The art world was watching, and Mark Bessire worried the Portland Museum of Art wasn’t ready for the attention.
In summer 2010, one year into his job as director of Maine’s most prestigious cultural institution, Bessire made a decision that would define his leadership style. The museum was trying to raise money to renovate the prized Winslow Homer studio at Prouts Neck in Scarborough. Despite being in the middle of the worst recession since the Great Depression, Bessire determined he needed more money and more time.
He delayed the studio’s opening and increased the fundraising goal.
Responsibility for the project and the accompanying exhibition, “Weatherbeaten,” fell to Bessire. Success would establish his credibility in the community and his reputation as a leader. Failure would embarrass the institution and its board and tarnish the museum’s hard-won stature as one of the country’s leading regional museums.
Bessire rallied his staff around the idea that the museum’s financial challenges – its endowment had fallen by a third in 2009 – presented the best opportunity for growth, a chance to appeal for larger gifts from national donors at a time when individual donations had shrunk with the poor economy.
That summer, the museum landed two key gifts, a $100,000 grant from the Henry Luce Foundation and an anonymous foundation gift for $500,000. More than feeling like he hit the jackpot, Bessire felt relief.
“Getting those two foundations on board meant everything to the museum,” Bessire said in an interview at his spacious third-floor office in the museum’s McLellan House, overlooking Spring Street. “It was like, ‘We can do this.’ That was the moment. We jump-started the campaign, and then the economy started coming around again. By then, we had strengthened our message, re-engineered our budget and we were ready to go.”
Now with five years on the job, Bessire, 49, has positioned himself as a visionary leader of the state’s most influential cultural institution and intends to use his clout to drive the conversation about the future of Congress Square and the city’s Arts District, as well as the museum’s role and responsibility in reshaping the neighborhood.
The Homer studio opened to accolades in fall 2012, after the museum raised nearly $11 million, blowing past the original $8.5 million goal. The studio was secured as a lasting treasure of American art. Meanwhile, the museum maintained its string of balanced budgets, now at 20 years and counting. Its endowment, which bottomed out the winter that Bessire began his job, has recovered to nearly $30 million, just a few million shy of its all-time high.
RUFFLING SOME FEATHERS
Under his leadership, the museum has set attendance records and increased membership, targeting singles and young couples. He has retooled the museum’s curatorial and development departments, re-imagined the museum shop as an outlet for arts and crafts by Maine artisans, and rebranded the museum with a logo that suggests contemporary art has a place alongside the works of Homer, Robert Henri, Rockwell Kent and three generations of Wyeths.
He has alienated some in the art community who see his leadership style as arrogant. He angered many by changing the method and rules for the museum’s Biennial exhibition this past winter, justifying his actions as an opportunity to mount a better and more focused exhibition, and raised eyebrows by instituting a $5 surcharge that has become standard for major exhibitions. He justified the surcharge to offset the costs of insuring the valuable Homer paintings that came to the museum as part of the landmark “Weatherbeaten” exhibition. It has remained in place for most major exhibitions since.
Jazz lovers are still upset that he ended the museum’s Sunday Jazz Brunch more than three years ago. Bessire argued that music wasn’t related to the museum’s primary mission, and the weekly event created extra work during a time of financial stress.
He counts among his accomplishments his ability to build consensus and points to collaborations with Maine College of Art, Space Gallery and the Telling Room as evidence of his inclusive spirit.
John Isacke, a member of the museum board, said Bessire’s greatest accomplishment has been his stewardship of the museum during challenging times while emerging as a community leader.
“I think Mark has performed better than we could have expected when we hired him,” said Isacke, who as past board president worked closely with Bessire on the museum’s finances. Bessire is a visionary, he said, who can lead people of various interests through the practical work necessary to bring his vision to fruition.
HE FELL IN LOVE WITH THE CITY
Bessire came to Maine in 1998 to curate the Institute for Contemporary Art at Maine College of Art. After five years at the ICA at MECA, he took the job as director of the Bates College Museum of Art in Lewiston.
Bessire is a New Yorker through and through. He grew up in Brooklyn, got his undergraduate degree at New York University and a master’s in art history at Hunter College in Manhattan. He earned a master’s in business administration from Columbia University.
Some of his business sense he got from his father, the late Henry Bessire, who died in 2012. His dad helped raise money for Lincoln Center in New York and Princeton University.
“When I have options on the table, I consider what my dad might have done,” he said.
Bessire fell in love with Maine when he got here, and especially Portland, which he described as “the perfect city.” He and his wife, Aimee, have two daughters and live in Portland’s West End. One daughter is an eighth-grader at King Middle School and the other attends Portland High half time and is home-schooled.
Bessire co-coaches a girls’ lacrosse team, a sport he learned to love while attending Riverdale Country School in the Bronx. He doesn’t have time for sports anymore, but practices yoga at home in the morning. He walks to work nearly every day.
It’s likely Bessire will be here for a while. His contract, which pays him an annual salary of $205,000, runs through next winter. Isacke said the board is negotiating a five-year extension.
“I’m confident he will stick around,” Isacke said. “I feel like Mark believes that he still has a lot to accomplish with the museum, and the board is confident in him.”
As Bessire looks forward to the next chapter in his tenure, he hopes to play a larger role in reshaping the museum’s neighborhood, which he feels has been neglected.
The museum recently hired an architect to survey its buildings and grounds and design a campus master plan, which will position the museum for the future and set an agenda for the neighborhood by declaring the museum’s intentions, Bessire said.
Congress Square Plaza, which faces the museum across from Congress Street, is the subject of citywide debate. The City Council authorized turning most of the public square over to the Westin Portland Harborview hotel for private development, but a citizen initiative forced a June 10 vote. Voters will decide whether to enact an ordinance that would reverse the council’s decision to sell two-thirds of the plaza.
“We feel very strongly that Congress Square has been forgotten,” Bessire said. “Longfellow Square, the Old Port and Monument Square are just thriving, and Congress Square is not.”
Bessire and the museum board favor turning the square over to private development and changing traffic patterns for the benefit of pedestrians. That includes slowing traffic on High Street and improving Spring Street so it serves as a conduit from the Old Port to the West End for pedestrians and motorists alike.
Regardless of the outcome, Bessire wants to be sure the museum’s voice is heard. With 175,000 annual visitors, the museum likely will fare well regardless of the outcome of the Congress Square debate and other decisions affecting traffic flow. But Bessire doesn’t take the museum’s financial health and popularity for granted.
Steve Bromage, executive director of the Maine Historical Society, and several other city cultural leaders interviewed for this story say Bessire has earned the right to exert the museum’s influence in city affairs.
“The museum’s visibility in Portland and beyond has increased,” Bromage said. “I think its success is significant to the life of this city. It says, ‘World-class things happen here,’ and that’s a point of pride.”
AN IMPACT ON EXHIBITIONS
Finances aside, the area where Bessire has left his biggest mark is of greatest concern to the public: exhibitions. He reshaped the curatorial department by hiring his own team, and he has taken on three exhibitions that speak directly to his personal interests: “Are You Really My Friend?” by Maine photographer Tanja Hollander, which explored friendships in the Facebook age; “Redacted,” a painting exhibition by MECA graduate Ahmed Alsoudani; and “Shangaa,” which focused on the traditional arts of Tanzania, a part of the world where Bessire and his wife have spent considerable time and run a nonprofit dedicated to building schools in rural Africa. Aimee Bessire studied African art as part of her doctorate at Harvard and is a leading authority on the subject.
He also launched a recurring contemporary art series, called “Circa.”
His hands-on involvement in the curatorial department was not a deliberate choice, he said. One curator left for a better job, another retired and a curatorial assistant enrolled in graduate school.
“Suddenly, we needed shows,” Bessire said. “I like doing it, but it was more out of necessity. In a perfect world, I would do a ‘Circa’ show every couple of years and I would do something larger every four or five years.”
EXTENSIVE CURATORIAL MAKEOVER
Bessire has hired two curators, Karen Sherry as chief curator and curator of American art, and Jessica May, curator of contemporary and modern art. The museum is searching for a curator of European art to replace Margaret Burgess, who left the museum last fall.
Along with Sherry and May, Bessire is leading an effort to revisit all the work in the museum’s collection and reinstall every gallery. They are one year into the process. By midwinter 2016, every exhibition space in the Payson Wing and Sweat Galleries will have received a curatorial makeover, with new art and new wall text from the perspective of the new curators.
The effort has two purposes. He wants the curators to get to know the museum’s collection from the inside out, and he wants visitors, especially members, to have new experiences when they visit the museum. “Every time you go upstairs, you will see a new painting,” he promised.
The exhibition spaces in the Sweat Galleries, which reopened after a major renovation in the early 2000s, will get rotating shows. Visitors also can expect to see art hanging in the historical McLellan House, which has mostly been used to highlight architecture and period interior design.
Since fall 2012, the museum has mounted nearly a dozen shows, including two blockbusters: the Homer “Weatherbeaten” show and the traveling exhibition of art from the William S. Paley collection. There also has been an overdue exhibition focused on the paintings of New York and Maine painter Lois Dodd, a photography exhibition documenting the Maine blueberry harvest, an architectural installation, and work from a newly acquired photography collection, as well as the Biennial and other smaller shows.
The pace and range of shows was deliberate, Bessire said. The museum received a lot of attention after the opening of the Homer studio and “Weatherbeaten,” and it was important to maintain both energy and enthusiasm.
Few shows generated as much controversy as the Biennial this past winter. For the first time, the museum curated the show itself, instead of bringing in a panel of independent jurors to select work. In addition, some artists were encouraged to submit work, circumventing the traditional application process.
Bessire wanted to give his contemporary art curator, who was new to the Maine art scene, the chance to make a statement and exercise her vision.
Many artists complained that the museum changed the rules after the application process began and favored certain artists. When some questioned the fairness of the process, they say their phone calls and emails were ignored and their voices disregarded.
Bessire defends the museum’s decisions as the best outcome for the public.
“At some point, someone has to make a choice,” he said. “The strength of Maine art demands a better show. It does not want a flea market. The work that is being made here is too strong to just put up everything. Our audience expects the Portland Museum of Art to put out the best possible Biennial. … The worst thing you can do is just do what you used to do because you think it works.”
‘ENERGETIC, AND A LITTLE BIT YOUTHFUL’
Few people are watching the exhibition space more closely than board member and donor Scott M. Black. His collection of European art, on long-term loan to the museum, forms the backbone of the museum’s collection and includes paintings by luminaries such as Matisse, Renoir, Leger and Monet.
He appreciates the diversity of the shows in recent years, and he applauded Bessire for taking chances, such as with the exhibition on African art, which is something the museum might not have done a few years ago. Bessire is nothing if not bold, Black said.
“He’s energetic, and a little bit youthful,” he said.
After a brisk walk to work last month, Bessire paused at the back door of the museum, too excited about the latest news at the museum not to divulge it.
A donor, he said, had given money toward the purchase of the Cor-Ten steel sculpture “Seven” by Robert Indiana, who lives on Vinalhaven island and is best known for his “LOVE” sculpture.
Measuring 8 feet tall by 8 feet wide and depicting the numeral, “Seven” would make a perfect addition to the plaza in front of the museum, he said. The museum’s legal address is 7 Congress Square. The sculpture would create a lasting link to an important Maine artist and enable the museum to plant its flag in the heart of downtown.
Now, all Bessire had to do to make it happen was raise a little more money.
Staff Writer Bob Keyes can be contacted at 791-6457 or at: