October 24, 2013

A Word With the Boss: Bessire directs Portland Museum of Art like a moviemaker

Membership and attendance have grown as he oversees the details and the big picture.

By Edward D. Murphy emurphy@pressherald.com
Staff Writer

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.

click image to enlarge

Mark Bessire, director of the Portland Museum of Art, says he knew he wanted to live in Maine after his first visit here.

John Patriquin/Staff Photographer

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.

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