A six- or seven-story building with a rooftop sculpture garden and café. A ground floor with free art galleries, classrooms and community space. In between, room for an auditorium, traveling exhibitions, offices, an all-ages “makers space” and a photography center.

The Portland Museum of Art is launching a once-in-a-generation, $85 million capital campaign to expand a downtown campus that no longer has enough space to accommodate both its growing collection of diverse work and a steadily increasing number of visitors.

The centerpiece of the plan is an “architecturally significant” building that will either expand on or replace the former Children’s Museum and more than double the amount of overall space in use. The existing museum buildings – the McLellan House, the Sweat Memorial Galleries, the Clapp House and the Payson Building, whose signature arches face the intersection of Congress and High streets – will then be renovated to unify with the new construction.

Museum director Mark Bessire said the project, for which a timeline has not been set, will position the PMA for decades to come and has the potential to transform not only Congress Square but the entire art scene in Maine and the region.

“Right now, because of our growth, the real risk is not to build,” he said in an interview last week. “We’re at capacity. If museums don’t continue to grow, if you fall back, it can take a generation to recover.”

Portland Museum of Art director Mark Bessire stands in the Payson Building, which no longer has enough space to accommodate the museum’s growing collection and steady increase of visitors. Ben McCanna/Staff Photographer

The initiative, which has been referred to internally as the “Blueprint,” will officially launch on Monday, but it has been incubating for years. In 2014, a local architect was commissioned to survey the buildings and grounds and design a campus master plan. The long-expected 2019 purchase of a building at 142 Free St., which housed the Children’s Museum and Theatre of Maine, presented a golden opportunity for expansion. And the forced closure of the art museum when the pandemic hit created unexpected planning time.


A proposed new building would be green in design and construction – one of only a handful of such public museums in the country – and would increase the campus’s square footage from 38,000 to nearly 100,000. By comparison, the Museum of Fine Art in Boston is three times that size. But the addition would allow Portland to accommodate between 300,000 and 500,000 visitors every year to view a collection that includes impressionist masters like Monet and Renoir, Maine icons Winslow Homer and Andrew Wyeth, among others, and more contemporary names like mixed-media artist David Driskell and photographer Nan Goldin.

After the fundraising campaign launches, the next step is a competition to select an architect who will turn the museum’s vision into design, although it could be at least three years before construction begins. Bessire said there are still too many variables to be able to predict how long the entire project might take.

“I hope people enjoy the process,” he said. “We’re certainly going to share it.”

The museum project also coincides with an ongoing overhaul of Congress Square, one of the city’s busiest areas, that includes a redesign of the intersection and of the park that sits directly across from the museum.

Although museum leaders aim to produce a cultural center that will stand out in the Portland skyline and rival regional museums like the Walker Art Center in Minneapolis or even the Museum of Fine Art in Boston, they have another goal as well. For too long, museums have been old, white, stuffy and inaccessible. A reimagined Portland Museum of Art can reflect the changing community in a way that makes art accessible to all. A true community gathering place.

“It has been a tough two years,” Bessire said. “But it has really helped us get a better understanding of what a museum can and should be, something that can help create community.”



Three of the museum’s four main buildings in downtown Portland are more than a century old. The newest building, Payson, opened in 1983.

Although there have been renovations over the years – including a $12 million effort in 2002 to restore the McLellan House – Bessire said the acquisition of the Children’s Museum building offers something they haven’t been able to create on the campus: more space. The building at 142 Free St. could be renovated, added onto, or perhaps even torn down, museum officials said, pending a review of the city’s historic preservation ordinance.

Brian Chin owns p3, a local video agency that does work for the PMA. He’s also on one of the museum’s steering committees. He said the project has the potential to transform the area from “a walk-through area to a destination.”

“The (Payson) building is iconic but it’s not what anyone would call welcoming,” he said. “This new venture has the potential to be unifying, … to remind people that the museum is more than just this one brick façade.”

Kyo Bannai, a trustee who will serve on the committee to select an architect, agreed that the various parts of the current museum are limited, especially when trying to accommodate new programming.


“This initiative would allow the new building to focus on inclusivity, activity and community, and let the older buildings enhance their functionality that’s more appropriate to their original intent,” she said.

Bannai’s first experience with the PMA came in 1996, shortly after she moved to Portland from New York City with her husband. They took a break from unloading boxes and walked down Congress Street. When they got to the museum, a staff member was out front enticing people to come inside for the opening of an exhibit featuring Pablo Picasso and early 20th century French artist Fernand Leger. It’s still one of her favorite memories.

