As director, Mark Bessire has overseen the growth of the Portland Museum of Art. It now has about 9,500 members – a record – and drew more than 177,000 visitors last year, the second-highest annual attendance in the museum’s history. Attendance was spurred in part by the high-profile Winslow Homer exhibit “Weatherbeaten,” which drew more than 25,700 people in December alone, setting a single-month record.
Bessire, who is paid $203,000, oversees a staff of about 100. He received an undergraduate degree from New York University, a master’s in art history from City University of New York and a master’s in business administration from Columbia University. The museum took in about $6 million last year, half in contributions, $2 million from its endowment and other sources, and $1 million from admissions, store sales and program fees.
Q: With a background in and around New York, how did you end up in Maine?
A: My first job here was at the Maine College of Art. We had just had our first baby and I came for an interview and felt like this was a great place for ourselves. I knew my wife was going to love it too, even though we had never been here before.
Q: What’s a typical day like for you?
A: It’s such an odd mixture of minutia and detail and then looking at the whole picture. We have a highly trained, extremely professional staff, and I find myself almost like an executive producer of a film, where you have all this talent and I enable them to do their jobs.
There are so many moving parts to a museum and I’m looking at the big picture and how everything is connected and interconnected. Even though the terms “vision” and “mission” are overused, in this economic climate, it’s like having a very good business plan that you and your board and members are invested in.
Q: How do you choose exhibits and major shows?
A: Museums really care for heritage and legacy, but we want to lead our audiences to the future as well. Right now we’re very contemporary this fall. We have Ahmed Alsoudani, the art superstar of the Maine College of Art, and he’s a good example of what we do. He was able to get out of Iraq through Syria, get to Portland, apply to Maine College of Art, and we’re able now to bring him back for his first major Maine show. He’s a wonderful American immigrant story, but he will tell you that if he hadn’t been in Maine and found his artistic voice here, he wouldn’t have been as successful.
Q: What are your personal highs and lows as director?
A: Were really proud of the restoration of the Winslow Homer studio. I think the exhibit we did in conjunction with the opening showed how great an artist he was when he lived in Maine. That was important to our institution because everyone knows Homer, but we can use his story and his relationship to Maine to then tell stories about others. You get a feeling for a continuity of the great artists living and working in Maine. That was just very gratifying for the whole institution. There are not many great artists’ studios available to be restored, and not many where you can see how they lived and how that affected how they made art.
The low point would be arriving at the bottom of the economy, where you enter a new job with such excitement and then you realize on day one that my job is to hold on to as many employees as we can. I thought that means there’s no time for vision. Then I realized you need vision when you’re at your toughest point, because that’s what focuses you and gives you a vision of where you’re going. I started thinking about what can we do now, to be shovel-ready, as the saying went, for projects. We spent a lot of time reviewing our governance and bylaws and organization chart, and did an internal assessment.
This institution, the strength is in its membership, and we realized how many people we had not spoken to directly. We decided that we needed to spend more time strengthening our development office to spend more time with our members and donors. We felt that if we spent more time with our members, that would help get us through that two- or three-year period.
Q: How are things now?
A: Right now, we’re in a good position. We have 9,500 members, and in the museum world, that’s really healthy. It means we reflect our community and lead our community. I feel that for a long time, the museum was working to get through the year and raise enough money to cover our operating expenses, and now we’re looking for a longer term. We’re collaborating with the symphony, Portland Stage and other organizations on a program to get each kid in the public school system to be able to go to one of our institutions each year. We’re in a position where we’re actively collaborating and expanding our base, and we can be a good pulpit for other institutions to get their word out in a way that benefits us and them.
We’re also interested in developing our area of Portland right now. Whatever you think about (the city selling part of) Congress Square, we’re excited that the Westin is putting the money into the old Eastland Hotel. That’s really good for this part of Portland. We’re working with all the communities on the intersection, and Free Street and Spring Street as well. We think we could help make a better corridor from the Old Port through to Congress Square, and we need to make our square a destination like the other ones. It’s an exciting area; we just need to really fill in those businesses in between. Last year, we had more 175,000 people through our doors, so we’re bringing people to this destination and we really want to see this neighborhood improve.
Q: If you could take any piece of the museum home, which would it be?
A: You can’t ask me that! The notion of taking something home? I can’t answer that, but I can tell you one of my favorite things here: I’m really proud of a section of the museum on our second floor where our chief curator put together a small collection of the best maritime paintings of Maine. There’s Homer’s “Weatherbeaten,” and an N.C. Wyeth, an (Edward) Hopper, a Marsden Hartley, a George Bellows – there’s just something about walking in that room and feeling the power of the role that Maine has played in art history. It’s just a treasure of a room. People walk in that room and say, “I know all these artists and I didn’t know they were from Maine,” or a member would say, “Oh, I love all these artists and this is what I think of when I think of Maine.”
Edward D. Murphy can be contacted at 791-6465 or at: