Portland art collective falls victim to rising rents, demand for space

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PORTLAND — After more than five years at 511 Congress St., evolving economic realities are forcing Constellation Gallery to search for a new home.

The gallery and studio, which serves as a home base for the 30 or so members of the Maine Art Collective, has never been a moneymaker.

But when City Councilor David Marshall founded it in 2009, he struck a deal with the landlord that allowed the gallery to pay rent based on its monthly earnings, however meager.

It’s plight now is another example of artists being squeezed out by the competition for space and rising rents, after they’ve helped make the city an attractive cultural destination.

The roomy, first-floor space, once a bookstore, had been empty for three years before Constellation moved in, and the owner was just glad to have a tenant.

“We were fortunate to be in the right place at the right time,” Marshall said. “It’s a great location, and we’ve made the most of it over the years.”

What started as a temporary arrangement eventually grew into a staple of Portland’s art scene. Constellation Gallery has shown the work of more than 100 local artists, including many exhibiting for the first time.

As the Maine Art Collective formed and its board assumed ownership of the gallery from Marshall, the space became a studio and a meeting place for a dedicated group of creatives. And as the gallery’s mission expanded, Constellation began hosting educational programming for teens and events like free poetry readings.

But in April, Ed Gardner of Ocean Gate Realty bought the building – which also houses office space, the Shanghai Tokyo restaurant, and the Maine International Trade Center – for $12.5 million. And a “For Lease” sign soon went up in Constellation Gallery’s window.

“He’s a supporter of the arts and a believer in some of the work we’re doing,” Marshall said of Gardner. “But that particular space, he’s under some pressure from the bank to make it produce more than it is now.

“We know the time for transition is near,” Marshall, a painter, said. “At this point, we’re trying to be proactive about finding a new space.”

Once the gallery space is leased, the collective will have 30 days to pack up and leave. The artists hope to stay in Portland, but looking at nearby communities is not out of the question, Marshall said.

Perhaps more importantly, they need to determine what the Constellation Gallery wants – or can afford – going forward.

“It’s going to be a different model,” Marshall conceded. “We’ll have to make some choices as far as what kind of space we want to be in. And do we want to continue the gallery format or focus more on studio opportunities? Or just doing after-school education programs, like we’ve done for the past couple years?”

Constellation Gallery’s story echoes that of other art spaces that have fallen prey to gentrification. A sweetheart deal like the one the gallery enjoyed the past five years will be hard to find in Portland in 2014, and likely impossible to come by in a location as central as 511 Congress St.

“This isn’t a new trend,” Marshall said. “If there’s a neighborhood with cheap rent and good potential, artists are generally the first to see that potential. It was only a decade ago that Congress Street was a ghost town. You’d walk down it at night and there was no activity or life on the street. Today, the Congress Street corridor is becoming more popular, and there’s more investment, more interest from businesses that generate more revenue than artists and galleries.”

For now, while the board ponders its future, life at the gallery continues mostly uninterrupted. Artists pay modest fees to use the space as a studio and to exhibit their work: paintings, photography, cartography, woodwork, collage, mobiles and more. This week, a juried June show called “Dreams” is being dismantled as one for July, “Movement,” begins to go up.

Jos Ruks, a 3D artist from Holland who serves as president of the Maine Art Collective, said he has no doubt that the collective will survive the loss of its current home. Its membership may shrink, he said, but the group’s core – about 15 people who rent studio space, sit on the board, and volunteer their time to staff the gallery or update its website – will stick together.

“Being a collective, there is interest to keep this alive,” Ruks said. “There is a bond that has grown over the years. It’s a group of like-minded artists who work together on a mission. They want to educate and be involved in the community.”

Ruks joked that the collective could exhibit work on a truck, or on some kind of seaborne art barge. He has entertained the possibility of the group hosting its monthly shows in shifting locations, or even renting out art as a way to generate income. Still, he hopes for a permanent base and a “philanthropist landlord.”

“We can sit and wait until we get (an eviction) notice – and it will come – or we can try to find something comparable where we can do what we do here,” Ruks said. “Have a gallery with shows and students, host music performances, workshops, demonstrations, lectures – everything related to art.”

In Ruks, the Maine Art Collective has a leader who will do whatever he can to ensure the survival of the group. So what, ultimately, does he see in store for the future of the Constellation Gallery and its supporters?

“Good question,” he said. “No answer.”

Brendan Twist can be reached at 781-3661 ext. 123 or btwist@theforecaster.net. Follow him on Twitter:@brendantwist.

Sidebar Elements

Constellation Gallery has been at 511 Congress St. in Portland since January 2009. The home of the Maine Art Collective is now being forced to find new space.

Jos Ruks, president of the Maine Art Collective, ponders the future of the Constellation Gallery.

A collection of works by Margaret Silsby at the Constellation Gallery on Congress Street.