COMMENTS ABOUT THE PORTLAND MUSEUM OF ART’S DECISION TO REPLACE THE BIENNIAL FOR MAINE ARTISTS WITH AN INTERNATIONAL TRIENNIAL
The Portland Museum of Art has recently announced it will be replacing its Biennial Maine art exhibition with a curated international triennial exhibition. The Triennial (which over the next nine years will circulate between Portland, Iceland, Sweden, and possibly Norway) has drawn criticism from former PMA director Daniel O’Leary, who has recently filed a complaint with the Maine Attorney General’s office regarding the shift from the more than twenty-year-old format. O’Leary claims that the transition is in violation of the wishes of late Maine artist William E. Thon, who gifted nearly $4 million in assets towards the establishment of a biennial juried show featuring young Maine artists. Though the museum maintains that the triennial exhibition will continue to showcase artists with connections to Maine and thus is within Thon’s request regarding the show, O’Leary maintains that Thon’s intention was specifically to uplift Maine artists in a juried show, and to move to a curated international exhibition format explicitly violates Thon’s wishes.
The Maine Arts Journal thinks this is a very important issue. If Maine artists lose the opportunity to be in the Biennial, it is a matter of concern. In the past, the UMVA has opened the discussion about controversial Maine Biennial practices. We are issuing a “call” to write to the museum and/or send your own letter to the editor.
This change has created a stir in the Maine art community, with many artists critical of the museum. Below are the 22 comments we have received.
Edgar Beem sent me his article about the PMA decision not to hold an open call for the next Triennial. Natasha Mayers’s quote was spot on and I agree completely.
How wonderful to have an exhibit involving Icelandic and Norwegian and Maine artists, but not to substitute for the Maine Biennial. Maine has the highest per capita number of artists of any state and I would guess some of the fewest opportunities to show their work in important exhibitions. Why take away the premier opportunity? Why close another door for Maine artists? Why shrink the chances?
Every chance I get I tell the story of little-by-little being recognized by the “Maine Art Establishment,” and that meant getting to show at the Museum for those Biennials.
It’s like everything else; it seems like Portland is growing a lot larger. I can see why growth is good, but at the same time we have artists galore in Maine. There is no need to import artists.
I think the argument that the Biennial is less important now that there are other venues to support Maine artists is a specious one. There is a singularity around a “juried“ biennial that differentiates itself from a “curated” exhibit. It is a wilder and woolier process and much more difficult to control by the host institution. By choosing a curator the institution has become the initial jury, it has established at least some agreeable parameters that will guide the selection process more narrowly than a jury of three. I was a witness to the 1981 all artist jurying process. It was a lively and sometimes adversarial discussion that happened in real time right in front of the work in question. I’m not sure if that could even happen today but a jury’s deliberations tend to mitigate against a sometimes curatorial bubble.
I appreciate the opportunity to comment on the PMA Biennial decision, from the perspective of an educator who loved showing the students what was happening in their home state. To have a large museum value the state’s artists meant the students could value their own creativity and perhaps even see themselves as part of the bigger picture. The missed opportunity to share with young learners the richness of the arts in this state, the possibility of their future of an arts career in Maine, and the respect for their own creative development (as valued by the larger community), would be sadly missed without the Biennial.
Connecting Maine artists and audiences to a wider global community is exciting and could open many possibilities—artist exchanges, collaborations, educational opportunities, dialogue, and shared (or varied) visions. Why not do both?
I guess it all depends on what the PMA sees as its mission.
Christine J. Higgins
I’m so glad that someone is interested in this subject.
My thoughts: the juried biennial cuts the curator out of the equation and this threatens the people in charge of the PMA. In the same respect, an international collaboration will raise a curators profile and elevate their potential job opportunities in bigger markets. I think that this is the reason we saw the death of the egalitarian open call model which was turned into a Portland-centric nepotism model.
Though I’ve shown my work all over the world, there was no way anyone from Portland/Texas/Chicago was going to find me in central Maine.
Based on numbers, there is no doubt that the new Triennial will shrink the opportunities for the majority of Maine artists and unfairly benefit the few that are “discovered.”
My wish: instead of the curators spending money flying to Art Basel or Venice to discover exciting artists and importing them, the PMA should discover and develop Maine artists and export them. The PMA has a consumer mentality when it should have a creator mentality.
