The Administrator Behind the Art
Samantha Butler, manager of TEMPOart in Portland and program assistant at Surf Point Foundation in York, makes supporting creative communities her practice.
Samantha Butler, wearing gold earrings that sparkle with her movements, looks around a Portland gallery taking in the artwork. “This is powerful,” she says of the paintings and photographs that address the topic of families impacted by incarceration. “There is so much strength behind it.” Those words could also be used to describe Butler herself. At 27 years old, Butler is an ascending creative force in the Maine artworld as an organizer and administrator at institutions that support creative work of all kinds. Now manager of TEMPOart in Portland and program assistant at Surf Point Foundation in York, she is a dynamic force to watch in a field that is rapidly becoming more visible and varied in Maine: the field of the creative professional whose practice revolves around supporting other artists and the visions of organizations.
Originally from Saco, Butler grew up in a household of furniture makers and was surrounded by the multifaceted world of creative enterprise during her upbringing. This early start positioned Butler to embrace an extended sense of creativity as part of a group. While attending Connecticut College, where she majored in sculpture and American studies, Butler interned at Running with Scissors, a Portland artist studio cooperative that provides access to equipment and community for its members. “From my inception into the art world, I was basically working with groups of people to execute big projects,” Butler says. “Every exhibition felt like a new collaboration. I got the enjoyment of creating something, of putting my hands to something, and feeling like I was able to help shape it into existence.”
After interning at SPACE Gallery in Portland, Butler began working as a preparator in conjunction with the nonprofit’s curatorial staff. “Painting the SPACE window was the first time I was in the public eye,” Butler says. “I come from a background in production design, so I love all of the physical labor it takes to create the impression that you get when you come in to see an exhibition or a performance.” In 2019 Butler joined the artist-run Portland space New System Exhibitions, which is powered by the creative vision of seven Bowdoin College alums. Impressed by their rigorous studio practices and their many ideas about how to run an artist space, she put her managerial skills to work to help these visions take productive form. Her professional background in arts administration and organization was able to sync up with the vision that the New System team was bringing to the project. This creative action was transformative in terms of both the work that she was able to accomplish and her own self-perception as a creative professional.
Butler has moved into more public roles that allow her to support the creative work of others and increase her own visibility in the field. As program assistant at the Surf Point Foundation, a York-based artist residency program, she works with executive director Yael Reinharz to help artists participate in the foundation’s nomination-based retreat series. Butler helped develop a lottery system to determine which nominated artists would receive a residency offer, an innovative process that puts artists first and encourages equity in a caring environment. Rather than relying on a jury system, which can create barriers and stress, Surf Point’s nomination system allows artists to know that their work is valued and that participation is, after their nomination, up to chance rather than judgement. Also innovative is the fact that Surf Point supports not only artists but creative arts administrators. “As an arts administrator, I feel really seen by that, and I get to encounter how frequent the overlap has become between artists and those who support them,” Butler says.
Reinharz recommended that Butler additionally take on the role of manager at TEMPOart, saying that she saw Butler as an administrative powerhouse who could bring her skills and ingenuity to the Portland-based public arts organization. As part of the ecosystem and creative community of TEMPO, which was founded in 2015 by artist Alice Spencer and is now board-led, Butler sees the public nature of the projects supported by TEMPO as an exciting shift. “The projects themselves are encountered independently of the artist, frequently by people who may never know about the artist even if they love the artwork,” Butler says. “The audience is really different with TEMPO than with a narrower visual arts community; it’s a really wide perspective.” The art itself leads past the personality of the artist and exists for people who are encountering it. One of TEMPO’s most popular installations, Gathering Stones, created by Jesse Salisbury in 2020, forms a focal point on Portland’s Eastern Promenade trail and has been the site of both performance art and spontaneous gatherings. The piece, composed of several large and carefully shaped granite and basalt stones, gently transforms the environment and brings people together by encouraging them to pause and connect. “Public art feels like a function of the city and the citizens…it almost feels like an offering,” Butler says. “There’s an opportunity for people to fall in love without expecting it.”
The latest TEMPO project is by Pamela Moulton, who will be working on a new temporary piece in Payson Park in the Back Cove neighborhood of Portland. The multipart interactive sculptural installation, which will be made from reclaimed ocean gear, will be up for at least a year, beginning in June 2022. Moulton is an American artist who lived and made artwork for many years in France, and her practice encompasses a playful, unusual combination of interactive sculpture, environmental and social narrative, community involvement in construction, and bright, radiant color. “I’m so excited for this project,” Butler says. “Pamela herself is such a unique and energizing person, who brings so much to the table. I’m excited about collaborating with her and with the community. Her theme of environmental justice is a great entry point for the public.”
Moving into the future, Butler is enthusiastic about working on further collaborations on multiple scales, with a vision of public art being more integrated into the landscape of Maine. With many public spaces that are ideal for innovative outdoor sculpture like Moulton’s piece, Maine is perfectly situated for both residents and visitors to find inspiration in outdoor spaces. “I think more art is great, and temporary public art is really exciting, in the ways that it provides opportunities to experiment and try things,” she says. With a vision of a future that includes many chances for people to happen upon art to fall in love with, as well as a personal practice revolving around supporting creative communities, Butler embodies the kind of intellectual force that can propel Maine art into a new place of openness and excitement.
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