Dr. Andrew Mueller, who was hired last year as the chief executive officer of MaineHealth, had a similar experience. His office is one block down Free Street from the museum, and he visited one day to meet Bessire. Since then, Mueller said, he and his wife have become “enthusiastic members,” and he was asked to serve on the architect selection committee.

“A couple of things that make the PMA stand out to me are its incredible collection and its accessibility. It’s an easy museum to enjoy,” he said. “But it is limited, too. This project is exciting because we know the benefit art has to the entire community.”

On any given week, the museum can display only a portion of its collections, which leaves hundreds of pieces in storage.

“We can’t show our whole collection, let alone show it well,” said Graeme Kennedy, creative director and director of public relations for the PMA.


That collection has been growing – both in size and diversity – for many years and now stands at about 18,000 pieces, including 290 just since 2016. In 2020 alone, there were 28 additions, including from Kara Walker, a contemporary Black artist from California whose work often explores race and gender, and Jeffrey Gibson, an indigenous painter and sculptor from New York.

Just last month, the museum announced a promised gift of more than 600 photographs, including works by world-famous 20th-century photographers, from photographer, philanthropist and collector Judy Glickman Lauder.


The new project will be more than just building materials – it will continue the museum’s ongoing mission to become more diverse and inclusive.

When Bessire was hired in 2008, the museum didn’t have any artists of color on view and only one woman was displayed. His background included working with marginalized and contemporary artists, and he has modernized the museum in that vein. In recent years, for instance, the museum has made it a priority to seek artwork and perspectives from the state’s Wabanaki communities.

Members have noticed.


“As Portland becomes increasingly diverse, PMA is consistently making efforts to reflect its community,” Bannai said. “It understands and cares about representation as a necessary component of inclusivity and sustainability and I see that happening in all areas.”

Bessire said it will be up to the architect to come up with a design that meets the museum’s programmatic needs – the biggest of which will be community engagement.

“Ten years ago, we had a plan that looked like one thing. Now, it’s completely different,” he said. “We want more gatherings and collaborations. We engaged with the community, and this is what they are asking for.”

One area of great interest, he said, is a rooftop space, part of which could be rented out for functions. That would create a revenue stream the museum doesn’t have now.

The museum isn’t struggling financially by any means. According to its most recent tax filing in 2020, the PMA had $73 million in assets, and an annual budget of about $8 million. Its endowment has grown from $32 million to $46 million in five years. And the museum remains free to visit for anyone under the age of 21.

Another piece of the project, albeit one that will come later, is deciding how best to use the Spring Street lot, which is mostly parking. Bessire said the expansion will need to address parking “in some capacity,” but he said that empty lot could have other potential as well.


A new building also will allow museum staff to all be in the same space, rather than spread throughout the campus. That, in turn, will allow spaces in the existing buildings to be repurposed.

The timing of the project comes amid a period of steady attendance growth. In 2019, the museum welcomed a record 176,464 visitors. During the first year of the pandemic, the museum was mostly closed and attendance dropped off. Instead, it focused on creating a digital gallery and saw a more than 350 percent increase in its web traffic.

The museum has since reopened fully but has been closed since Jan. 3, while new doors are installed at the Payson building that are compliant with the Americans With Disabilities Act. It will reopen on Wednesday, just two days before the start of a new exhibit, the North Atlantic Triennial, a collaboration with museums and artists in Iceland and Sweden that was supposed to launch last year.

The 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. It will stay it Portland until June and then travel to Iceland, Sweden and possibly Norway.


Chin said he’s done business in Portland long enough to recognize that a project of this magnitude might generate some opposition.


“I think if they continue to listen to the community, which they have already been doing, there shouldn’t be too much,” he said. “A campaign of this size lets you please more than one interested party. You can say a lot of yesses.”

As for the potential cost, Chin acknowledged that “it’s a lot.”

“But I think there is an appetite for it,” he said. “This town understands the power of grassroots coming together and really feeling ownership of something.”

The campaign will require generosity and investment from art lovers with deep pockets – $15 million already has been raised before the official launch – but museum officials also want to make it easy for anyone to donate. The museum declined to provide details about who has donated so far.

“We’re hoping to get $5 gifts and $5 million gifts,” Bessire said. “We don’t view this as an elitist project.”

He also said the museum’s shift toward sustainability and its commitment to equity and social justice in its collection might open doors to new donors.

Above all, museum leaders hope the expansion will create a destination for Portland residents and out-of-town visitors alike, for art enthusiasts and those less interested but who still want to be where the action is.

“The cities we all love, it all starts with arts and culture,” Kennedy said. “We want to get to a place where you don’t leave Portland without an Instagram post of you at the PMA.”

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