Portland’s historic Mechanics Hall will become home of Maine craft gallery

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PORTLAND — The city has the right mix of a thriving arts district and those who support it for the Maine Crafts Association to feel confident about opening a permanent downtown gallery and resource center this summer.

“(We are) excited to expand to serve more artists and connect with new customers,” Sadie Bliss, executive director of the association said this week. “Locations (and) income potential have been carefully researched, considered and nurtured.”

While “there are many wonderful locations in Portland selling crafts from Maine and beyond, our store will add more variety to the existing mix,” she said.

The Maine Crafts Association currently operates what Bliss called “the highly successful Center for Maine Craft in West Gardiner,” which brings in about $600,000 annually and exhibits and sells the work of more than 315 craft artists from across the state.

The plan, according to Bliss, is to open Maine Craft Portland on July 1, just in time for one of the biggest summer weekends in the city. It will be in the historic Mechanics Hall at 519 Congress St., near Maine College of Art.

The hall is now being renovated to make room for the gallery, Bliss said.

The association has leased the first floor, which will be updated with new paint, flooring and electricity, as well as an ADA-compliant bathroom.

“We are (also) opening up the front windows to create sight lines into and out of the space,” Bliss said. “(And) we’ve reserved an area toward the back of the gallery that will serve as flex space.”

Bliss said the Maine Crafts Association also plans to make use of the building’s existing ballroom, library and classrooms for educational programming and other special events. The crafts association will likely employ four to eight people to operate the gallery and assist vendors and patrons.

“For over a century (the hall) has been a meeting place for professional craftsmen of many mediums (and) we (believe) that our missions align and support one another,” she said. “Maine Craft Portland will promote craft in Maine through exhibitions and public programming and will also directly benefit craft artists through sales of their work.”

She said the gallery would “represent the many-faceted mediums of contemporary Maine crafts,” including fine ceramics, hand-blown glass, studio jewelry, finely-crafted home goods, wearables and collector’s pieces.

In addition, Bliss said, the center will also offer a selection of natural personal-care products, and books by Maine authors, along with a variety of temporary displays and installations.

All exhibiting craft artists must be based in Maine; the association is accepting online applications from potential vendors.

“There will not be a formal jury process for the first phase of ordering,” Bliss said. “But once we have our feet under us, a jury process will commence to attract and identify new vendors.”

She said the new gallery and resource center is the result of a strategic plan developed by the association executive board early last year.

The association has been conducting a capital campaign to raise the $100,000 needed for the project, and this past winter received a $50,000 matching grant from the Windgate Foundation.

In all, Bliss said, “MCA has received contributions ranging from $10 to $5,000 from our amazing and supportive network of board members, arts supporters, foundations (and) Portland businesses.”

Even so, the association needs further donations to “complete the fundraising phase of this exciting new effort.”

The Maine Charitable Mechanic Association was founded in 1815 as a social organization “that promoted and supported the skilled trades—blacksmiths, coopers, carpenters, and more,” its website says. “Its original members were master craftspeople and entrepreneurs and their apprentices. Today MCMA works to connect that history to the modern makers movement.”

Mechanics Hall was completed in 1859 and is on the National Register of Historic Places, according to a press release from the association. It once served as City Hall and also housed and served meals to Union troops during the Civil War.

Kate Irish Collins can be reached at 710-2336 or kcollins@theforecaster.net. Follow Kate on Twitter: @KIrishCollins.

Interior renovations are underway at Mechanics Hall in Portland, where the Maine Crafts Association this summer will open a gallery and resource center. Upgrades to the more than 200-year-old building at 519 Congress St. include new paint and flooring; historic wooden cabinets are being reused.

Mechanics Hall at Congress and Casco streets in downtown Portland, where the Maine Crafts Association will open a gallery and resource center this summer.