BRUNSWICK – Each time John Bisbee knocks down a wall, his buddy Mark Wethli steps in behind him and builds a house.

The two friends form an ambitious partnership. They’re both artists. Both teach at Bowdoin College. They’re in a band together, and for the past three years, they’ve taken on the added task of running a gallery.

Three of them, actually.

They are the creative force behind the Coleman Burke Gallery at Fort Andross in Brunswick, which opened three years ago. They serve as co-directors and co-curators. Just for fun, and to see how thin they can stretch themselves, a year ago they decided to open a Coleman Burke Gallery in Manhattan as well.

It’s hard enough running a gallery in your own town. Try running one 350 miles away.

The pair also program the window space at Port City Music Hall in downtown Portland on Congress Street. The Portland space is the least taxing of their gallery efforts, requiring just six shows a year. But each space is unique, and demands attention. The Brunwick and Portland spaces are site-specific, meaning artists design installations specifically for the space. The Manhattan gallery is more traditional, with art hanging on walls — though there is a component that allows site-specific work.

Bisbee is the idea guy. Wethli gets things done.

“It’s New York, and I have an ego,” Bisbee said, only half-joking, as he talked about why the two decided to expand their art empire into the art capital of the world. “Mark was sleeping too much, and I could have none of that. I needed to find something more for him to do.”

The Manhattan space is at 638 W. 28th St., between 11th and 12th streets. The gallery is situated in an old train terminal building tucked along the Hudson River. It’s a former industrial space, not unlike the mill in Brunswick where the original use of the building has long since expired.

The gallery offers a chance for something new. As often happens in these spaces, artists come in and bring life, leading to a neighborhood rejuvenation.

It’s happened these last few years in Brunswick — the mill is populated by artist studios, and the Coleman Burke Gallery has become a destination, along with the Frontier Cafe next door, noted Anthony Gatti, who helps manage the former mill.

It’s also happening in Manhattan, though not because of Coleman Burke. Just a few blocks away, the trendy Chelsea galleries buzz with activity. Coleman Burke is trying to take advantage of the existing gallery scene.

Or, as Bisbee puts it, “The fungus is surging toward us.”

The Manhattan gallery is open just two days a week, on Fridays and Saturdays, and it’s not in an obvious location. Chances are, you wouldn’t just stumble into Coleman Burke. You have to know it’s there and seek it out.

Bisbee and Wethli are open to showing work by any artist, but they make no secret about promoting Maine artists in all of their galleries.

They readily admit that the New York gallery has been difficult to figure out. Being so far away is a particular challenge. They need boots on the ground.

They’re not making any money, though that was never their intent. But they would like to not lose money, which has been the case.

To be open more than two days per week in New York, they would have to pay someone to staff the place, which would be costly. So they’re trying to figure out their best strategy going forward.

One of their ideas involves forming a nonprofit organization and partnering with other Maine institutions, creating something of a Maine outpost in the Manhattan gallery district.

Wethli recently joined the board of the Center for Maine Contemporary Art in Rockport, and he mentioned that maybe CMCA might be interested in joining the effort. Similarly, the Maine Arts Commission might be interested in the prospects, or even Maine College of Art.

Half the challenge of being an artist is finding a place to show your work, so Coleman Burke offers something tangible and a real opportunity, particularly in New York.

“We got the door open, and we have a presence there,” said Wethli. “We know what we want to do. We just have to figure it out. We need to find some money.”

They need about $120,000 a year to make the New York gallery work, which is a relatively modest sum. Rent is not an issue. The guy who owns the mill in Brunswick also owns the terminal building in New York.

His name, not surprisingly, is Coleman Burke. Bisbee and Wethli named their galleries after him, as a tribute to his support of art and artists.

“We feel that we have created something important,” Wethli said. “We’re bringing the art of Maine to the world and the art of the world to Maine.”

 

Staff Writer Bob Keyes can be contacted at 791-6457 or at:

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