ROCKLAND — Suzette McAvoy took over as director of the Center for Maine Contemporary Art in fall 2010, less than a year after the art center nearly closed because of poor finances. Six years later, the organization she helped rescue is poised to move from its charming converted firehouse and livery stable overlooking Rockport Harbor to a building, set to open June 26, whose corrugated metal-and-glass shell and sawtooth roofline has made an imprint on the architectural landscape of downtown Rockland. From there, she hopes to transform Maine’s art scene as well.

“We’ve come a long way,” McAvoy said. “We know this is going to be a game-changer not only for art in Maine, but for Rockland and the midcoast.”

The museum is within $1 million of its $5 million fundraising goal, which will pay for the museum’s design and construction. McAvoy hopes to close the campaign before the new building opens. Construction is 90 percent complete.

“Our goal is to move forward without debt,” she said. “We’re a small organization, and we wanted to build something we could maintain and that will continue to meet our needs for the next 15 to 20 years. We feel we’ve done that, and we’re very happy with where we are and how far we’ve come.”

ROCKLAND, ME - MARCH 16: Painters work on The Center for Maine Contemporary Art building in downtown Rockland, which is currently under construction and is scheduled to open in June. (Photo by Carl D. Walsh/Staff Photographer)

Painters work on The Center for Maine Contemporary Art building in downtown Rockland. Carl D. Walsh/Staff Photographer

The new CMCA opens with an exhibition by Ogunquit sculptor and printmaker Jonathan Borofsky, an artist with an international following who rarely shows in Maine, and small paintings by Alex Katz, the now-famous painter who was an emerging artist when he showed at the arts center soon after it opened in Rockport in 1952, when it was known as Maine Coast Artists.

The new building more than doubles the gallery space to 7,700 square feet, including an outdoor sculpture courtyard. Attendance is projected to increase from 9,000 to 50,000.

Designed by part-time Mainer Toshiko Mori, the center has an industrial feel with large, open galleries and a ceiling open to the north that filters soft, indirect light – the best light for viewing art, McAvoy said, because it’s cool and even throughout the day. The floors are concrete, and the building’s openness gives it a feel similar to the large sheds used by boat builders along the Maine coast.

The largest of the three galleries, where Borofsky will show his work, is nearly 50 feet square, with ceilings that range from 16 to 20 feet high. Katz will show paintings in a smaller gallery named in honor of CMCA’s longtime curator Bruce Brown of Portland.

Mori, who teaches at Harvard University’s Graduate School of Design and operates an architectural firm in New York City, has won two International Art Critics Association Awards. Architectural Digest named her among the top 100 architects in 2014 and 2016. She lives in New York and has a house on North Haven off the Maine coast.

Her design incorporates Rockland’s industrial waterfront legacy with an urban, modern feel. At 21 Winter St., the museum is one block from the Farnsworth Art Museum and a short walk from the Island Institute and the Maine Lighthouse Museum. It abuts the back of the Strand Theatre and is across the street from free public parking.

The city of Rockland is working with Yarmouth landscape architect Mitchell Rasor to redesign Winter Street as a gateway from Main Street to the nearby waterfront. The plan calls for a narrow road with wide sidewalks that blend into the street at an even elevation. The CMCA courtyard will flow onto the sidewalk, which will be marked by pavers and trees in planters, instead of curbs.

Inherent in CMCA’s attendance projections is the belief that it will benefit from Rockland’s standing as a year-round arts community. (The Farnsworth sees about 60,000 visitors annually.) In addition to its museums, Rockland has a dozen fine-art galleries and claims 24 stops on its seasonal First Friday Art Walk, which resumes in May.

Similarly, Rockland will benefit from having another outlet for contemporary art, said Jacob Dowling, owner of Dowling Walsh Gallery on Main Street. “I’m thrilled to have them investing in the downtown area, and I think that it’s the right time to do it,” he said. Dowling opened his gallery in 2007 and plans to build a five-story, 40,000-square-foot art storage building behind Dowling Walsh and across from CMCA on Winter Street. The Rockland Planning Board approved the $3 million project in November.

The timing of the two projects is coincidental, he said, but it affirms the importance of the arts in the local economy. Combined, the two buildings represent $8 million in arts investments in downtown Rockland, he noted.

Rockland’s gallery scene will look different when CMCA opens in June. Caldbeck Gallery, which has been on Elm Street since 1982, will not open, though the business will continue. Owners Cynthia Hyde and James Kinnealey plan to sell their building, which they have owned since 1980. They expect to open another gallery elsewhere, though their plans are tentative. They sell much of their art online.

They expect development will follow CMCA down Winter Street to the waterfront, with more galleries, shops, restaurants and condominiums. Rockland is a different city than it was even just a few years ago and much different than when they opened 34 years ago, Kinnealey said.

“When we first opened, Rockland had a lot of buildings with plywood on the windows,” he said. “It’s a totally different place now, and having CMCA will just put the icing on the cake in terms of people coming to Rockland to look at art.”

Workers at the new Center for Maine Contemporary Art building in downtown Rockland. The center is scheduled to open in June. Below: One of the architecturally unique spaces in the gallery.

Workers inside one of the unique spaces at the new Center for Maine Contemporary Art building in downtown Rockland. Carl D. Walsh/Staff Photographer

CMCA has talked about a move to Rockland for 15 years, said Brown, the center’s former curator. “There have been two or three opportunities that came and went. We just weren’t ready for it,” he said.

Those missed opportunities were blessings in disguise, he said, because they would not have matched the benefits of the Winter Street location.

“The idea of being so close to the Farnsworth – and the idea of being able to see the complete panoply of Maine art from its earliest days represented by the strong collection of the Farnsworth, right up through what is likely to happen tomorrow at CMCA – is really quite thrilling,” Brown said.

UP AND DOWN HISTORY

The Center for Maine Contemporary Art began as an artist cooperative in 1952. It was nomadic in its first 15 years, with its directors putting up shows around Rockport with a roster of artists that, in hindsight, was prescient: Robert Indiana, Fairfield Porter, Louise Nevelson and others, in addition to Katz. It moved to its location above Rockport Harbor in 1967 and has been there since.

The museum has deep ties to the Skowhegan School of Painting and Sculpture and has always shown emerging and established artists who advance Maine’s art legacy.

In 2010, CMCA nearly closed. The art center’s board laid off the staff at the end of the 2009 season, and spent much of the winter deciding whether to open in 2010. It did open, and McAvoy began working as director in fall 2010.

At the time, there was no talk of a move. McAvoy’s job was stabilizing CMCA’s finances while mounting exhibitions that continued its tradition of showing contemporary Maine art. She trimmed nearly $200,000 from the annual operating budget, getting it down to $334,000. It’s $340,000 now and is projected to grow to $570,000 during the first year in Rockland through greater fundraising, events, increased ticket sales and the gift shop.

The museum announced plans to move to Rockland in May 2013, when the opportunity came up to buy the Winter Street property, which previously was the site of retail property, including some galleries.

ROCKLAND, ME - MARCH 16: The Center for Maine Contemporary Art building in downtown Rockland, currently under construction, is scheduled to open in June. (Photo by Carl D. Walsh/Staff Photographer)

Construction crews work inside the Center for Maine Contemporary Art building in downtown Rockland, scheduled to open in June. Carl D. Walsh/Staff Photographer

INVITATION TO SEE ART

Mori designed a sophisticated but simple building. There’s no wasted space, with large open areas across a single level configured around a straight spine. The sight lines are clean between the galleries and through the glass.

Because CMCA does not collect art – the only art it shows is art assembled for its exhibitions – the building doesn’t have art storage or preparation rooms. The offices are small, if not austere.

The sole focus is on presenting art and inviting the community to see it. The pedestrian-friendly street, open courtyard and the glass walls are designed to welcome people in an egalitarian way. The large galleries can accommodate nearly any kind of art, including large-scale sculpture and multimedia installations. They will change how CMCA curates and presents art, McAvoy said.

Borofsky is a good example. The large-scale figurative work for which he is best known would overwhelm the old space. It wouldn’t fit in the door, never mind up the stairs and into the loft. And the half-dozen parking spaces available to the arts center in Rockport Village ensured that almost no one would ever see it, even if it did fit.

Katz is closely associated with the Colby College Museum of Art in Waterville. Colby has built hangar-like galleries to accommodate his massive canvases. The new CMCA could accommodate those big paintings too. McAvoy, in the coming show, is focusing on small works instead.

No matter how large his paintings become, Katz begins with a small-scale painting that he makes directly in the landscape or sitting across from his subject, she explained. It’s a way of painting he learned as a student at Skowhegan and practiced during his earliest summer shows at pop-up galleries across Rockport.

The small works in the inaugural exhibition honor Katz, as well as CMCA’s earliest roots.

ROCKLAND, ME - MARCH 16: The Center for Maine Contemporary Art building in downtown Rockland, currently under construction, is scheduled to open in June. (Photo by Carl D. Walsh/Staff Photographer)

Rooftop view of the new Center for Maine Contemporary Art building. Carl D. Walsh/Staff Photographer

 


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