November 11, 2012

Bob Keyes: Library visits will become more artful

The Portland Public Library's sale of a valuable painting will help it do more with its impressive art collection.

The Portland Public Library is $81,000 richer today because of its decision to sell a valuable painting from its collection at auction a few weeks ago.

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The sale of the Edwin Lord Weeks painting “Along the Ghats, Mathura” netted the Portland Public Library $81,000. The money will be used to seed a fund to help care for the library’s art collection and fund future purchases.

Courtesy photo

click image to enlarge

The library’s best-known piece of art may be “The Little Water Girl,” which stands in the lobby.

Staff file photo

At the Barridoff Galleries fall sale, the library offered an oil painting by Boston-born painter Edwin Lord Weeks, "Along the Ghats, Mathura" (1883). The painting had been in the library's collection since it came in 1945 as a gift from the late Gov. Percival Baxter in honor of his father, James Phinney Baxter.

It hung in a library office for many years, said library director Steve Podgajny, but rarely was seen by the public.

It so happened that Barridoff had an unusual number of paintings by Weeks available at its recent sale, so the library decided this would be a good time to sell.

Smart decision.

The pre-auction value of the painting was estimated at $40,000 to $60,000. Podgajny obviously is thrilled that the library netted so much more.

"The outcome was very positive," he said with a smile.

The money will seed a fund in honor of James Phinney Baxter that will be used to care for the library's art collection and for future art purchases.

One does not necessarily think of the library as a repository for art. But it is. Since its founding in 1867, it has amassed a surprisingly substantial collection of work.

The collection is a little uneven, and is heavily weighted toward august-looking portraits of past Portland leaders and illustrations from children's books.

But it also has quite a few pieces of contemporary work, including paintings and sculptures.

Among the notable artists whose work is represented in the collection are Charles Codman, Dahlov Ipcar, Ashley Bryant, Franklin Stanwood and the Boothbay Harbor-based duo Gayle Fraas and Duncan Slade.

Perhaps the best-known piece in the collection is the fountain in the lobby facing out on Congress Street. The Lillian M.N. Stevens Memorial Fountain, otherwise known as "Temperance (The Little Water Girl)," features a barefoot girl with outstretched hands cradling a cup with water trickling into a basin.

"The Little Water Girl" came to the city as a gift from the Women's Christian Temperance Union in 1917 in honor of Lillian Ames Stevens, the second president of the temperance union.

Portland's sculpture is a copy of the original bronze fountain by English artist George Wade. He made the original in 1893 for the World's Fair in Chicago. Two other copies are in London and Detroit.

The public can expect to see much more of the library's 130-piece collection in coming months, said Podgajny, including a Codman painting that will soon be hung in public view.

Coupled with better exposure of the Lewis Gallery in the library's lower level, which hosts rotating exhibitions, the library is putting a sharper focus on the role of art in the daily experience of library users, Podgajny said.

"The art component for us really has become a very important part of what we think of as the experience of library users," he said. "It seemed to us we could have a much larger impact on the daily lives of the public going forward by taking better care of what we have and making more thoughtful decisions about what we acquire."

The Baxter fund will allow both of those things to happen.

"We're going to put that money in a fund that will be available to use at the discretion of the art committee," Podgajny said. "We will conserve some pieces that need conserving, whether it's cleaning, stretching or reframing. And we will think about the expansion of the artistic experience in the library itself. We will be looking, with a lot of discernment, particularly at the work of local artists."

Its recent renovation has allowed the library to bring more work out of storage. Future phases of the renovation will create more viewing opportunities for the 500,000 people who visit the library each year, Podgajny said.

The creation of the Baxter fund enables the library to think in broad terms about its collection and how it best serves the public.

"Art has certainly been a part of the library experience since the beginning," he said. "But what is striking now is the breadth of what we can bring out into the public areas. We want to do much more of that."

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

Twitter: pphbkeyes


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