The Michael Klahr Center, home of the Holocaust and Human Rights Center of Maine (HHRC), was opened in 2008. My first interaction with the HHRC was a couple of years later when I was the Producing Director of The Theater At Monmouth. We were invited to partner and present a production of The Diary of Anne Frank in the lovely and intimate circular rotunda space that serves as the prime gathering space at the center. Our dressing room during that production was a small classroom space that was intended to be a research lab, but at the time was a rather large storage space. I remember thinking then that the space would make a nice little gallery.
Lo and behold, a couple years later I was invited to join the staff of the HHRC as program director with the goal of bringing more people and visibility to the Klahr Center. Naturally, one of my first actions was to buy some track lighting and make that back space a gallery. The first exhibit, Maine Boys Overseas and German Boys in Maine, told the story of Maine’s German POW camps during WWII. I collected artifacts, photos and stories from across the state, and one of the great finds were the amazing pieces of artwork and crafts that had been created by the POWs. (WWII POW artwork was made at camps throughout the country and has become quite collectible.)
The positive response was immediate and somewhat overwhelming. There was room and interest in a facility that hosts and creates different kinds of art exhibits. Now, more than 35 exhibits later, we’ve managed to engage all kinds of communities of artists and non-artists. We have benefited from great press, including front page articles in Maine papers, a full page spread in the New York Times and a 14-page feature in Yankee Magazine. We currently have exhibits planned well into 2021, and still find a way to squeeze in an interesting pop-up exhibit now and again just to make sure we’re on our toes.
At the center of all of it is storytelling. I’m really a theater guy, and good theater is all about storytelling. I think good exhibits are all about storytelling as well. I love art and do consider it a refuge for myself, but it’s also a way to engage— which is part of our mission at the HHRC:
“The Holocaust and Human Rights Center of Maine promotes universal respect for human rights through outreach and education. Using the lessons of the Holocaust and other events past and present, we encourage individuals and communities to reflect and act upon their moral responsibilities to confront prejudice, intolerance and discrimination.”
I take the second sentence most seriously when thinking about our exhibits—how will the viewers reflect AND act? So sometimes the approach is soap box or cultural canary as we did with Wally Warren’s City of Dreams in partnership with maps from Climate Central. Sometimes we use satire as with Natasha Mayers’ celebration of many years of Whitefield Fourth of July parades: Pay Attention: It’s Independence Day! And sometimes we hit right at the heart and conscience such as the moving and contemplative exhibit of visual art and poetry about the Holocaust, The Dilemma of Memory. Usually, though, it’s a little of everything, such as the 2017 exhibit America Now.
We encourage both escape and engagement; transcendence and distance. Our exhibits comment on culture, society and history; and our exhibits are certainly sometimes political, moral, spiritual, and hopefully always thought-provoking.
Our culture is so visual that I think visual artists have a bit of an advantage. Visual artists “get” visual culture so clearly, while many in the rest of the population just experience it as something that exists. I think it’s similar to the fact that I can watch these absurd political proceedings as theater. While they’re maddening and ridiculous at times, I can kind of appreciate the actors and the roles they play. It reminds me of the exchange that was recorded at the trial of the punk group Pussy Riot a few years back. The Judge told one of the distraught defendants “I’ll get you a priest,” to which she replied, “I’d rather have a fair trial.”
To the best of our ability, the exhibits that we create—the art that artists create—is our fair trial. We can put it out there, but once it’s in the marketplace, who knows what’ll happen? That’s what makes it all so much fun!
David Greenham is the associate director for the Holocaust and Human Rights Center of Maine (HHRC), and is an adjunct professor of Drama and English at the University of Maine at Augusta. He has been a theater artist and arts administrator for more than 25 years. David is the founder of Maine History Theater of Ideas and has been commissioned several times to create touring programs for the Maine Humanities Council. The next MHC program he is creating will focus on the state’s Bicentennial and will be touring the state in 2020 and 2021. As a theater artist, David spent many years leading The Theater At Monmouth, the Shakespearean Theater of Maine. In addition, he has performed or directed productions with Everyman Repertory Theater, The Portland Fringe Festival, Bath Shakespeare Festival, Camden Shakespeare Festival, the Waterville Opera House, Capital City Improv, and the Celebration Barn Ensemble. David is also a contributing reviewer for the Boston-based online arts journal The Arts Fuse (artsfuse.org). David serves as the Chair of the Maine Arts Commission, a state agency, and is on the board of directors of the MidMaine Global Forum.
Image at top: The Holocaust and Human Rights Center at night.