March 12, 2010

Art museum names its new director


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Gordon Chibroski

Staff Writer

Mark Bessire, a self-described ''museum geek'' with deep roots in the Maine art community, was named the new director of the Portland Museum of Art on Thursday.

Bessire, 44, lives in Portland and is now the director of the Bates College Museum of Art in Lewiston. Previously, he was director of the Institute of Contemporary Art at the Maine College of Art in Portland. He will leave Bates on Feb. 13 and begin his duties at the Portland Museum of Art on March 2.

In an interview, Bessire said he is ready for the challenge. He described his management style as ''horizontal.''

''As director, my job is to enable my colleagues to do their best. I need to listen to them and work with them to allow them to do their jobs as well as they can with the resources we have,'' he said.

''My first priority is to listen and learn. We're in a tough economic climate right now, so it's a good time to be planning and to set our focus on the future. When the economy is bad, it's a good time to look at the mission and strengthen it.''

The museum's board of trustees selected Bessire out of a large pool of candidates from around the country, said board President Hans Underdahl. The trustees hired him because ''he exudes leadership ability. He really impressed us,'' Underdahl said.

''As the search process went on, we decided it was irrelevant that he was local. What the institution needs going forward is someone with a great mix of the scholarly side of it and a strong business background. Mark's got it.''

Bessire has a master of business administration degree from Columbia University, a master's in art history from Hunter College and a bachelor's degree from New York University. He was a Helena Rubinstein Fellow at the Whitney Museum of Art in New York and a Fulbright Fellow in Tanzania.

He is a native of Brooklyn, N.Y.

He and his wife, Aimee, live in Portland's West End. Their two children, ages 10 and 8, attend Reiche Elementary School.

Bessire's biggest challenge as director will be steering the museum through a period of transition during difficult economic times, observers said. A quarter-century after opening its modern Payson wing at Congress Square, the museum faces a host of projects that will shape its image and stature well into the future.

In recent years, it expanded its holdings by purchasing Wins-low Homer's seaside studio at Prouts Neck in Scarborough, acquiring the 1832 Greek Revival-style Clapp House adjacent to the museum and buying a parcel of abutting land at 87 Spring St.

Bessire will be responsible for integrating those properties into the museum's mission, while maintaining its status as the state's largest museum. It attracts about 150,000 visitors each year, and operates with a budget of about $4.5 million and an endowment of about $30 million.

The museum employs 46 people full time. It is Maine's oldest museum, founded in 1882.

Bessire succeeds Daniel E. O'Leary, who retired last May. Thomas Denenberg, the museum's chief curator, served as acting director in the interim.

Underdahl praised the work of Denenberg during the search.

''He really did a good job -- in fact, he did two jobs. Tom took on the responsibility of being acting director while continuing in his curatorial duties,'' Underdahl said.

Bessire is known for his background in contemporary art and for making bold programming decisions. At MECA and at Bates, he mounted numerous exhibitions focused on contemporary artists, including Ike Ude and William Pope.L.

He also organized an exhibition about cryptozoology, featuring the collection and ideas of Portland scholar Loren Coleman, and an exhibition about the changing face of China, as told through that country's emerging and established artists.

At Bates, he administered the college's large collection of artwork by Maine modernist Marsden Hartley.

As museum director in Portland, he intends to encourage the museum's curatorial staff to continue to exhibit contemporary art, while finding new ways to showcase its vast collection of American and European paintings from the 18th century to the present.

The museum's collection is particularly deep in regard to Maine artists, including Homer, Hartley, John Marin, Louise Nevelson, Andrew Wyeth and others.

Bessire said that under his leadership, the museum will never waver from its mission of articulating the role of Maine in American art history, nor will it back off from its commitment to showing works by contemporary artists living and working in Maine.

''Traditionally, Maine is known for its landscape. People came to Maine for its light and landscape. Now, Maine is known as a place where artists live and make art. There is still something about the light and landscape that is important to contemporary artists, even if they are not making landscape paintings,'' he said.

Bessire's hiring was widely praised.

Portland gallery owner Andres A. Verzosa noted that Bessire regularly attends the city's First Friday Art Walks, and is known about town for being supportive of the arts community. ''He is young and hip, and committed to Portland. I think it's very exciting,'' said Verzosa, who owns Aucocisco Galleries.

Jim Cuno, director of the Art Institute of Chicago, has known Bessire for a decade, since Bessire interned at Harvard University while Cuno was there.

He said, ''Mark will bring vitality, collegiality, a commitment to community and strengthening an already strong institution. It's only promising for the Portland museum, and I congratulate the museum and congratulate Mark. It's a perfect marriage.''

Jill Reich, dean of faculty at Bates, said the college was sad to see Bessire leave but happy that he is staying in Maine.

''He's done some wonderful things for Bates, our museum and our community, here on campus and in Lewiston,'' she said.

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

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