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

(Continued from page 1)

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

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:

emurphy@pressherald.com

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