The Perennial Debate over the Portland Museum of Art Biennial

January 22, 2020

Prompted by artists’ complaints that they were being overlooked by the Portland Museum of Art, I recently visited the museum to see how many living Maine artists had works on display.

Walking up High Street, I passed the sculpture court featuring John Bisbee’s Hearsay ear trumpet of welded nails, Jonathan Borofsky’s colorful construction of stacked human figures entitled Human Structures and Celeste Roberge’s Rising Cairn, a larger-than-life metal figure filled with stones.

When I stepped in off Congress Square into the Great Hall, I was greeted by large-scale paintings by Alex Katz and a three-panel abstraction by David Row.

The stairway to the lower level was hung with landscapes by Richard Estes, Yvonne Jacquette, and John Walker.

As I wound my way up to the second, third, and fourth floors, I saw art by Matt Blackwell, Katherine Bradford, Tom Burckhardt, Lois Dodd, David Driskell, Lauren Fensterstock, Duncan Hewitt, Daniel Minter, Christopher Patch, and Aaron Stephan.

Even the museum’s address at 7 Congress Square is marked by a large, oxidized metal “7” created by Robert Indiana, the Pop Art icon who lived on Vinalhaven for 40 years until his death in 2018.

So it is not entirely true, as some local artists fear, that PMA ignores living Maine artists.

But the complaint surfaces every few years, as it did in 2015 when the museum changed its open, juried biennial exhibition of Maine artists to a curated show. At that time artists and others complained that the bequest of the late artist William Thon, which funded the biennial, stipulated an open, juried show—meaning that anyone could submit for a chance to show at the Portland museum. Curated exhibitions, on the other hand, are by invitation only.

The complaint that the museum doesn’t pay enough attention to local artists was renewed in December, when PMA announced it would replace its biennial in 2021 with a North Atlantic Triennial exhibition featuring artists from Maine, Iceland, Sweden, and possibly Norway. The triennial is planned as a series of three shows, one every three years.

My good friend Natasha Mayers, co-founder of the Union of Maine Visual Artists and a dedicated artist-activist who lives in Whitefield, explained the problem some artists have with the biennial-triennial change in an email.

“How wonderful to have an exhibit involving Icelandic and Norwegian and Maine artists, but not to substitute for the Maine Biennial,” Mayers wrote. “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?”

National Endowment for the Arts figures actually rank Maine eighth in the country in fine artists per capita behind New Mexico, Vermont, Hawaii, Montana, New York, and Alaska. But I get Mayers’ point: there are several thousand artists in Maine and not a lot of places to show.

She also echoed the frequent criticism that the Portland museum has not kept faith with Thon’s wishes.

“I’ve always supported the Thon request to have jurors and not curators,” Mayers wrote.

Thon left most of his estate to the PMA to endow the Helen E. and William E. Thon Endowment Fund, “whose principal shall be invested, reinvested, and maintained and whose net income shall be used to present, and award prizes for, a biennial juried show of Maine artists.”

But one thing most artists don’t seem to know about the Thon bequest is that by “Maine artist” Thon did not mean sculptors, photographers, printmakers, installation artists, or ceramic artists. He meant painters like himself.

“A Maine artist,” Thon stated in his will, “is a painter who has lived and worked for substantial periods of time in the State of Maine.”

The definition of a “Maine artist” is thus often a source of contention amongst artists. Past biennials at various institutions have been criticized for including seasonal residents, students, and people who used to live in Maine.

Biennials Past, Present

“I don’t think it’s any different from any other biennial,” PMA contemporary art curator Jaime DeSimone said of the controversy. “Every biennial is a punching bag for art.”

True enough. Every biennial I have ever seen has been criticized for something—who got in, who didn’t, who the jurors were, why there were no jurors, who qualifies as a Maine artist, the quality of the art. It’s always something.

Maine’s biennial exhibitions began in the 1970s with sponsorship from the Maine Arts Commission. The best one was the All Maine Biennial at Bowdoin College Museum of Art in 1979. It was an open, juried competition in which three distinguished out-of-state jurors selected 167 works by 140 artists.

The jurors were John Baur, former director of the Whitney Museum of American Art; Dorothy Miller, former assistant director of the Museum of Modern Art, and Stephen Prokopoff, director of the Institute for Contemporary Art in Boston. It was about as impartial a blue-ribbon panel as one could want, yet local artists who didn’t get in complained that none of the jurors were artists.

Perhaps for that reason all three jurors for the 1981 biennial at the University of Southern Maine were artists with national reputations: Vija Celmins, Bruce Helander, and James Surls. They chose 149 works by 149 artists from among some 700 submissions. Their romantic notion about what constituted “Maine art,” however, led the jurors to select a painting of a deer jumping a fence as the first prize winner, a selection regarded by many as an insult.

The All Maine Biennial subsequently moved to Colby College (1983), the Portland Museum of Art (1985), and the University of Southern Maine (1988), before becoming defunct.

The Portland Museum of Art’s current biennial series began in 1998 and became underwritten by the Thon bequest in 2001.

Open juried shows are popular among artists because they know the jurors at least had to consider them, but juried shows do not necessarily feature the best art in the state because many of the most successful artists do not submit and the jurors are restricted to those who do. The real value of a juried biennial is the chance to discover new art and artists. That function has been well-served since 1978 by the Center for Maine Contemporary Art biennial in Rockland.

The appeal of a curated biennial is that the curators are able to select from the entire universe of artists living, working, educated, or born in Maine. Curated exhibitions tend to be more coherent and to have a point of view. The PMA biennial in recent years has served to place new art in the context of Maine art history. With the advent of the North Atlantic Triennial, contemporary art from Maine will be seen in a national and international context.

PMA started thinking seriously about the North Atlantic Triennial in 2016, when the Arctic Council, an eight-member inter-governmental organization, met in Portland. One of the sessions was held at the museum. The member countries are Canada, Denmark, Finland, Iceland, Norway, Russia, Sweden, and the United States.

Museum director Mark Bessire and chief curator Jessica May decided the Arctic Council should add a cultural component to its scientific and environmental agenda. When Bates graduate Jaime DeSimone became the associate curator for contemporary art in 2018, she was charged with making it happen. With a grant of nearly $50,000 from the Andy Warhol Foundation, DeSimone traveled throughout Maritime Canada and Scandinavia visiting museums and artists’ studios.

“Artists in Maine are already working in the geographic area we are exploring,” DeSimone said. “It’s a natural progression where Maine artists are going. Maine is connected to this North. The triennial is a way to elevate Maine artists and put them on a much larger platform.”

Exceptions to the Rule

Former museum directors rarely criticize their successors in a public way, but Daniel O’Leary, director of PMA from 1993–2008, got so upset about the North Atlantic Triennial that he wrote a letter charging that the use of the Thon bequest to fund an international triennial “seriously undermines the credibility and reputation of the museum.”

“William Thon was explicit: He wanted a juried exhibition every two years,” O’Leary wrote. “It was disheartening when the museum arbitrarily abandoned working with jurors in favor of the easier approach of allowing a curator to select a few artists for a less comprehensive exhibition. The Thon gift was more than sufficient to fund a true biennial.

“Now, William Thon’s wish has been further violated: a triennial will replace his vision with some sort of collaboration with Iceland and Norway. Perhaps this concept has value, but there is no legitimacy or justice in sacrificing a donor’s hopes simply to pay for it.”

O’Leary’s letter gave plenty of ammunition to local artists who felt slighted by the PMA.

“In most peoples’ view,” photographer John Ripton, chairman of the UMVA’s Portland chapter, wrote in an email, “as I interpret it, the ‘juried biennial’ was in the spirit of the Thons’ gift: to invigorate the contemporary Maine artistic scene and community. It is felt that the Biennial did just that with its juried shows. With the ‘regional triennial,’ Portland members feel that PMA has moved even farther from the spirit of the Thon gift.”

But what O’Leary seems to have forgotten and UMVA members may not have known is that Thon foresaw that the museum might not always want to mount a juried biennial and his will gives the museum permission to do what it wants with his bequest.

“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,” Thon wrote. “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.”

Art in Maine Comes of Age

Local artists want to feel included. Some even think the museum should consult them about exhibitions—which is asking too much. But PMA does integrate Maine artists into everything it does, from collections and exhibitions to education and programming.

“We know how hard it is to be a contemporary artist,” director Mark Bessire said when asked about the museum’s support for local artists. “The good thing is that the contemporary art scene in Maine has gotten much stronger. There are many places to show. CMCA has a great biennial. Here in Portland there’s Space Gallery, the ICA at Maine College of Art, Able Baker, Grant Wahlquist. We want to use the biennial as a vehicle to explore the relationship between us and the North Atlantic.”

The move from juried to curated biennials, and now from state biennial to international triennial, marks a maturing of the Maine art scene. “Maine art” once signified a form of local color provincialism, but the best art in Maine now participates in the ongoing international dialogue that is the life blood of contemporary art.

A North Atlantic Triennial is a logical next step and should be applauded.

Freelance writer Edgar Allen Beem lives in Brunswick and has written about art in Maine since 1978.

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See O’Leary’s Letter to the Editor in the winter issue of the Maine Arts Journal: