The sorry state of Portland’s art scene

Imagine for a moment that you’re an artist living in Portland, Maine. Imagine further that you have an imagination, or at least enough creativity and originality to make work that isn’t stereotypical schlock: landscapes with old barns, seascapes with lighthouses, portraits of noble, sober lobstermen, etc.

Now try to find an art gallery in Portland to show and sell your work. And when I say “art gallery,” I mean an actual art gallery. Not a coffee shop or a restaurant. Not a non-profit institution like the library or MECA or SPACE. I’m talking about a business dedicated to displaying your work, with a gallery owner who knows how to sell it.

The good news: there are galleries in town that fit this description.

The bad news: there are only two of them, and getting a show at either one is far from easy.

The most established gallery in town is the June Fitzpatrick Gallery at MECA, located in the heart of the Arts District and run by June herself, a highly respected gallerist with decades of experience. The gallery shows drawings, paintings, prints and sculpture by new and established contemporary artists, most of them locals. June has impeccable taste, but she also has a roster of over 30 artists vying for exposure inside her small space.

The other option is Susan Maasch Fine Art, which recently scored room inside 4 City Center. Susan is also an experienced gallerist who shows paintings, photography and sculpture by contemporary Maine artists working outside the lighthouse-and-lobster genre. But like June, Susan’s already got a lengthy roster of artists whose work she needs to show (22 of them, at last count).

There’s only so much wall space in these two galleries and so many months in the year for shows — as it happens, not even 12; Susan’s gallery closed for renovations this January, and June’s is in the hands of guest curators until the middle of February.

The past couple years have been brutal for Portland’s visual-art market. Two of the few remaining commercial spaces for creative contemporary art, Aucocisco Gallery and Rose Contemporary, closed. Constellation Gallery, a co-op on Congress Street, shut its doors a month ago, after the building it occupied changed hands and the new landlord was unwilling to give the gallery the same flexible-rent arrangement it had previously enjoyed.

Gleason Fine Art closed its Portland gallery in 2013. Co-owner Martha Gleason told the Portland Press Herald that she and her husband Dennis needed at least $150,000 in annual sales to maintain the Congress Street space, a figure that represents “a tiny fraction” of what their gallery in Boothbay Harbor brings in.

Money is, of course, the root of the evil eating away at Portland’s art scene. Rents downtown and in the Old Port are prohibitively high for businesses selling art in a market like Maine’s, with relatively few collectors and an emphasis on work that appeals to seasonal tourists (hence all the lighthouses and snow-covered pine trees).

Lacking buyers, some gallery owners have turned to another source of revenue: the artists themselves. Art Collector Maine’s odious practice of charging artists upwards of $300 per month for the mere chance to have their work shown in one its galleries justifiably caused an uproar last year, as has its practice of promoting those artists in three lifestyle magazines owned by ACM’s principals without disclosing the conflict of interest.

Among those offended by this pay-to-play model was Press Herald art critic Daniel Kany. So imagine my surprise when, in late December, I got an e-mail from Kany promoting an art party co-hosted by Elizabeth Moss, who owns a gallery in a strip mall in Falmouth. Moss, who’d recently written an op-ed for the Herald pleading for corporations to save the arts, has put out a call for artists that costs $100 to answer. “But,” Kany noted in his e-mail, that fee “includes a critical survey” — that is, Moss will tell you what she likes and dislikes about your work — “and a shot at an ad in Downeast.”

Portland’s contemporary art market will rebound eventually. That’s what June thinks, anyway, and I believe her. She’s seen the scene expand and contract over the years. Galleries come and go, but Maine artists never stop creating, she told me, and they inevitably find ways to show their work.

In the meantime, patrons can help by seeking out and supporting creative visual art wherever it’s shown, and gallery owners like Moss and the ACM crew can help by ceasing the practice of bilking artists for the chance to be represented.

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.