Sensing an unusual opportunity, a group of Maine artists has taken advantage of upheavals in the retail landscape and opened a pop-up gallery in the heart of the Old Port.

The Maine Art Collective gallery at 18 Exchange St. opened in early August and will be open 10 a.m. to 6 p.m. daily through the end of September. It is run by 14 artists who formed a collective to share expenses, sweat equity and day-to-day staffing. Artists are displaying paintings in a variety of media and styles, as well photographs, sculpture and jewelry. It occupies a shop at the bottom of Exchange Street that used to be home to Lululemon, a yoga apparel shop that closed in December and had since been vacant.

Places like this had become unaffordable to artists, who were forced out of the Old Port years ago as rents increased with Portland’s growing stature as a hip city. Rents are still high and still largely unaffordable for artists, but the pandemic has created openings. With this space sitting empty, Sue Vittner and co-founders Marni Prince and JoAnn Dowe negotiated both a lower monthly rent and a month-to-month lease with landlord Joe Soley, while recruiting enough artists to “get the numbers to work,” Vittner said.

They were inspired by other artist-run galleries in Maine – specifically Local Color in Belfast – and in other cities across the country. “I have traveled a lot and have seen this kind of cooperative-type space all over the country. I always felt Portland would be a great place for it, and especially the Old Port with so much foot traffic,” said Vittner, an abstract painter.

She’s also a massage therapist with an office just up the street, on a second level, and has experienced changes in the Old Port from a 15-year perspective. The street-level gallery is an ideal location, she said. During its first 10 days, the gallery had sold 38 pieces of art – “and today is not over,” said artist Lucille Caruso Holt-Sottery, gallery-sitting at about 1:30 p.m. on Day 10. “And nearly everybody is from away. They’re all tourists.”

The work of Joyanna Margo hangs on a wall at the Maine Art Collective pop-up gallery on Exchange Street in Portland’s Old Port. Gregory Rec/Staff Photographer

With light wood floors and white walls, the Maine Art Collective occupies about 1,500 square feet of display space. It’s filled with the colors and energy of Maine in all seasons – greens and blues of land and water, pinks and yellows of summer blooms, and the purple shadows of winter’s fading light. Each artist has their own section of wall space. Prices range from $40 to $2,400, and each artist keeps 100 percent of sales.

They share equally in all costs and each artist volunteers shifts at the gallery, so someone is there during all public hours. Most live in Greater Portland and York County. One is from Bar Harbor, another from Gardiner.

Other artists participating in the collective are Amy Kelly, Clare Mohs, Dianne Chicoine, Joyanna Margo, Karl Swan Norberg, Laurie Russo-Smith, Lee Thompson, Lynn Ericson, Marci Spier and Marsha Campbell.

“For me, what was truly inspiring is we didn’t know each other beforehand,” said Holt-Sottery, who lives in Cape Elizabeth. “I had never met Sue or any of the other artists. We came together as 14 people and put this amazing collection together in a matter of (just a few days).”

Campbell, who lives in Portland, has the distinction of selling the first piece of art at the gallery. It was also the first piece of art she has ever sold.

“I have dabbled in art and been artistic all my life, but it wasn’t until after I retired that I could take classes and see if I could be serious about it,” said Campbell, 73. “It’s fun to be in the gallery mix. We have people of all ages. Some have been doing it all their lives and been to art school, and others who have come to it on their own, as I have.”

She was in the gallery on the last day of July, meeting the other artists and preparing for the opening the next day. The gallery wasn’t officially open, but the doors were open and people wandered in. A couple appreciated a scene Campbell had painted of a friend’s shed and snow-covered field in New Gloucester, cast in the late-day light.

“They loved it and they bought it. They said it reminded them of Massachusetts, where they are from,” said Campbell, who posed for a photo with the couple and their painting. “It was fun to meet them, and it was my first sale ever. We were all very excited. It was a great way to start the gallery.”

Campbell has lived in Portland for 40 years and never remembers the Old Port so busy. “It’s changed. Half the businesses I knew are gone. It’s a very different place, but it’s bustling.”

The artists will show and sell their work every day during the height of the late-summer and early-fall tourist season, and then re-evaluate their options next year. Because of high rents in the Old Port and despite the fabulous early sales, Vittner isn’t sure if the gallery would sell enough art over 12 months for the artists to commit to an annual lease.

“Come January and February, you know what it’s like in Portland. I don’t think we can say that because it works for these two months, it would work the whole year,” she said. “But this is the perfect situation for us to do this now.”


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