Suzette McAvoy is stepping away from her position as executive director of the Center for Maine Contemporary Art, but not from the Maine art scene. She began her art career in Maine in 1988, arriving in Rockland for a curatorial position with the Farnsworth Art Museum. She became director at CMCA in fall 2010 while it was still in its longtime home in Rockport, and led the planning, design and fundraising for the new CMCA gallery in Rockland, which opened in 2016.

McAvoy, who lives in Belfast, retired with the year’s end. She is eager to welcome her replacement, Timothy Peterson, and plans to stay active in Maine art through writing and consulting. She recently spoke about her career, this anxiety-inducing year, and her plans.

Suzette McAvoy reflects on her 30-plus year career in Maine art in a farewell interview as she retires from the Center for Maine Contemporary Art. Photo by Dave Clough Photography

Q: What are your plans. I assume you will be around and involved?

A: I certainly expect to be continue to be engaged in the Maine art community in some way, but not in a full-time capacity. Right now, I am working on an interview with Reggie Burrows Hodges for a gallery in New York, for a catalog of his show that opens early in 2021. I hope to do more writing. I love to write, and I just haven’t had as much time to write as I would like to, because of the full-time nature of the directorship. So more writing and who knows, consulting? I am leaving my options open, just because it’s been so many years working full time, I am looking forward to having a summer in Maine off. If you work in the art community, summers are an intensive time. I moved to Maine in September 1988 to work at the Farnsworth Museum. Except for five years off when our daughter was young, I have been full-time ever since.

Q: Do you have words of wisdom for the artists of Maine or a message you would like to impart?

A: This is an exciting time to be an artist in Maine. I see more diversity and more appreciation for a very broad range of art-making than when I moved here in 1988. There is diversity in terms of outlook, of materials, of subject matter, of identity. It is an exciting time as a curator and as a viewer and appreciator to see that increasing complexity to the Maine art community.

Q: Over your 30-plus years of observing and participating in the Maine art scene, what do you think has changed the most? Does the term “Maine art” mean something different in 2021 than it did in 1988?

A: Yes, I think so. Because in 1988 we did not have the ability to share images immediately, the way we do now. With onset of the internet and online sharing, social media, and being able to share images to Instagram or wherever, the immediacy of image-sharing has had a dramatic impact not only on the Maine art community, but the art communities globally. That breaking down of geographic barriers has opened up the Maine art community.

Q: We have expanded our horizons.

A: Absolutely. Painting dominated the Maine art community when I first came. That is still true – there is a strong strain of painting, particularly landscaping painting in Maine, but there is much more diversity in terms of outlook and material now. The current biennial at CMCA reflects that.

Q: What do you see for the future?

A: I think it’s increasingly diverse, and artists will continue to live and work here and find a market and audience for their work beyond the state.

Q: The opening of the new building in Rockland was a touchstone moment for your career at CMCA. What is the impact of the new building on the art scene here, and why was its opening so monumental?

A: The new CMCA building allowed us to fulfill the mission, which is to advance contemporary art in Maine. The building creates a platform for that to happen, on a scale and in a way that wasn’t possible before. You see it in terms of the work that artists create specifically for that space. We have had a number of site-specific installations that were created, that take advantage of the scale and the light that the architecture provides.

I always go back to when I shared our plans for the new CMCA with the artist Alex Katz, who said, “You want to walk into a museum and say, ‘Wow.’ ” That has always stuck me. That is what I want the visitor reaction to be when they walk in to the new CMCA, to say, “Wow.”

Q: What is your message to the new director? What do you most want him to know about CMCA and its legacy?

A: I am very pleased by the appointment of Tim Peterson. He is just right person to take the reins. He is a warm, open person who has terrific management and curatorial credentials. He is a roll-up-your-sleeves kind of guy who has worked directly with so many top-notch contemporary artists. I am confident he will bring CMCA to new successes.

CMCA has played an important role in introducing contemporary art to a wide audience, and at our core, we were founded by artists and we continue to work directly with the Maine art community. I am thinking of this quote that Wade Kavanaugh and Stephen Nguyen said after they did they did their terrific installation at CMCA, the big wave. They said, “CMCA has the architecture of an art museum but the spirit of an artist studio.” I love that. To me that does capture everything about CMCA right now – that we are open to invention, to being responsive and resilient, just the way an artist working in the their studio is.

Q: What do you expect to see from the Maine art community in 2021?

A: Two things. Some artists are finding it is a time that they are incredibly productive and doing and creating a lot of work, because of fewer social demands. They are using this time intensely in the studio to create work. Others find it is anxiety-producing, and they are more stirring up ideas and doing a lot of reading and using this time as a break from their normal work. We will see. These periods of intense social and cultural upheaval prompt new work or a change in art, typically. Usually out of these moments of societal crises, come interesting, thought-provoking new work.

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