Curators Markús Þór Andrésson of the Rekyjavik Art Museum, Jaime DeSimone of the Portland Museum of Art and Anders Jansson of the Bildmuseet stand before a video installation by Icelandic artist Ragnar Kjartansson at the Portland Museum of Art, which is launching a new North Atlantic Triennial in 2021, replacing its 20-year-old biennial exhibition. Derek Davis/Staff Photographer Buy this Photo

The Portland Museum of Art will replace its biennial exhibition, focused for more than two decades exclusively on artists with ties to Maine, with an international triennial that will launch in 2021 in collaboration with museums and artists in Iceland and Sweden.

The new North Atlantic Triennial will be a curated exhibition that includes artists from Maine and Arctic countries and will reflect Maine’s growing presence in international trade across the Arctic region, said Jaime DeSimone, associate curator of contemporary art at the PMA. The museum will collaborate with the Reykjavik Art Museum and the Bildmuseet, the leading contemporary art center in northern Sweden at Umea University. The exhibition, which is still in its planning stages, will open in Portland in February 2021 and travel to Iceland, Sweden and possibly Norway. The cycle will repeat three times over nine years, possibly with other collaborators, said Graeme Kennedy, PMA spokesman.

In its early years, the biennial provided audiences an opportunity to sample an array of art made by artists working in Maine or with strong ties to the state. For artists, being selected was considered a high honor and often helped advance careers. The exhibit has become less prominent in recent years because Maine artists have more opportunities to show their work at both the PMA and other contemporary art exhibition spaces that have opened or expanded in Portland and beyond. Seeing a need for a change, the museum followed the lead of Maine artists who increasingly have been traveling to the Arctic region to create work. The change in timing, to every three years, is a matter of logistics for an exhibition of its geographical scope.

Curators from the three museums will introduce the North Atlantic Triennial project Friday afternoon in Portland, when the museum hosts a panel discussion at 4 p.m. (open to the general public for $10, $5 for museum members) that frames Maine’s growing presence in the North Atlantic region and the economic and cultural commonalities among North Atlantic countries. Maine’s political and economic leaders have positioned the state as the gateway to the Arctic and a major player in the region’s economics, politics and university-level research, particularly related to climate change. The triennial will emphasize Maine’s cultural connections with its northern neighbors and similarities in environment, geography and in other areas. The concept involves bringing together the leading North Atlantic artists in a series of curated exhibitions that will highlight the themes and issues that artists are tackling in today’s environment.

“This idea came about from thinking about the changing place that is Portland, particularly since Eimskip moved its North American headquarters here,” DeSimone said, referring to the Icelandic freight company that moved its regional headquarters to Portland six years ago and ships more than 22,000 container units annually on vessels that travel regularly between Portland and Reykjavik. “What does it mean when shipping routes are opened and are re-engaged through the North Atlantic? The trade industry is the foundation of understanding to see how connected Maine is.”

Directors and curators from the other museums will be in Portland for Friday’s discussion. They will talk about the artistic environments of their countries and the flow of artists and ideas throughout the region that is already happening through exchange programs, artist residencies and private travel.


Anders Jansson, curator at the Bildmuseet in Sweden, said the project coincides with efforts his museum is making to re-orient how it looks and fits into the region and the world. “We are trying to change our perspective a little bit, so when Jaime told us about her vision of taking a broader look at the relationships and connections in the northern hemisphere, it perfectly aligned with the discussion we have been having at the museum in Umea for a few years,” Jansson said. “The Swedish art world is pretty much north-south facing, especially when you work in a place like Umea in the northern part of Sweden, which some people consider the periphery. We tend to look at what is happening in Stockholm or Berlin.”

This project allows the museum to look west toward Iceland and the United States for cultural connections, he said.

The North Atlantic Triennial will reflect the ideas, issues and concerns of a tier of northern hemisphere artists, said Markús Þór Andrésson, chief curator at the Reykajvik Art Museum. “Historically, Icelandic artists have looked inwards, into the land,” he said. “Now today, we are seeing artists thinking about the ocean. They are looking into the communal field, which is the ocean that connects us all,” he said.

