If you are not a routine visitor to the Portland Museum of Art, the changes made during the recent three-week closure may be easy to overlook.

Ticket prices have gone up from $12 to $15, though the museum has committed to stop charging a $5 surcharge for rotating exhibitions in the first-floor gallery. Inside, the most obvious visual difference was the removal of a portable wall from the fourth floor gallery, allowing visitors to see the entire width of the architecturally outstanding building as they step out of the elevator.

These, among many other changes, are part of the multiyear effort to redesign the museum, called “Your Museum, Reimagined.” And while the first steps are more subtle than stupendous, they seem to indicate museum leaders are setting out in the right direction.

The glass wall into a study room across from the basement café may feel intended to keep you, the average visitor, out. But combining that study room with the museum’s new online catalog could be a game-changer not only for academics, but for “we, the public.”

Now, you can look up an artist online and not only see what the museum owns, but whether the work is on display. I looked up “Kuniyoshi” and immediately saw the museum owns six items and that two are now on view. If something you want to see is not on display, you can set up an appointment to view the work in the study room. Anyone can do it. How cool is that?

The museum had offered an interactive family space during certain exhibitions. But as a parent who has taken his children to museums many, many times, I know that making it a fixed neighbor of the café will be a most welcome change for families. And the current rocky seascape coloring activity is slick enough for adults (the café also serves wine).

The change that impressed me most, however, will likely make a huge difference to many while being noticed by few: improved wayfinding. Wayfinding is a museum term for the permanent labeling on walls that tells visitors how to navigate the museum. It’s not flashy signage. It’s the simple stuff that is supposed to be clear and friendly: Bathrooms are this way! The café is down there. This exhibition continues in the McLellan House – which is that way.

This is important: The path to the L.D.M. Sweat Galleries and the McLellan House, after all, looks like a back hall that dead-ends at the far wall of the undersized bookstore at the back of the main building. The Portland Museum of Art is a difficult museum to navigate, and while there is much significant architectural work that needs to be done to fix this, the improved wayfinding proves the administration has a bead on the problem.

Headlining the reopening are three new exhibitions. Culled from the museum’s collections, “Masterworks on Paper” might not draw a star-struck crowd, but it’s a nicely curated show that fits the goal of showcasing and expanding access to the collections.

Duncan Hewitt’s “Turning Strange” is an extraordinary exhibition of contemporary sculpture that begins in the museum’s best space, the third floor gallery, with its soaring, light-flooded and newly painted ceiling. “Turning Strange” actually continues in the McLellan House, so the real test of that new wayfinding will be how seamlessly new visitors move from the gallery in the main building to the second part of the show.

“Modern Menagerie” is most notable for its now-open space on the fourth floor and the exhale of relief that the Rose Marasco show is finally down. Marasco is a terrific photographer, but that show, overstuffed and poorly installed, was up for about a year – too long for the work of a contemporary local. (How about three shows by local artists? Four months is plenty long.) As an excuse to showcase Bernard Langlais’ jangly herd of wooden animals, “Menagerie” is an obvious concept, but it features excellent works by, among others, Will Barnet, Neil Welliver and Dahlov Ipcar, not to mention Alex Katz’s hilariously absurd lump of a cat. Bookending the Langlais menagerie is “Migration,” Christopher Patch’s similarly fun, loose and varied group of 37 ceiling-suspended papier-mache birds. It is a strong and entertaining show, and it makes the most of a space that had been typically difficult.

So, is the Portland Museum of Art on track? Maybe the better question is whether the changes are enough to put the museum back on track. While the economy has been improving, attendance is down more than 20 percent from 2012 (178,000 versus 140,000 visitors), Bob Keyes reported in the Maine Sunday Telegram this month. If you are considering the museum’s success in terms of public engagement or business, that is a poor record indeed.

Plus, there’s the 25 percent increase in ticket price. That might help with the red ink (the museum has been running deficits), but what will it do to attendance?

Focusing on the public experience is smart, but it must be coupled with curatorial excellence. To be sure, giving the public better access to money-making amenities like the café and the bookstore will help the museum, but the key lies in how the museum uses its spaces to present art to the public.

Hewitt may be a step in the right direction (more on that show next week), but there has been a disconnect between the museum’s largely traditional holdings and the rising Maine artists it shows; it feels as though museum leaders are too anxious about being seen as “provincial.” But the consequent over-the-shoulder glances to New York City with overly hip shows are – not ironically – what have made the museum look and feel more and more provincial. It would benefit from a more balanced lineup of exhibitions by active regional artists, one that includes the fine crafts and landscapes that the museum has avoided, and from a standard of integrity geared toward impressing visitors rather curators in other cities.

The physical redesign of the museum will take years, and it will be expensive. That prospect, however, is exciting, since the components are all excellent buildings with many fantastic spaces. Whether the museum leaders will rethink how they use those spaces is less clear. It’s a great sign that Hewitt’s “Turning Strange” is the museum’s most effervescent exhibition and it is in the museum’s best space. The meandering first floor gallery, meanwhile, features works from the collection, and is doing it well. I hope to see this arrangement far more often. Because the third-floor gallery has four entrances, using it for major exhibitions would require giving up the default narrative, Museum of Modern Art-style show with its one-way flow. The linear flow helps curators develop a story, but that usually only matters to the public for shows based on historical narratives. Such show are not common at the Portland Museum of Art.

As a fan of the museum, I want it to find its way and, at the moment, I am feeling hopeful. “Your Museum, Reimagined” might seem like baby steps to the average viewer – if they even notice the efforts at all – but you have to start somewhere, and there is nothing more important than some well-considered wayfinding.

Freelance writer Daniel Kany is an art historian who lives in Cumberland. He can be contacted at:

[email protected]


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