Art in Lewiston, which he calls another dream job.
There’s a love story woven into this Portland museum fable. It starts back in 1987 when Bessire meets a student named Aimée while the two are completing fellowships at the Whitney. They marry in 1991. By 1994 they’ve moved to East Africa, where Aimée conducts field research for a PhD in art history at Harvard. The boy from Brooklyn with the wavy brown hair and the John Lennon glasses is living in the remote Tanzanian village of Bujora. He has deferred his museum dream. Or maybe he hasn’t.
“The choice to go to Tanzania,” Bessire says, “was never in question. It was easy. Aimée and I had fallen in love so quickly and were so lucky. She was trailblazing. East African art was under-researched then.” There was a rudimentary museum in the tiny village, and during the couple’s second year in Africa, Bessire won a Fulbright fellowship to study the community’s deep collection of dance and performance art.
Bessire and Aimée, who now teaches at Bates College and is a leading scholar on African art, have two daughters: Blakey who’s 15 and Clay who’s 12. Together the Bessires founded and run the nonprofit Africa Schoolhouse, dedicated to building schools in rural Africa for kids who lack access to education. The whole Bessire family has brought shovels to Tanzania twice to live and help build the program’s first school, which now serves over 600 children.
Back in Portland, Bessire continues to offer provocative exhibitions at the PMA, even under enormous budget stress. The recent Winslow Homer blockbuster show Weatherbeaten and the concurrent opening of Homer’s studio in Prouts Neck were crowning moments for the museum. He says, “The best paintings Homer did are the ones he did in Maine. We opened up his studio and were able to borrow some of these Maine paintings from other museums throughout the country. We’re a small museum here. Without Homer’s studio, it’s hard to trade with the big boys.” Renovating the studio has taken the PMA to another level nationally. “We have a much higher profile,” Bessire explains happily.
There’s a constant balancing act at the PMA—mixing the depth of the permanent collection with the vitality of new contemporary exhibits. In June, Shangaa: Art of Tanzania came to the museum, after opening at the QCC Art Gallery in New York, where it received a rave review in the New York Times. Bessire and Aimee both acted as advisors to the show.
A fear of stagnation—call it Bessire’s mausoleum anxiety—has also prompted him to call for an internal inventory of the PMA’s permanent collection so his team of talented curators can “really see what’s there.” The big news is that in 2015 everything will come down off the walls and be rehung. How’s that for a shake up?
I ask him if he has a secret agenda at the museum. He laughs and finally says, “That we can find the great shows in the margins—shows that should be in New York. And that we’re good and nimble enough to put them on here.”
Now it’s time to go see the art. We set out together from his office to walk the museum. The art entirely animates Bessire. There’s a Scott Peterman photograph. There’s an Alex Katz painting. There’s a Louis Dodd. Bessire can’t hide his pleasure. Here’s the New York City teenager again, responding to the art somewhere in his solar plexus.
On our way out, we pass under a painting called Woman Flying, by Katherine Bradford, that’s hung high, high on the wall overlooking the museum’s open lobby. It features a small, slightly plump woman soaring over a blue sky with a poignant red cape flapping behind her. She looks like an avant-garde superwoman. Where is she going? What is she leading us to? I don’t need to know the answer. I have an impulse to follow her wherever she’s headed.
I think this trust of mine is akin to the faith that Portland and the whole state of Maine has put in Bessire and the PMA. “Museums,” he says, “help tell us where we’re going as a culture.” He smiles up at the painting a little longer. “This is what we do. We help people go to other places.”