A Museum for the 21st Century

The Portland Museum of Art's mission to reinvent itself and change the way people experience art in Maine.

The peaks of the dark form protruding from the ceiling down the hall emerge on the final few steps up to the museum’s second-floor galleries. The stalactite-like shapes made with seashells reach toward the floor, as if covered in a viscous tar oozing from above. Looking to the right I see a marble sculpture of a drowned pearl diver in the adjacent room, the smooth off-white body frozen in time.

The contrast of the two sculptures visible from the top of the stairs—one made two years ago by Portland artist Lauren Fensterstock and the other carved in 1858 by Maine sculptor Benjamin Paul Akers while living in Rome—illustrates a key piece of the Portland Museum of Art’s recent reimagining project.

The museum reopened in February after being closed for a month for renovations and to reinstall artwork throughout its galleries. For the reinstallation, the museum organized artwork in themes that feel less like chapters in art history textbooks and more like essay prompts, allowing commonalities between pieces of different media and eras to unfold naturally. Fensterstock’s Grotto and Akers’s The Dead Pearl Diver are part of different galleries, but the museum positioned them for visitors to make the connection, says deputy director and Robert and Elizabeth Nanovic chief curator Jessica May. “For just a moment you’re in a nineteenth-century fantasy of being in the sea, and then you’re looking at a 21st-century sculpture that is both cave-like and uses shells,” she says.

But the multi-year project, “Your Museum, Reimagined,” went beyond gallery themes and interesting sightlines. It included digitizing the more than 18,000 pieces of work in the museum’s permanent collection, publishing its first-ever catalogue of highlights from its collection, opening an art study and conference room, increasing the number of pieces on display, and finding ways to make the museum more accessible to more people. The museum opened its sculpture garden to the public in July, and each floor has a more in-depth computer kiosk to allow visitors to learn more about the artwork they see. “People can approach art the way they want to rather than the way we want them to,” says Judy and Leonard Lauder director Mark Bessire.

A Pillar in Maine’s Creative Economy

The Portland Museum of Art is the state of Maine’s oldest and largest public art institution. The museum and its primary structure, the Charles Shipman Payson Building, with its wide facade and semicircular openings at the top, anchor Portland’s Arts District. The museum also looms large across the rest of the state. A 2010 economic impact study of Maine museums found that of the roughly 442,000 people who visited the 14 museums participating in the study in 2009, more than a third went to the PMA. The study, prepared for the Maine Arts Commission, estimated that the spending impact of the art museum visitors totaled nearly $148 million, including $71 million in direct spending.

Congresswoman Chellie Pingree, who represents Maine’s southern district, says it’s only been in the last decade or two that people have came to understand the impact the arts have on the state’s economy. It used to be viewed more as an activity for the wealthy, she says. “People just didn’t see it as an economic driver. Now you go to First Friday Art Walk [in Portland], and there are thousands of people in the streets on a cold February evening.”

She applauded the overall vision that Bessire, who became director in 2009, has brought to the Portland Museum of Art and the museum’s effort to stay current. Of the $2.7 million raised for the Portland Museum of Art’s reimagining project, about half came from out of state, including a $400,000 grant from National Endowment for the Humanities. “It’s always had a prominent role in the arts,” Pingree says of the Portland Museum of Art. “As the arts community has grown and as the value of arts and culture has become so much more important to the overall economy of Maine, it’s nice to see the Portland Museum of Art has upped its game in a sense.”

Discussions about the reimagining project began about five years ago, says Bessire. Portland Museum of Art (PMA) staff visited other museums that had completed gallery or collection reinstallations, including the American Wing at the Metropolitan Museum of Art, the Detroit Institute of Arts Museum, and the Brooklyn Museum. “Audiences had gotten used to a museum with a capital M telling its story,” Bessire says. “Now our museum likes to use a smaller story.” They came away with the concept of basing galleries more on ideas and themes and embracing the mixing of media. Making the galleries more approachable is part of the museum’s effort to break down barriers for the public, especially first-time visitors.