A visitor studies a video installation by Icelandic artist Ragnar Kjartansson at Portland Museum of Art on Thursday Derek Davis/Staff Photographer Buy this Photo

The PMA hosted biennials for more than two decades, using a bequest from the William E. and Helen E. Thon Endowment Fund to establish the every-other-year survey of contemporary Maine art. Artists applied to a panel of jurors for admission into the show in the first decade, and independent curators chose art and artists for the exhibition in recent years. The PMA Biennial alternated years with the Center for Maine Contemporary Art, which has hosted biennials at its gallery spaces in Rockport and Rockland since 1978.

Kennedy said the Thon bequest would continue to be used to exhibit contemporary Maine art, including in the new triennial. “This is the next generation of the biennial. It’s been two decades, and now we’re entering the third decade,” he said. “It’s still focused around Maine artists and people connected to Maine and issues connected to Maine, but it is very much the next iteration and evolution of that program.”

When the biennial began, Maine artists had limited opportunities to show their work in the state’s largest museum. In recent years, the museum has incorporated the work of Maine artists in many exhibitions and routinely hosts contemporary art exhibitions that focus solely on Maine artists, Kennedy said. The museum has also added the art of Maine artists into its permanent collection, including the piece “A Distant Holla, Currency Exchange” by Daniel Minter that was part of its last biennial.


“Contemporary Maine artists are shown all the time in this museum. We are not closing that avenue,” Kennedy said. “We are all about expanding and creating connections within the art community, through the country and throughout the world. That is part of everything we do now, and the triennial is an example of that.”

The museum expects to draw about 175,000 visitors this year, up from about 160,000 visitors in 2017 and 2018, and operates with a budget of about $7.5 million. Kennedy didn’t have attendance figures for recent biennials, saying, “The past two biennials have been strong, with 2018’s exceeding projections and setting us up well for another 160,000 in attendance that year.”

The museum has not set attendance goals for the triennial, but the museum is hoping to boost attendance to 210,000 visitors in coming years, he said.

Aaron T Stephan, a Portland artist who has exhibited in the PMA biennial, said he liked the move to the international triennial and said it’s smart for the PMA to encourage an international exchange of art and ideas. “I am excited to hear about any attempt to improve the flow of culture between the local community and the rest of the world,” Stephan wrote in an email.

Several other artists who were contacted for this story declined to comment, because they are under consideration for inclusion in the triennial.

Suzette McAvoy, executive director and chief curator of the Center for Maine Contemporary Art, said the PMA’s shift away from its biennial does not change CMCA’s biennial plans. It will host its next juried biennial in fall 2020 and will announce submission guidelines in January. “We are the longest-running statewide juried biennial, and we’re committed to keeping that,” she said.


DeSimone received nearly $50,000 from the Andy Warhol Foundation for the Visual Arts to travel throughout Maine, the Canadian Maritimes and Scandinavian cities for studio visits with artists and to consult with other museum curators and directors about the exhibition and project. At this time, the curators have not established a theme for the inaugural triennial, she said. She assumes the environment, climate change and indigenous issues will emerge as themes, because artists across the region are already dealing with those topics in their work.

Dozens of artists from Maine have traveled to the Arctic in recent years to make work and establish regional connections. Artists from elsewhere are coming to Maine, as well. This past spring, the University of Southern Maine Art Department hosted Ólöf Nordal of Iceland as a visiting artist, and Nordal will return to the Portland campus for a solo exhibition in early 2020 and a public art project at Thompson’s Point, said Carolyn Eyler, director of exhibitions at the USM art department. Nordal has a solo retrospective exhibition at the Reykjavik Art Museum up now.

Eyler said USM wanted an Arctic artist to come to Maine to reflect the issues that international artists are thinking about and to capture USM’s growing interest in the Arctic. USM recently formed the Maine North Atlantic Institute to create business, educational and social connections between Maine and countries throughout the North Atlantic, Eyler said. “This residency is tied to USM’s growing leadership as a strong Maine partner with research and other economic development happening with the Nordic region and Iceland in particular,” she said.

Nordal’s association with USM confirms that the PMA is tapping a strong current of interest in focusing on Maine’s ties to the Arctic, DeSimone said, praising Eyler for orienting the view of the USM Art Department outward across the ocean. “It’s nice that an art institution is already looking east,” she said. “I am really happy to see that.”

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