Daniel O’Leary, the former director of the Portland Museum of Art, at his Scarborough home. O’Leary has filed a complaint with the Maine Attorney General’s Office over the museum’s termination of the biennial exhibition, which O’Leary says violates the trust of a deceased artist who made the bequest. Ben McCanna/Staff Photographer

The former director of the Portland Museum of Art has filed a complaint with the Maine Attorney General’s Office, saying the museum is defying the intended use of a major donation by replacing its juried biennial exhibition, exclusive to artists with ties to Maine, with an international triennial, open to Maine, Nordic and other artists.

Dan O’Leary, who directed the museum from 1993 to 2006, said the North Atlantic Triennial, which is scheduled to replace the biennial beginning next year, violates the intent and expressed desire of the late Maine artist William E. Thon, who left the museum nearly $4 million in assets to establish a fund to present and award prizes for a biennial juried show of Maine artists. The museum says a clause in the will permits it to adjust the biennial.

In his complaint made to the Attorney General’s Office, a highly unusual move for someone in his position, O’Leary said the change represents a breach of trust and misappropriation of a charitable gift, and accused the museum’s current director, Mark Bessire, of “the most flagrant and extreme violation” of a donor bequest. O’Leary is asking the Attorney General’s Office to look into the matter to determine if the move to a triennial is appropriate. The museum has hosted a biennial exhibition since the late 1990s, using the endowment established by Thon and his wife, Helen, to pay for it.

In an unsigned statement, the museum said, “We are immensely grateful to Mr. Thon for his generosity, enabling the museum to present this recurring contemporary series. Regardless of the format – be it a juried biennial, curated exhibition, or international showcase – we will continue to feature artists with connections to Maine, topics that are relevant to our state, and themes that resonate with our community. … We are confident that we are well within the guidelines of the bequest.”

O’Leary filed the Charitable Organization Complaint Form with the Attorney General’s Office this week, outlining the history of the bequest and why he thinks the museum is violating Thon’s wishes. Linda J. Conti, assistant attorney general and chief of the consumer protection division, confirmed that her office received the complaint on Thursday afternoon and would evaluate its merits. “We don’t typically discuss publicly what we do with complaints that we receive unless we take public action,” Conti wrote in an email. “Now we will consider what, if anything, we should do with it.”

Those actions could range from sending a thank-you note to O’Leary for raising the issue to asking for documentation from either O’Leary or the museum or hiring an expert for consultation and advice, she said.

O’Leary negotiated the endowment with Thon. In his complaint, he writes, “I cannot escape from a personal responsibility to address this issue because Mr. Thon assigned to me and to the museum I represented the role of guarding and managing his explicit plan for a permanent, juried exhibition program. This is the most flagrant and extreme violation of donor intent that I have ever seen in my career as a museum professional.”

The latest dispute stems from the PMA’s announcement in December that it was ending the biennial in favor of triennial, beginning in 2021, in collaboration with museums and artists in Iceland and Sweden. The new North Atlantic Triennial would be a curated exhibition with artists from Maine and Arctic countries and would reflect Maine’s growing presence in international trade across the Arctic region. The exhibition, still in its planning stages, is scheduled to open in Portland in February 2021 and travel to Iceland, Sweden and possibly Norway. The cycle would repeat three times over nine years.

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

The switch has created a stir in the Maine art community, with some people praising it for aligning the museum with regional and international trends, while others are criticizing it for taking the museum away from its roots. “It’s like everything else; it seems like Portland is growing a lot larger,” said Portland photographer Dave Wade, who has exhibited in the biennial. “I can see why growth is good, but at the same time, we have artists galore in Maine. There is no need to import artists.”

O’Leary said the move to a triennial diminishes Thon’s goals for the biennial – to create an opportunity for younger Maine artists to show their work at the museum – and represents a second violation of Thon’s wishes. The first was when the museum moved away from an exhibition juried by a team of art professionals from out of state to a curated exhibition, beginning with the biennial exhibition of 2013. He accused Bessire of “abandoning” the juried approach as a cost-saving measure. “They went to a curated biennial because it’s so much easier. They are being lazy,” O’Leary said in an interview.

