ROCKPORT – The Center for Maine Contemporary Art is back in the headlines this month, for all the right reasons.

The art center, which has championed contemporary art in Maine since 1952, recently reopened after flirting with financial doomsday. The center closed its doors last fall after its board dismissed the staff, citing a lack of resources to sustain the center over the winter.

For some time, speculation abounded that the center would not reopen at all. But it has, and with style.

Through July 17, the center perched high above Rockport Harbor is featuring an array of Maine artists in the CMCA juried biennial. More than 40 Maine artists have work in the show, which is rich in color and energy.

Not only does the biennial assert itself as a show strong on Maine’s painting tradition — clearly, many of the artists here know how to move paint — it also reminds us of the importance and resiliency of CMCA itself. Maine would be a poorer state culturally if this place, with its creaky, uneven floors and seacoast charm, were to close for good.

But we have hope.

During the winter, the center recruited new board members, hired a new executive director and refocused its commitment as an artist-first organization by narrowing on its central mission of advancing contemporary art in Maine.

The center was founded as an artist co-operative, and artists have always been the backbone of its operation. reopening with an exhibition as inclusive and democratic as the biennial, CMCA makes a statement to the Maine art community that artists come first.

At the opening a few weeks ago, more than 275 people filled the gallery — an impressive turnout under any circumstance. Everybody in attendance certainly was conscious of the center’s bad moment last fall when the board announced the temporary closing. The announcement, and the manner in which the staff was dismissed, made some people very angry.

For weeks and months over the fall and into the winter, CMCA was the target of seething anger among many artists in Maine. That ill will may never go completely away, but the wounds are healing.

Bruce Brown, the center’s longtime curator who retired a few years ago, is well aware that bad feelings still simmer. As a curatorial consultant, he helped the center organize, launch and the mount the biennial. He recruited artists to submit work for the show and assisted the three-judge jury in its task of selecting work.

In all, 654 artists submitted work. The jurors chose works by 41.

“Let’s be honest — 654 is a really great number,” Brown said last week. “That is a substantial number. But at the same time, I do know there were artists who didn’t apply because they thought they were wasting their time, or perhaps they thought the show was not going to actually happen. There were others who simply wanted to boycott.”

Linda Murray, a landscape painter from Bath, said her inclusion in the show satisfies a long-held personal goal. “It’s a milestone for me to be included in an exhibit with other contemporaries who I have admired for some time, such as Janice Anthony, Connie Hayes and my current favorite, Nicole Duennebier,” she said in an e-mail.

“This year’s biennial opens a new chapter for the CMCA and I am proud to be part of that rebirth.”

A better barometer of how artists feel about the center and its future may well be Brown’s success at recruiting them to donate work for CMCA’s annual auction, scheduled for Aug. 1 at Owls Head Transportation Museum.

The auction is a major fundraiser for the center, which in the best of times operates with no margin for frivolity.

So far, so good. Brown predicts there will be 100 works available in the auction.

“We will have more gifts than ever before, and many of them are rather substantial work. There is a lot of little work in a way, but also a lot of big work,” he said.

Brown has no intention of overstaying his welcome. He is back at CMCA as a volunteer because the board asked him to help out during difficult times. Out of loyalty for the center and concern for its future, Brown, who recently turned 70, put on hold his active life in Portland and returned to the midcoast for the summer.

The center’s board has hired former Farnsworth Art Museum curator Suzette McAvoy as its new director, but she won’t begin her duties until the fall. When she arrives, she will run the center as an administrator with artistic oversight, freeing up Brown to return to his beloved Portland.

In the meantime, he will stay as long as needed, working alongside the center’s only paid staffer, manager Paula Blanchard, who is responsible for handling every noncuratorial task at CMCA.

Brown is happy to help facilitate the biennial and auction, but he wishes his presence here wasn’t necessary.

“I sit here at my desk and I realize why I’m here, how it is that I came here,” he said, “and I wish it were otherwise.”

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

[email protected]