Special to the Maine Sunday Telegram

Southern Maine has long been a mecca for lovers and collectors of fine art. Most of York County’s coastal towns have at least one art gallery, and the Kennebunks and Ogunquit have dozens, often within walking distance of one another.

“It’s not like anyplace else,” says Nancy R. Davison, president of the Ogunquit Arts Collaborative, which administers Ogunquit’s Barn Gallery. “The quality is very high, and there’s a rich artistic history.”

In addition to quality, Davison notes wonderful diversity among the local galleries. Some feature a single artist, like the Scully Gallery in Ogunquit’s Perkins Cove, which has displayed and sold original paintings and reproductions by watercolorist Fran Scully since 1973.

Most, though, show the work of multiple artists, from a handful to dozens. Mast Cove Gallery, one of Maine’s largest, includes more than 80 artists on multiple floors of a Greek Revival home and its adjacent barn in Kennebunkport, with a sculpture garden outside.

Across the bridge in Kennebunk Lower Village, Maine Art Gallery features paintings by more than 20 artists on two museum-like floors, along with a variety of sculptures including outdoor pieces, and operates a separate gallery nearby for special shows highlighting the work of particular artists.

In Ogunquit, private galleries are joined by the Barn Gallery, the exhibit space for Ogunquit Art Association’s professional artists since 1959. Its changing exhibits are augmented by a full schedule of educational programs including workshops and artist’s talks.

Ogunquit has been a famed arts community since the 1880s, when Charles Woodbury took up summer residence, starting an art colony that grew to include several art schools as well as the Ogunquit Museum of American Art, founded in 1953.

Kennebunkport, although not established as an art colony, has been attracting artists for a similar period of time. Among its many galleries, artworks range from representational seascapes to still lifes and figural art to abstracts, including paintings and prints in various media, fine art photographs and sculptures.

Most popular are the seascapes, says David Fouts, whose Landmark Gallery on Ocean Avenue in Kennebunkport features about 15 painters including himself. “People like to bring a piece of Maine home with them,” he says. “And there’s something about the feel and quality of artists who paint here.”

Many of the artists in Fouts’ and other galleries also exhibit elsewhere, but typically sign a 50-mile-radius exclusivity contract. Many are known throughout the country, but their seacoast-inspired work may only be available here.

By nature, galleries are art stores, as opposed to museums dedicated simply to showing art. Nonetheless, most gallery owners welcome browsers who may only be visiting to view artworks, not with an eye to buy.

“A lot of people come every year, treating us like their museum,” says Fouts. “We make it a point to make them comfortable. I don’t use a sales pitch — they will be buyers if they want to be.”

Many of his visitors bring their children or grandchildren in “to introduce them to a real painter,” he adds. Davison, a printmaker who posted a “browsers welcome” sign in the gallery she owned in York for 23 years, calls the opportunity to meet a “living artist,” an important benefit of visiting a gallery.

Tracey Sharpe, who opened The Sharpe Gallery in Kennebunk Lower Village this year, also welcomes the non-buying public. “I want people to feel comfortable just coming in, relaxing and looking. There can never be too much appreciation of art,” she says.

Sharpe notes that, possibly because her gallery is next to a toy store and an ice cream shop, she gets many visits from parents with their children, whose preferences she enjoys observing.

“They tend to be attracted to abstract works,” she says, which she attributes to their unfettered imagination. “As adults we like to label everything. (But) with abstract pieces, every time you look you see something different.”

If looking should become buying, gallery owners have a wealth of knowledge to share, starting with assurance that original art doesn’t always come with a hefty price tag.

“You can buy a painting that fits your budget,” says Sharpe. “Less expensive doesn’t necessarily mean less valuable — it might be a smaller piece or one by an emerging artist. As artists become established, their work becomes more coveted and prices go up. It’s supply and demand.”

“You can get some very fine pieces for moderate prices,” adds Davison, whose own smaller linocuts might sell for under $100.

Although original art can be a valuable investment, most buyers are focused on personal enjoyment, Fouts emphasizes. For the minority who are looking at potential increases in value, he’ll help them examine an artist’s track record and potential, but “I don’t have a crystal ball. You can’t weigh art (like) gold — it’s an emotional commodity,” he says.

“If you like it and it’s going to make you happy, buy it,” Fouts advises. He notes that some buyers have particular goals in mind for where or how they’re going to hang a painting, while others have eclectic tastes and “will put different styles and frames next to each other, some with a wall like a gallery with paintings up to the ceiling,” he says.

Still others might follow the traditional rule of choosing art before decor. “They say you should buy a piece of art because of its beauty and then decorate around it,” says Sharpe.

Davison also advises buying art according to personal taste. “Art should be fun or make you think — you should have a response to it. The first thing it should do is make your heart beat faster,” she says. “When you take it home it will tell you where it should go, and it will refresh everything around it.”

Budding collectors can familiarize themselves with artists and their artworks by visiting a variety of galleries. “The more you go into galleries the more you learn what kind of art appeals to you,” says Sharpe. She also suggests visiting art fairs and student exhibits.

It’s possible to preview original art through printed and online catalogs, but artworks may look very different in person. At best, says Davison, photographs of paintings can give you an idea of whether or not you want to see the originals.

“There’s no substitute for the actual work of art,” she says, which shows the artist’s touch, the strokes of the painting and accuracy of color and light.

For the art lover, strolling from gallery to gallery in a quiet seacoast community viewing diverse artworks can be an idyllic experience. It’s not surprising that gallery owners see so many visitors year after year.

“Some come on their anniversaries,” Fouts says. “They’ll walk all over town, have lunch and pick a painting at the end of the day. It’s an adventure.”

Jennifer Brewer is a freelance writer who lives in Saco.