Thon was a landscape painter who lived in Port Clyde. When he died in 2000, he left much of his estate, valued at close to $4 million including cash, real estate and other assets, to the museum. At the time, it was the largest gift the museum had received. He also left $100,000 to the Farnsworth Art Museum in Rockland.

O’Leary and Thon began discussing the gift in 1996.

In his will, Thon wrote that the endowment in his and his wife’s names “shall be invested, reinvested, and maintained and whose net income shall be used to present, and award prizes for, a biennial juried show of Maine artists. A Maine artist is a painter who has lived and worked for substantial periods of time in the State of Maine. Each such show shall be a memorial to my said wife and me. To the extent the Portland Museum of Art does not so use the net income of the fund, it shall be used for its museum purposes, with appropriate recognition of my said wife and me.”

He continued, “I recognize that there may be times when, for any one of a number of valid reasons, the Portland Museum of Art may decide not to present a biennial juried show of the works of Maine painters. I have every confidence that in such a case, the Portland Museum of Art will use the income in other appropriate ways to encourage Maine painters and generally to enhance the ability of the Portland Museum of Art to flourish and to enrich the cultural life and experience of the people of Maine.”

In its statement in response to O’Leary filing the complaint, the museum cited that last paragraph as justification for changes it has made, both with the move to a triennial and to a curated exhibition as opposed to a juried exhibition.

“For the first decade, the program was a juried biennial, and succeeded in creating a foundation for contemporary art exhibitions in the state. Beginning in 2013, and through its second decade, the exhibition moved to a curated format to better align with the PMA’s strategic plan, support overall exhibition strategy, and expand audiences,” the PMA statement said. “Now entering its third decade, the recurring contemporary series continues to evolve to better reflect the growth of our region, the diversification of our audiences, and the mission of the museum – all while continuing to highlight Maine’s role in global contemporary art trends.

 “The responsibility to remain open, adjust, and transform the program is and has always been paramount, and made explicit by William E. Thon.”

Museum administrators contend that, since Thon’s gift, the demographics and cultural landscape of Portland have changed, and there are many more venues for Maine artists to show their work, including through the PMA in various exhibitions. The value of the PMA biennial as a public platform for Maine artists is less now than 20 years ago, Bessire has said.

O’Leary disagrees. He worked directly with Thon on the language of the bequest and said the phrase “there may be times” was included to allow variety and freedom in the scheduling of the biennial. “Far from allowing the museum to abandon the program, it was intended to help continue its success. To misstate Thon’s goal is a serious disservice to everything William Thon gave his lifetime of accumulated assets to create,” O’Leary said.

Jessica Nicoll, the PMA’s former chief curator who also worked with Thon to establish the biennial, said her recollection was that Thon wanted to create a juried group exhibition of Maine artists as a way of giving something back to a place that had given much to him.

“He brought the opportunity to the Portland Museum of Art and was very clear about what he was hoping to do. They did not have children, they lived frugally and they knew they would have the resources to leave something that was meaningful to them,” said Nicoll, director and chief curator at the Smith College Museum of Art. “He reflected on the juried art exhibitions that had lifted his work in the view of the art world and given him opportunity, and he understood the value of this kind of forum for showcasing young talent. He obviously felt very fortunate to have had a long association with the state of Maine as a subject for his art and as a community that supported and nurtured his art. He recognized that Maine was special in that way and he wanted to think about how he could create a gift that create opportunity for artists in the state.”

While acknowledging that taking his dispute to the attorney general may seem extreme, O’Leary defended his actions, saying, “I have two crucial goals regarding the Portland Museum of Art Biennial. First, I want to protect and preserve William Thon’s thoughtful and valuable vision for our state. Second, I want to protect the integrity and reputation of the Portland Museum of Art and am worried that this unjust decision damages both those important qualities.”

In addition to complaining to the AG’s office, O’Leary also wrote a letter to the editor, which ran in the Portland Press Herald in December, about the dispute.

After leaving the PMA in 2006, O’Leary, who lives in Scarborough, served as president of the Munson Williams Proctor Arts Institute in Utica, New York, until returning to Maine to become CEO of philanthropist Roxanne Quimby’s foundations in 2010.


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