ROCKPORT — Suzette McAvoy took on the job as director of the Center for Maine Contemporary Art because of the challenge of turning around a beloved organization.

Two years ago, CMCA almost went under. The organization teetered on financial ruin, and when the doors closed on the 2009 season, many people in the Maine art community wondered if the Rockport gallery would reopen in 2010.

It did, and last year was a good year. The art community rallied behind the center and helped it through a difficult transitional period.

This year should be even better. CMCA opened for the season Saturday with four exhibitions and a new attitude.

McAvoy began her job last fall, and spent the off-season doing the things a director must do to ensure financial solvency and artistic excellence. She slashed the budget as much as possible, refinanced the mortgage on the building to free up cash, and infused the place with energy and direction.

“I took this job because I felt I could bring a name that people recognized within the state art community,” said McAvoy, former chief curator of the Farnsworth Art Museum in Rockland. “I’ve always been interested in CMCA, and this time seemed like the right time. I guess I liked the challenge of a clean slate.”

McAvoy is pulling double duty. She directs the center, and will curate the exhibitions. She is one of two paid staffers, which means she and her assistant, Paula Blanchard, do just about everything, along with a loyal team of volunteers. When I called one morning last week, McAvoy answered the phone on the first ring.

They spent the winter improving the building. Among the physical changes are new landscaping, a new exterior sign, a small self-serve cafe, reconfigured gallery spaces and an art lab that caters to families. McAvoy sensed that CMCA was perceived as an unfriendly place for children and families, and she hoped to address that perception by creating kid-friendly, hands-on activities.

She retooled the budget, paring all nonessential costs. The current budget is $334,000, which is down almost $200,000 from a few years ago. “We’re running as lean and as close to the bone as possible,” she said.

Admission to the gallery is a suggested donation of $5, so most of the center’s money comes from fundraising and grants.

McAvoy expects that people who care about the arts will visit CMCA to see what’s new. She hopes that when they do, they will notice the changes, physically and otherwise. She wants them to slow down and spend more time in the building, a century-old former livery stable and firehouse that sits on a ridge overlooking Rockport harbor.

It’s a beautiful building, and a nice spot for a gallery. Over the years, the building has sometimes been viewed as a negative. It’s full of awkward spaces, situated in a residential area with inadequate parking. But the center isn’t going anywhere.

It celebrates its 60th anniversary in 2012, and it will be in Rockport — and in its current location at 162 Russell Ave. — no matter what. Despite its deficiencies, real or perceived, McAvoy wants to make the building as inviting as possible.

“I believe one of our real assets is our building. A lot of people love the building. They love coming to a historic structure to see contemporary exhibitions,” she said. “I want to take advantage of that.”

McAvoy will rotate four exhibitions three times a year, for a total of 12. She’s off to a good start for 2011.

The first four exhibitions, which run through July 10, include work by Robert Hamilton, Elizabeth Cashin McMillen, Steve Mumford, Duane Paluska and Shannon Rankin.

“Counterpoint” pairs McMillen’s enigmatic paintings with Paluska’s wood sculptures. “Embedded” by Mumford is the first of two exhibitions at CMCA that are part of the statewide 2011 Maine Drawing Project.

Since 2003, Mumford has produced drawings and watercolors on site in Iraq and Afghanistan that document daily life in the war-torn region.

Rankin, recipient of the 2010 CMCA Biennial Juror’s Award, creates installations, collages and drawings using maps in her exhibition “Fathom.”

“Robert Hamilton: The Last Paintings” features work from the last years of Hamilton’s long painting career, before his death in Port Clyde in 2004.

There’s also an outdoor sculpture by J.T. Gibson and a collaborative installation by glass artist David Jacobson and poet Leonore Hildebrandt. Those will be on view throughout the 2011 season.

McAvoy understands that her challenge is rebuilding people’s confidence in CMCA.

“We have to attract back the people who have been members in the past, and we have to be aggressive,” she said. “It’s not an easy climate to raise money. But you can’t let that deter you. You just have to be more creative in how you do it.”

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

[email protected]