The former home of the Museum of African Art and Culture in downtown Portland will house the artwork of a late New York abstract artist who had no direct ties to Portland or Maine.

The Dorothea and Leo Rabkin Foundation purchased the condo space at 13 Brown St. in July. Leo Rabkin, an Ohio native who died at 95 in 2015, made colorful abstract sculptures from antique boxes. He and his wife, Dorothea, who died in 2008, also collected 19th- and 20th-century American folk art. Both collections will be housed in Portland.

John Guiton, president of the Rabkin Foundation, said Portland was chosen as the site for the collections because of its reputation as a “thriving cultural community. It could be anywhere, as long as it’s in a welcoming, supportive community.”

Portland also made sense because foundation administrator Susan Larsen lives in Tenants Harbor on Maine’s midcoast. She was friends with the artist and his wife and knew both since 1972. Larsen is a former curator at the Whitney Museum of American Art and the Farnsworth Art Museum. She recommended Portland because of its reputation as an arts destination and its affordability, Guiton said.

Another advantage of the Portland location is that the building is already designed to house and show artwork, he added. It has modern climate-control systems and ample storage space, as well as tall ceilings for optimal displaying and viewing of artwork. The foundation will be open by appointment and during First Friday Art Walks, Guiton said.

The foundation’s primary focus is managing the collection and working with museums on exhibitions. The foundation purchased the building for $245,000 in July. The Museum of African Art and Culture closed its Portland location last summer, at which time it said it would convert its 1,500-piece collection to a digital format and focus on educational outreach.


Rabkin was born in Cincinnati, Ohio, in 1919 and came to New York in 1945, after serving in World War II. He studied counseling and said his experience with psychoanalysis heightened his understanding of and appreciation for art. He attributed his interest in abstract art to his early exposure to classical music, which caused him to “think abstractly,” according to his obituary in The New York Times.

He and his wife built a large collection of folk art. They spent decades shopping at flea markets and antique stores, amassing more than 1,200 whirligigs, mannequins, ventriloquists’ dummies and sculptures by untrained artists. In its obituary for Dorothea Rabkin, the Times called the collection “one of the finest collections in private hands” of American folk art.

In his own work, Rabkin used found materials to create sculpture that he placed in new and antique cigar and other similar boxes. The Whitney, the Museum of Modern Art and the Metropolitan Museum of Art displayed his works.

Guiton said the Rabkin Foundation considered New York for its home, but “Leo lived to such a ripe old age, his personal network in this city pretty much died before him. His New York connections are not as strong as they once were, so that’s another reason New York did not seem to make as much sense.”


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