Below is a Letter to the Editor from the Portland Sunday Telegram, 12/15/2019.

The Maine Arts Journal thinks this is a very important issue, so we are reprinting the letter here and some UMVA members’ initial responses. 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. We hope that the PMA will clarify its decision in a public statement.

12/15/2019 Portland Sunday Telegram   Portland Museum of Art triennial further violates donor’s vision

Artist William Thon gave his estate to fund a juried exhibition every two years.

The Maine Biennial was established at the Portland Museum of Art through a very generous gift from William and Helen Thon. The couple wanted future generations of artists to experience the creative life they had greatly enjoyed in our state.

William Thon was so devoted to his belief in a Maine Biennial that he gave his entire estate: an investment portfolio of over $1 million, his home and studio at Port Clyde, and everything owned.

William Thon was explicit: He wanted a juried exhibition every two years. 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. New donors should be sought for the project rather than violate the Thon gift.

The message this unfortunate act sends seriously undermines the credibility and reputation of the museum. A employee may lose track of the fundamental principles of the museum. But the museum trustees must guard against such transgressions. The trustees should protect the integrity of their museum so that current and future donors can trust that their hopes will be respected.

Daniel E. O’Leary

director, Portland Museum of Art, 1993-2007


Based upon former Portland Museum of Art director Daniel O’Leary’s letter in the Portland Press Herald today, 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.  Gregg Harper

If this change alters the very nature of the Thons’ bequest and purpose of the gift, then it closes yet another door for Maine artists, and I’m guessing  the Thons would not be ok with this diversion of funding and change in concept. Janice Moore

Thank you all for your interest and comments, especially Gregg for bringing it to our intention and C. for shedding more light on the whole story. I think she is right in calling on PMA to explain and justify their position to the public – which they probably can and should. It also would be wise of us to discuss and perhaps research this thoroughly before taking a stand beyond that.

At the Portland meeting last week we briefly discussed this issue. Everyone was concerned and sees the abandonment of the “biennial” as a great loss and that the decision reflects a lack of concern for local artists. All agreed that the international show is terrific and noted how easily PMA may have found additional funding for such a show and still retain the Thon gift for the “biennial.” It was also the general sentiment that some time in the new year UMVA should draft a public statement expressing members’ concerns.  John Ripton

Image at top: Avy Claire, For the Trees, ink on polyester, 2011, installation at Portland Museum of Art