One of the questions we ask ourselves most at the Portland Museum of Art is: “Why do museums matter?”

Bill Williamson – Bank of America’s market president for Maine, PMA trustee and great friend to the museum – recently shared the thoughts of his colleague Rena De Sisto with our members.

De Sisto felt, “The arts are a record and reflection of the intelligence, creativity, passion, devotion, beauty, emotionality, rationality and irrationality that we as human beings are capable of when we are our best selves. Art, like history and the written word, is our record and a manifestation of the gifts that make us human.”

In this national moment of unprecedented diversity and contentious political climate, art and museums are more valuable than ever. They provide a space for us to reconnect with our shared humanity.

They provide a place to reflect, consider and absorb the best of what makes us us. They are evidence of our shared experience, our common history and our future’s potential. They are a place that brings communities together and helps us to remember that we are all one people, united.

When I think of the PMA collection, there are so many works that speak to this.


I look at N.C. Wyeth’s “Dark Harbor Fishermen,” and I think of Maine’s working-class heritage.

I think of Ahmed Alsoudani’s “Untitled.” Ahmed was forced to flee his native Iraq in 1995 after defacing a mural of Saddam Hussein. He lived in Maine while studying at the Maine College of Art and the Skowhegan School of Painting and Sculpture, and his difficult, grotesque imagery transcends topical history, war and political painting to create universal images.

I think about Jocelyn Lee’s lush, empathetic series of photographic portraits, all of which capture her Munjoy Hill neighbor Kara at various stages in life, from 1997 to 2013 and childhood to adulthood.

To me, even completely disparate works such as these speak not to our differences, but to our commonalities. Art provides this luxury because it asks you not to judge, but to gain a glimmer of understanding.

At the PMA, like many museums, we complement our art collection with programming that brings together varying perspectives. In the past year, we’ve hosted events featuring artists and historians talking about Native American representation in art; lawyers and artists discussing the civil rights movement; organic farmers from the Maine Organic Farmers and Gardeners Association; a women in business forum, and much more.

These are crucial reminders that we’re part of something bigger than ourselves. If you’re feeling left out, or underrepresented, museums are places to feel included. I speak with directors at other museums all the time and one of the biggest things we discuss is how to make our institutions more accessible.


This involves demystifying and opening up our museum, confronting stereotypes of museums being monoliths rather than community centers for dialogue and culture, rethinking how people engage with art and enabling people from as many backgrounds as possible to access our collections and understanding our shared heritage.

To these ends, we strive to make sure people are represented, and their voices are heard – at the PMA, we always welcome feedback for ways we can improve this experience for you.

We recently installed a work by Maine-born artist Tim Rollins, who moved from Pittsfield to the South Bronx at another uncertain moment in history – the early 1980s – and began working with students, mostly poor and almost all of color, to form what is now a world-famous artist collective called Kids of Survival.

This group represents America as well as any I can think of: people of different generations, ethnicities and sexualities, from both rural and urban backgrounds, collaborating on art that has exhibited all over the world. I am reminded of a quote of Rollins that is particularly poignant: “Only beauty can change things.”

The quote’s power is in its simplicity, but as I think about our country’s future, I think I’ll amend it a little: Only we can change things – together.

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