“I think we’re finding that certainly teachers and kids and families are having a much more welcoming experience because it’s an open conversation,” Bessire says. “Whatever you come to the museum with, it’s validated, rather than being told, ‘No, that’s not right.’” For older audiences, there are more interesting juxtapositions between the artwork next to each other, he says.

Art for Everyone

To May, the opening of the David E. Shaw and Family Sculpture Park in the Joan B. Burns Garden in July represented a key component of making the museum more accessible to the public. “Even though some people simply aren’t interested in museums, everyone is welcome,” May says. “We need to be looking for every possible moment in which we reaffirm the value of being open and welcome. And I think having unticketed spaces is part of that. Not every space can be unticketed and not every space should be unticketed, but some spaces should be.”

Celeste Roberge’s Rising Cairn, a crouched figure made of a galvanized steel frame filled with smooth stones, has been located in an outdoor green space on the High Street side of the PMA since 2000. The museum acquired Anthony Caro’s Moment in 2012 and John Bisbee’s Hearsay in 2016, but the public hadn’t been allowed to access the space, apart from events. The unveiling of Jonathan Borofsky’s Human Structures (24 Figures Connected), colorful, blocky figures stacked on each other and holding hands, marked the public opening of the sculpture park. “There are few acquisitions that change an institution,” May says. “And the Caro is that, and the Borofsky, by the nature of what it is, it changes us as an institution.” The space, now accessible by an open gate along High Street, is free for anyone to visit during museum hours May through December. “I feel like it’s really important to have places where you’re not quite sure if you’re in the museum or in the city,” she says. “Amazingly for a city that to my mind is astonishingly beautiful, we don’t have a lot of park space in Portland, especially in town.”

The Expected and the Surprises

Inside the museum, May brings me up to a second-floor gallery with a theme of “The Great Atlantic.” Around us are paintings largely depicting Maine, including work by Rockwell Kent, Mardsen Hartley, and Winslow Homer, whose Weatherbeaten painting hangs at the center of a blue wall. “Two thirds of the people who come to the museum are going to see this gallery first, and we wanted to have this fabulous rush of what it means to have arrived in Maine, to be with the painters, to see the Maine light,” May says. “So we weren’t totally focused on making sure this gallery was, you know, a kind of proper history of marine painting; we wanted a rush of feeling, and there’s no better way to charge people up than with a great, late Homer.”

As May and I continue through the museum, May explains the different themes of the galleries, while detailing the underpinnings of the museum’s philosophy. On the third floor is a gallery called “Rediscovering Nature,” which displays work from artists who were trained in New York or had experience in urban art markets, yet found inspiration in the natural world in the 1950s and 1960s, often in Maine, including Alex Katz, Lois Dodd, and David Driskell. Some of the styles differ—there is even a Dale Chihuly blown-glass piece—but all the work captures a feeling of embracing nature with a modern perspective. “I think sometimes we get criticized for not being Maine enough or not being away enough,” May says, “but actually we’re trying to find a balance so we can be really consistently true to our community and to telling a story about Maine that feels true to broader art history.”

Before I leave the museum, May points out a glowing hole in the wall near the Konkel Family Welcome Center. As I get closer, I notice that the hole, no more more than a few inches wide, has a round window. Bending over to look inside, I see a detailed diorama of a nature scene, some mushrooms, a branch, and moss, as if from the perspective of a small critter. “Wanting people to feel like they were immersed in art was one of the drivers for us to be looking at these kind of odd angles and odd spaces because we wanted the experience of art to continuously surprise and delight you,” May tells me. Surprise is an important piece, she says, because it suggests that we don’t only look at art in traditional ways. “I like it when art can kind of catch you off guard and you can have an experience that you’re not anticipating and that you’re not already in art mode for.”