The woman who brought contemporary art to Maine
By Mirlea Saks
Art lovers tend to focus, understandably, on art and its makers. Yet one of Maine’s most powerful arts’ leaders is not an artist. A career exceeding 60 years has made the beloved Nancy Davidson, art curator at the Maine Jewish Museum, in Portland, one of her profession’s heavy hitters, with influence extending well beyond New England.
A Maine native, she’s pioneered cosmopolitan, contemporary taste in a region which long favored landscapes and provincial traditions. Approaching 80, she has become a quiet legend by backing obscure artists who’ve gone on to win national fame. She’s an inextricable part of the origin stories of many creators throughout the US.
When I interviewed Davidson, a fading henna pattern twirled around her hand and up her wrist. “My granddaughter’s a tattoo artist,” she explained. “I’m thinking of getting her to give me a tattoo next. I have to support the arts, you know.”
Supporting the arts is what she does. Even great art needs advocates to show it under credible auspices, taking on the managerial challenges many artists find distracting, even distasteful. Artists live in imagination. Curators make exhibitions happen, using executive skill, dealmaking savvy, an eye for talent and formidable social prowess.
How did Davidson get all this right?
In looking for words to express Davidson’s success, MJM volunteer Marilyn Sherry momentarily forgot we were in the museum’s sanctuary.. “Nancy,” she explained with unintended irreverence, “has more contacts than God.”
It didn’t come easily. Before joining the non-profit MJM, Davidson spent decades advising commercial galleries plus years as a gallery owner. She learned the business of art. Even with sublime art, she points out, “you still have to pay the light bill.” But she also believes art involves values that transcend money. Artist William Irvine, who has known Davidson over 30 years, says: “Art was never just a business deal with her. Even during the bad times, nothing put her off. Art is her life.”
Robert Shetterly exhibited with Davidson in the 80’s and 90’s. “I’ll always be extremely grateful. Most of my work at the time was surreal. Not everyone would show it. It was baffling, mysterious, ambiguous, even to myself sometimes.” Davidson didn’t always understand either, but she had faith in him. “She sold quite a few of my pieces. I knew she went through difficult times when she could barely pay the rent. A lot of people would’ve given up. It’s a testament to her love of art that she stuck it out.” To Shetterly, Davidson was out to provoke and educate public taste as much as any artist.
When painter Harold Garde, now in his 95th year, moved to Maine from New York in his sixties, everybody assumed he knew of her growing stature. “It was: Of course, you know Nancy?” Davidson exhibited Garde’s early strappo works. In New York he’d known people who were interested in art and people who were interested in sales. “They weren’t necessarily the same people. But Nancy had a real respect for exploring and discovering.”
Davidson also exhibited landscape and color field painters who were easier to sell, seeing them as neither less nor more deserving of her energies but as a necessary part of the art spectrum. She’d learned that people differ vastly in what they want from art.
Her parents were antique collectors and jewelry store owners; in their home a love of pleasing objects was unquestioned. “Being surrounded by antiques heightened my awareness of beautiful things,” she remembers. The Davidsons traveled widely, showing their daughter art of many kinds. In European museums she found that contemporary art’sclean, pared-down lines excited her.
Her father’s business triggered life-altering experiences. The Longines watch company annually sent him a gift of a signed, limited-edition print by a famous artist of the 40’s or 50’s. These prints acquainted Davidson with artists like Leonard Baskin and Ben Shahn, and with the thrill of collecting.
On a seagoing business trip Sidney Davidson mentioned his child’s precocious fascination with art to a fellow passenger who happened to live near a Maine summer camp, Camp Truda. One evening, at her father’s invitation, he stopped by to meet Davidson. It was a remarkable opportunity to learn from a towering cultural figure: Martin Dibner, who, when he died at 80 in 1992, left a substantial legacy as first director of California’s Arts Commission, first head of the Joan Whitney Payson Art Gallery (now the University of New England Gallery), and bestselling novelist (The Deep Six).
“He sat me down,” Davidson says, “and began explaining what to look for in contemporary art.” Over several visits Dibner gave her a course in art appreciation. It was the first step toward her career. She was nine.
Another formative presence was her art-collecting cousin, philanthropist Bernard Osher. In 2007, Businessweek reported that Osher had donated $805 million to arts, education and social services. Davidson derived a unique benefit from being related to a wealthy art patron. “For years, when Barney bought an original painting, he’d take me along with him.” She met many artists, including sculptor-printmaker Chaim Gross, and was inspired to build her own collection of signed prints.
Becoming increasingly interested in how culture both reflects and shapes humanity, she considered becoming a psychotherapist and enrolled at Boston University. A sociology course required a study of modern artists including genre-busting painter Ben Shahn. Davidson’s family already had that signed Shahn print. Studying him now re-ignited her passion for art. Shahn’s desire to democratize art, bringing art and the public closer, resonated with Davidson’s emerging ideas. “I became friendly with him and other prominent artists of the time,” she recalls. Her collection of prints grew.
At 21 Davidson was pregnant with her first daughter when Rabbi Harry Sky, at Portland’s Temple Beth El, asked her to organize a fundraising art show. Working with Peggy Osher and Millie Nelson, older collectors and experienced networkers, she developed a show combining loaned works by “name” artists with for-sale work by contemporary artists, and limited-edition prints. It was hugely successful and ran annually for seven years. “It was a big deal,” Davidson reflects. “It was the 60’s. Contemporary art in Portland was virtually non-existent.”
The show launched Davidson as an art consultant to galleries throughout Maine. In the 70’s she joined Barridoff Galleries, now a Maine auction house specializing in art, where she created their signed limited-edition print department and managed print exhibitions. One day a humanities high school teacher came by, wanting to learn more about art to help his teaching, and about collecting.
It was a transformative encounter for the teacher, Bruce Brown, and the start of a lifelong friendship that would leave a lasting impression on Maine art. Brown’s interest in art, particularly prints and later photography, blossomed. From 1987 he served two decades as curator of Maine Coast Artists (now the CMCA) .
The 80s took Davidson to Santa Fe, where artist Joe Novak asked her to represent him. She worked with him almost eight years. In the 90s, back in Maine, she opened her gallery Davidson & Daughters. A partnership conflict led to closure after four and a half years, but she still treasures the relationships with artists she exhibited then, like Peyton Higginson, Charlie Hewitt, Susan Amons, Deborah Klotz, Diane Zaitlin, Rush Brown, Ted Arnold and Kate Gilmore. She later showed many at the MJM and other venues.
Wanting a fresh start, Davidson moved to Florida. In a population some 15 times that of Maine’s she prospered as a consultant: “I made a lot of money.” The gallery Studio E, in Palm Beach Gardens, had a contemporary focus that impressed her. She sent them her resume but heard nothing. About a year later she took a friend there. The owner overheard her explaining the art and hired her. She worked for Studio E seven years from late September through May, her clients mostly retirees wanting art for their winter homes. Davidson became the gallery’s star seller.
During her summer returns to Maine she curated for the Susan Maasch and 3 Fish galleries, created a sculpture garden at Maine Art, Kennebunkport, featuring then-new talents Elizabeth Ostrander, Patrick Plourde, Andreas von Hueme, Constance Rush, Roy Patterson and Peter Beerits, and attracted attention with her Critters exhibitions of animal-related art by William Wegman, Bernard Langlais, Dahlov Ipcar and others. The popular series included a 176-piece show in 2011 at the UNE Gallery. She explains: “Everybody loves animals in art, no matter what one’s level of art appreciation.” Bill Irvine, whose work Davidson showed in various galleries, says “she was moving around so much one never knew where she was.”
Around this time Davidson volunteered at the MJM for a year. MJM Director Ani Helmick endorsed her appointment as acting Resident Curator, a job which became permanent and full-time. As of this writing she has shows planned through 2019.
What’s it like to helm the art agenda of an institution like the MJM?
While her position has freed Davidson from some constraints of commercial galleries, she can’t ignore budget realities. She brings in annual grants to cover her salary.
Artists appreciate the prestige of showing at MJM but they need sales, so Davidson works hard to attract buyers as well as browsers. Her chief goal, though, is to show unconventional contemporary art that engages viewers and provokes intellectual and emotional response. She picks the artists but her board wants her to exhibit work with not only artistic merit but also both Maine and Jewish associations. Perhaps her biggest accomplishment has been managing to expand the MJM’s prestige significantly despite these limitations.
Davidson admits her choices aren’t always unreservedly approved. Eyebrows were raised when she recently showed the work of Richard Brown Lethem. But public reaction supported her judgment. Unsolicited comments included one from a visitor who’d just discovered both the MJM and Brown: “I had previously been unaware of your institution’s role in championing cutting-edge art …Thank you for doing this. I hope you will continue to choose to show art that makes this level of cultural contribution.”
Davidson has an unwavering confidence in her mission. She has, she states as a simple matter of fact, “put the MJM on the map as an exciting venue to view contemporary art.”
Bruce Brown agrees: “I like the diversity of her shows.” He singles out her decision to exhibit Rich Entel’s witty show of inventive animals constructed with musical instruments and cardboard cutouts, and the imaginative works of Nanci Kahn, Lin Lisberger and Deborah Klotz.
Continuing to channel her mentor, Martin Dibner, from that summer seven decades past, Davidson encourages MJM visitors to move away from obvious art narratives and connect with what lies beneath the visual surface. “Use the sum total of your life’s experience. Art is subjective. Look into your own life for meaning.”