To say the least, 2011 was a colorful year for art in Maine. Yet despite all of the good and even great exhibitions and happenings in the arts, it was a year that will live in infamy.
As a critic, I prefer to write about art and its relation to the general viewing public rather than about people or institutions, but 2011′s intrigues and achievements deserve a place setting for historical perspective.
In some ways, the most important aspect of 2011 is the least notable: Maine’s plethora of excellent galleries and museums produced strong and worthy shows in spades. And despite our economically desiccated times, not only did the best galleries thrive, but several new spaces opened up, as well.
My favorite new gallery is Rose Contemporary in Portland. It blends Maine’s cutting edge with a heavy dose of New York City’s most up-to-date talent. I am also particularly interested in the Flat Iron Gallery, which shows many of my favorite Maine craft artists, including glassblower Ben Coombs and ceramicist Benjamin Lambert.
The most exciting development on Congress Street, however, is Space’s new gallery dedicated to visual arts.
The best phoenix story belongs to the Center for Maine Contemporary Art. Under the leadership of Suzette McAvoy, CMCA went from teetering on the edge of existence to producing some of the most handsome and interesting shows in the state.
When Addison Woolley Gallery moved to Washington Avenue, I thought there was no way it could survive. Yet, it has thrived. Moreover, with Bruce Brown organizing the shows there through March, it’s not to be missed. Brown is the best-informed and most enthusiastic curator of Maine contemporary art.
Maine now has three national caliber museums: the Portland Museum of Art, the Colby College Museum of Art and the Bowdoin College Museum of Art. All three have had recent major expansions and their collections are world class. So it’s no surprise they produced the most important exhibitions of 2011.
The most beloved show of the year, and with good reason, was “Edward Hopper’s Maine” at Bowdoin. Anyone who saw it won’t forget it.
It takes a couple of years for most major shows to gestate, and so 2012 likely will reveal the Bowdoin Museum’s new stripes under director Kevin Salatino, who arrived in 2009, and curator Joachim Homann. Salatino has an international vision and maybe the most effervescent intellect in the state, so my eyes are on Bowdoin to take the lead while Colby is mostly closed for an expansion and Mark Bessire, who moved over from Bates, creates new footing for the PMA — especially with the departure of curator Tom Dennenberg for the Shelburne Museum in Vermont.
The exhibition I thought was the most important was John Marin at the PMA because Marin was so crucial to American art and so thoroughly misunderstood and undervalued in Maine. Unfortunately, Marin — once voted the most popular artist in America — is no longer sufficiently appreciated because his work is complex, elusive, and based largely in a response to cubism, which is also difficult and largely misunderstood. Yet despite the strong works and the handsome installation, the curator for that show blew the chance to explain and de-mystify Marin’s work to Maine and national audiences.
Colby curator Sharon Corwin knocked one out of the park with “American Modern,” featuring the photography of Berenice Abbott, Walker Evans, and Margaret Bourke-White. Not only was it a great show, but Corwin’s scholarship made it one of the most important photography exhibitions of 2011 anywhere in the country. Unfortunately, we’re going to have to wait until 2013 for the museum to open the new wing designed by Frederick Fisher, a great architect who has already proven his mettle at Colby.
Unquestionably, the art story of the year was Paul LePage’s already infamous seizing of Judy Taylor’s “History of Maine Labor” mural. Most striking is that despite the international press about the issue, the real story is largely lost in a fog of misinformation and misunderstanding. The most embarrassing art event of the year, for example, was the panel at the PMA (including several people mentioned above) that didn’t even address who owns or paid for the mural (the federal government using Reed Act funds), Maine law, federal law (e.g., VARA), or the murky First Amendment exception known as “government speech” later invoked by Attorney General Schneider and LePage.
“Muralgate” has only become more interesting since LePage, a defendant in an active federal court lawsuit about the mural, completely reversed his story on national television.
As an art historian, I can tell you right now that “Muralgate” will be discussed in law and art history classes for generations. But while I think LePage’s seizing the mural was ethically and legally despicable, I have to point out that he actually increased funding for the Maine Arts Commission. Bizarre as it sounds, that is actually the feather in his job-creation hat.
Despite the fact that it’s hidden, that mural is not about to go away.
Interesting times, these are.
Freelance writer Daniel Kany is an art historian who lives in Cumberland. He can be contacted at: