The Portland Museum of Art will extend its hours to 9 p.m. on the third Thursday of every month beginning in June, and some observers speculate the move might spawn a new art walk for the city that is more art-centric than First Friday and its street festival atmosphere.

The museum will introduce its Third Thursday program on June 19 with steel-drum music, a discussion about contemporary art in Maine and a social gathering in the museum’s sculpture garden on High Street.

The Institute of Contemporary Art at Maine College of Art also will extend its hours to 9 p.m. on third Thursdays. The museum usually has closed at 7 p.m. those nights.

“Thursdays are really busy in Portland,” said Portland Museum of Art director Mark Bessire. “It’s a restaurant night, a movie-date night, and we are adding another amenity to what you can do when you are downtown on a Thursday night.”

The change was inspired by feedback from visitors. “Museums have to be much more flexible and be open when people have time,” Bessire said.

MECA decided to go along with the museum to provide another chance for people to see art. First Fridays have become so crowded that people often skip the galleries in favor of activity on Congress Street. They dance with buskers, spend money on street vendors and drink in the bars, but they don’t buy much art, said Raffi Der Simonian, MECA’s director of marketing and communications.

“Third Thursday provides another opportunity to soak in all the great art in Portland, especially in the summer when it’s light out until almost 9,” he said.

Whether the city’s private galleries follow the museums’ lead is an open question.

Der Simonian hopes they will, citing what he called the “tight-knit” relationship among the galleries and the larger art community. “It’s a great opportunity to get art in front of more people,” he said.

Jennifer Hutchins, executive director of Creative Portland, which coordinates the First Friday Art Walk, said the Third Thursday programming provides an opportunity to begin an alternate art walk, but there are no formal plans to introduce a second art walk.

“The museum’s new program is clearly an opportunity to ask questions,” she said. “What’s next for the Arts District? What is needed? What does the community want? How can we build on and leverage our remarkable creative density?”

As the Friday art walk has become larger, gallery directors have mused that it has lost its focus on the visual arts.

“The art walk doesn’t really serve us as it used to,” said Aucocisco Galleries owner Andres Verzosa, who was instrumental in beginning the First Friday Art Walk. He called the Third Thursday initiative “a great idea” because it brings attention to the visual arts in Portland.

But he cautioned against comparing the two events.

Third Thursday is starting “with the muscle” of established institutions as a planned event, Verzosa said. It will have a different aesthetic and different feel than the art walk, he said.

Nonetheless, he hopes it succeeds. “Anything in the name of art sounds good to me. If there is room for me and something that would be fun to do, I would seriously think about participating,” Verzosa said.

The First Friday art walk began 11 years ago with a few galleries agreeing among themselves to stay open. It was a low-key event designed to give people an incentive to begin their weekend by strolling city streets and looking at gallery art. It was promoted casually and informally.

It benefited from free Fridays at the museum, which began in 1996 when the museum extended hours to 9 p.m. every Friday and dropped admission charges after 5 p.m. Nearly 20 percent of museum attendance occurs Friday nights, said Kristen Levesque, director of public relations. Regular admission will be charged for Third Thursday programs.

First Friday has become a monthly street festival, with performance and sidewalk art and many thousands of people filling downtown sidewalks. The art walk on June 6 is expected to be one of the year’s largest. It kicks off an expanded three-day Old Port Festival.

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

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