The Wal-Mart of Maine art

So, let me get this straight. Kevin Thomas and Susan Grisanti, the owners of three glossy lifestyle magazines for tourists and Maine’s upper crust, have teamed up with a Wall Street investor named Jack Leonardi to open art galleries in Kennebunk and Portland’s Old Port, and to run a website that purports to offer one-stop shopping for all the art worth buying in Maine.

As detailed in a front-page story in last weekend’s Maine Sunday Telegram, artists have to pay upwards of $3,600 per year to upload their work to the site, If an artist pays for that privilege, one or more of their pieces might be selected by the investment broker (Leonardi) and his “team” to be shown in one of the galleries. If it sells in the gallery, the artist gets half the money and the gallery owners keep the rest (a common split in the art world).

Leonardi is trying to poach artists represented by competing galleries, and his pitch is sweetened by the promise that Art Collector Maine’s participants get postage stamp–size exposure in his business partners’ magazines; promotion via social media, e-mail and events; and may be the subject of a feature story or short profile in one of his partners’ publications.

Oh, and one other thing: almost all the work on ACM’s website and in its galleries is trite junk — landscapes and seascapes depicting boats and lighthouses and old barns; the sort of unimaginative visual drivel that hangs in hotel rooms and the vacation homes of people with far more money than taste.

That much is clear. What I’m trying to understand is how Thomas, Grisanti and Leonardi can claim they don’t know why ACM has infuriated and alienated so many real Maine artists and gallerists.

“We are spending considerable resources every day to build awareness for one purpose: sales,” Thomas told Telegram arts writer Bob Keyes. “Why can’t that be a good thing?”

Let me count the ways…

1. Charging artists upwards of $300 per month to maintain their own content on a website that probably costs ACM less than $300 per year to maintain is information-highway robbery. And the claim that this fee includes exposure to a social-media audience of a quarter-million people is rather dubious, given that ACM’s Facebook page, for example, has fewer than 12,000 “likes.”

2. This pay-to-play approach to promoting and selling work excludes hundreds of talented and original Maine artists solely because they cannot afford the monthly fee. What you get instead are independently wealthy amateurs whose work isn’t shown in traditional galleries because, in most cases, it’s simply not good enough. And yet Thomas & Co. promote ACM as the comprehensive source for all Maine art worth buying — Leonardi compares ACM to the MLS, the Multiple Listing Service real-estate website, where “you really feel like you’re seeing just about everything there is for purchase,” he said in a self-promotional story published in one of his partners’ magazines.

According to this business model, poor and middle-class artists in Maine may as well not exist, just as poor and blue-collar Mainers in general are whitewashed out of Thomas and Grisanti’s yuppie glossies. (For the latest example of this, see the feature story on Bayside and East Bayside in the new issue of Old Port, which manages to avoid mentioning any of the social-service providers whose presence is a huge issue in Bayside, and characterizes the construction of the Kennedy Park housing project for the poor as one of the area’s “economical, social, and environmental challenges.”)

3. Artists pay as little as $158 per month if they join ACM in groups of 20 or more, the Telegram reported. This discount seems designed to entice entire rosters of competing galleries’ artists to join ACM, as well as members of arts collectives and other nonprofits, all of which are struggling to survive in Maine’s lean art market. Small wonder established gallery owners like Peggy Greenhut Golden and Martha and Dennis Gleason have pulled their ads from Thomas and Grisanti’s publications in protest. “They are alienating other galleries, who they are now in competition with,” Golden told the Telegram. “I don’t want anything to do with them.”

4. According to Keyes’ Telegram story, Leonardi promotes ACM’s website as a “democratic means of reaching buyers” that “attempts to treat all of its artists equally.” If by “democracy” he means the political system currently in place in this country, in which money matters more than merit, then his description is apt. But presenting bad work and good work as equals does more to harm than help everyone involved in Maine’s art scene — except the trio pocketing the profits.

Chris Busby

About Chris Busby

Chris Busby is editor and publisher of The Bollard, a monthly magazine about Portland. He writes a weekly column for the BDN.