I recently watched a curator, who I like, speak at a conference. She said that she had “discovered” a Maine artist reading an article in Hyperallergic, which I thought was so sad. Why is it that she had to read a Brooklyn-based website to hear about an artist who lived an hour away.
All of this, in a way, is a moot point. Young consumers of art are no longer visiting museums, for this very reason. Curators play it safe, show boring exhibits, with opaque artwork from unrelatable artists, and as a result kids go to Instagram to find exciting cutting edge work. Thank god, or I wouldn’t have a career.
Thanks for asking.
I suspect that the museum curators want that place to take a shot at being more than a regional museum, but I disagree.
Why can’t the PMA do both rather than bringing in packaged shows of questionable quality such as the recent Noguchi exhibition. This is a time when emerging Maine-based artists need the support of an open juried show.
Richard Brown Lethem
Does it really have to be an either or choice for PMA on question of the traditional Biennial or the “international” Triennial? I suspect it comes down to a question of where money for support comes from and perhaps a desire to wriggle out of the Thon bequest. If there is choice, give us back the biennial. It may at times have been infuriating, engaging, inspiring or downright silly, but it gave under-represented and emerging artists a chance to show their work, have it discussed, and presented to a larger community. There really aren’t that many opportunities.
When an endowment is made to a museum for a specific type of show, like the Thon’s wanting to make sure there was funding for a biennial specifically for Maine artists, I think the funders should be respected. I suggest that instead of looking for loopholes in the endowment, the Portland Museum of Art develop OTHER funders for a triennial involving Icelandic and Scandinavian artists. Both shows have merits, but don’t slap Maine artists in the face by taking away an important show in the state.
Ann Tracy, artist, photographer, retired arts administrator
Please consider who is supporting the museum. Among the participants are the many numerous artists who attend the museum’s shows,some on a regular basis. Many are local or within short distances. We are familial. Supporting our community is only befitting. As an artist, I look forward to coming down to Portland, hours away from Morrill, and attending exhibitions. That you gave back to us in the past by supporting a biennial regularly was inspiring and loving. Please fix this breakup, you can do it. It feels like a divorce. Honoring Mr. Thon’s true vision and intention for the PMA Biennial is the right thing to do.
Here’s my opinion, for what it’s worth. I was glad that the last Biennial was curated. I really liked that show. But I wish the curator had visited more people. I would have loved to be the tour guide for around here. As for the Maine and Icelandic etc triennial,well,that could very well be wonderful, but it shouldn’t replace the Maine biennial. The biennial was meant to be a show of Maine Art. I don’t think the museum should let its desire to be important on a national scale override its function to serve Maine.
There was a short spell when I was a part of the visual arts panel of the Maine Arts Commission. Among other things, we had the job of looking at people’s slides and picking people who were then listed as candidates for the visiting artists program that funded artists doing residencies at Maine schools. There were a couple of aspects to this that I found troubling.
Projected images have their limitations. I think that scale is an important aspect of art. A six-inch square painting and a six foot square one will both be the same size on a screen, but the experience of seeing them in real life is very different. Another aspect that troubled me was that each of us on the panel was attracted to someone’s work that the rest of the people on the panel didn’t like at all. So all those people got eliminated,all the eccentric choices. I sometimes felt that we ended up with the grey middle.
Since I often knew the work of the artists whose slides we viewed, I knew that some people did wonderful work but sent us lousy slides. Sometimes this was due to a lack of technical skill. Sometimes the work was wonderful, but just wasn’t photogenic. (A wonderful picture that was 1’ tall and 15’ wide would have looked beautiful in an exhibition space but really didn’t fit well in a slide format on a screen.)
One day I ran into a friend whose work had just been rejected. She asked how it had gone, and I told her. She began to cry. She was dependent on the small income she got from those residencies. I quit the visual arts panel soon after that. I didn’t want the job of judging my fellow artists.
Because of these things, when the biennials took form and people sent slides or digital images to be judged, I often wished that there were some other way. I guess I wished for a curated show. I loved the last biennial. But I wished that the curator would have time and funding to make many more studio visits,to visit the far flung regions of Maine.
The real value of a juried biennial is the chance to discover new art and artists. The PMA offers a big space in the big city. I love curated shows and agree they tend to be more coherent and have a point of view, but a juried show opens it up to ALL artists, which is important.
Portland is a sophisticated city for its size. Maine has had a central role in the story of American art for over 100 years. The PMA, like the City of Portland, is growing and maturing with its eye on the prize- a sophisticated, world-class destination. To me, it appears the Portland Museum of Art is striving to compete on a more national or even international level. This requires more photography and globally- relevant exhibitions. Also, there is the cost of time involved with exhibitions of greater individuals and more pieces of art. They require more staff and many more hours than curated exhibitions.
For me, the main problem with the recent biennials mounted at PMA is the lack of great contemporary paintings. I have wondered if it’s because the jury process has had to rely on image submissions only. When you choose paintings from a computer screen, it’s a very different process than seeing them in person. For 15 years, I have represented and sold GREAT Maine contemporary paintings to people in Maine, across the US and internationally.
There has always been and will always be a storied tradition of American painting created along Maine’s coastline. If you look at the greatest American painters- Wyeth, Homer, Hartley, the list goes on. Contemporary painters are fully aware of this tradition and hope to continue the story of Maine painting and to be worthy of those that came before. For these artists, the highest recognition is inclusion in the PMA Biennial.
As Thon wrote, “I recognize that there may be times when, for any one of a number of valid reasons, the Portland Museum of Art may decide not to present a biennial juried show of the works of Maine painters. I have every confidence that in such a case the Portland Museum of Art will use the income in other appropriate ways to encourage Maine painters and generally to enhance the ability of the Portland Museum of Art to flourish and to enrich the cultural life and experience of the people of Maine.”
Without the biennial, I don’t know how the Portland Museum can encourage Maine painters and enrich the cultural life and experience of the people of Maine.
It should be a biennial that is exclusively for Maine painters.
Elizabeth Moss, Owner/ Director
Elizabeth Moss Galleries
Ditto!!!! Why not have both: a Biennial and a separate exhibition connecting Maine Artists to other countries?
Nancy Davidson, curator, Maine Jewish Museum
I look forward to seeing curated shows at the PMA such as the upcoming Triennial, but I think professional artists in the Portland area are frustrated that there is no way to apply to show work at their local art museum, even through a competitive application and jury process. If there is no call for artists to apply to a biennial show, maybe there could be a designated gallery in the museum that would rotate Maine artists’ work, the way the museum’s fourth floor had been used in past years.
I have a somewhat different take on all of this.
First, the experience of art, regardless of where it originates from—in terms of geography, gender, race, religion, or politics—is a magnificent statement of our shared humanity.
We must remember who we are.
To that end, I have absolutely loved the prolific installation of Carrie Moyer and Sheila Pepe at the PMA, here in Maine, and look forward as well to embracing the onset of the Northern Triennial, here in Maine, which has promise to provide fresh, creative, global context to our community, including Maine artists.
Will I miss the Maine Biennial at PMA? Well, it was for such a long while congenial and so good to view the collection of work, meeting the artists. However, the escalating, very vocal bitterness of some Maine artists—which I too sadly was the brunt of when I participated in PIECEWORK—became far too powerful and too unattractive for my taste.
If egos can distill, if focus can return to the work, perhaps PMA might consider an alternative collaboration of sorts with the Maine artist community – one that might be positive for all. But, it seems a tall order… It cannot be ignored that a contributing factor has been in what denotes a Maine artist.
Take for instance, me: Maine native, raised my kids here, live and create my work here for a good, long while. Still, I did not somehow meet the criteria by which some Maine artists believed I should be ‘allowed’ to participate. This makes me question deeply the root of this animosity.
It’s worth pointing out too, that a museum is not a gallery, art dealer or even necessarily patron ( though collections do accumulate ). It is not in the business of supporting artists: it is a social institution involved in the procurement of bringing some predetermined facet of humanity to the public, including art.
Naturally, affirmation and audience are desirable elements of any creative practice. Everyone benefits from exposure to fresh art perspectives and the ability to share with other artists, especially local artists involved in the creation of their own works.
On a positive note, a thought to share from the late, great painter Howard Hodgkin:
“A return of focus to scale, proportion, the relation to form and content, to self and to emotion—all of this is the most important part of art, the one most uncomfortable to speak about, and most difficult to face alone in our studios.”
We must remember who we are.
By eliminating the Maine artist-centered biennial as stipulated by the Thon bequest, the PMA is not only breaking its contract, it’s also marginalizing one of our best and unique resources—the Maine artist. Why is the PMA so continually embarrassed by its indigenous artists and fearful of looking provincial? Why isn’t the PMA instead proudly championing and acknowledging Maine’s enormous reservoir of creativity? Are we to conclude that the PMA thinks art “from away” is better than art made here? Why should we pit a Maine biennial against an international triennial? Why must it be an either-or venture? Good for those who want an Icelandic/Norwegian/Maine Triennial, but they need to keep their hands off the Maine Biennial and especially the Thon bequest. They need to find their own source of funding. And we need an open biennial that fairly promotes Maine artists.
“Don’t enter awards competitions.
Just don’t. It’s not good for you.”
I love Bruce Mau’s “Incomplete Manifesto of Growth.” The above is #26 in his list. I am tired of competition, it’s not why I paint.
I think the PMA’s Triennial is an important cultural initiative. It enhances Maine’s growing commercial and geo-political relationship with Nordic countries. I don’t think, however, that it needs to supplant the Maine Biennial. Both can and should be sustained. I wonder how far afield PMA searched to fund the Triennial. It seems like an attractive project that would have broad reception among funders. At the same time, the Thon endowment appears to have been given to PMA to open opportunities for Maine artists; at least that seems to be the spirit in the endowment agreement, as quoted in the Press Herald.
Many museums have begun curating shows in historical and cultural context, as the PMA recently did with its exhibition of N. C. Wyeth’s work. Maine native people were given opportunities to voice their views of the indigenous subjects Wyeth projected. Perhaps PMA should recognize more fully its own cultural context and collaborate with the artistic communities just beyond its walls. The Biennial was one way that PMA accomplished this. But the museum seems to have retreated from the fruitful relationship the Biennial once represented.
I propose that PMA establish some form of liaison relationship with the Union of Maine Visual Artists. The UMVA, as the only statewide organization of artists and with a presence in Portland’s “arts district,” should have an organizational relationship with PMA. This relationship would provide direct contact with Maine artists and could be a way for PMA to access comments and suggestions related to its shows and other programs. Such a relationship would foster greater understanding and cooperation.
Chair, UMVA Portland Chapter
I’m left wondering how the basic concept in the Helen and William Thon Endowment Fund can be transformed into a different idea with different purposes and outcomes, and still be considered the Thon Endowment Fund. The tools used to determine an exhibit (and which artists can be included/considered) will now be legal ones; not a surprising conclusion when control over funding is at stake. It will be left to attorneys ultimately, to determine Biennial vs. Triennial, Juried vs. Guest Curated, and Open vs. Invitational, with the current course of action. The original intention that all Maine artists who qualify and make the effort to have their work considered goes away. This potentially marks the end of a wonderful and inclusive idea by the Thons, which they both created and paid for.
In a letter to the editor written by Ed Nadeau of Orono, he requested that the museum reverse its decision on establishing a triennial and go back to the original format of having only Maine artists considered. He suggested that curators take the time to come to the northern two-thirds of the state and visit artists’ studios, where “they may come to realize that the heritage connections that Maine has are mainly French Canadian, English and Jewish. Not Icelandic.” He wonders if the curators understand Maine’s heritage and its importance in American art. “Maine artists are doing powerful, thought-provoking work.” He urges the PMA to support Maine artists, not Icelandic.
NOTE: In the Winter issue of the Journal we printed O’Leary’s letter and some other artists’ responses:
Based upon former Portland Museum of Art director Daniel O’Leary’s letter in the Portland Press Herald, I find the situation related to the recent PMA decision to substitute the Maine Biennial with an international triennial very disturbing. As a former art museum director myself, I would have been fired for shifting funding specifically designated for a project to another without the agreement of the donor or the donor’s estate. Aside from this they have already diverged from the original agreement with the donor’s estate by eliminating the Biennial jury in favor of a curator. No matter the merit of the new project, PMA needs to find new funding for it…and continue the Maine Biennial (with jurors) as agreed.