Preserving Space: Portland gallery to buy Congress Street building

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PORTLAND — To paraphrase Virginia Woolf, the gallery has a space of its own.

Nonprofit Space Gallery has raised $584,000 for a down payment to buy its building at 538 Congress St. for $1.45 million from owner Christopher Campbell.

Fundraising also brought in enough money to pay for building expenses in the first year of ownership and to establish an artist-in-residency program.

The success of the fundraising drive was announced in a press release this month.

“It is important that we keep artists working in the Arts District,” Space Gallery Executive Director Nat May said Nov. 12.

Staffer Anne Buckwalter, who also paints in an upstairs studio, said she was relieved by the purchase.

“The idea someone could buy and gut this place for condominiums was heartbreaking,” she said.

Space has occupied the 25,000-square-foot building – formerly a hotel that specialized in housing traveling salesmen – since 2002, May said. It’s first-floor performance space has hosted an average of 200 events annually, with films, concerts, and presentations and exhibits by artists.

In 2011, Space expanded on the first floor to include what is called The Annex, which is used as exhibition space. All along, May said, the organization has been supported by Campbell.

“We were blessed to have an amazing landlord situation from the beginning,” he said. “The chance to own stabilizes our financial commitment to the space.”

Upstairs, Space is home to more than 30 studios, which are constantly occupied and sought out by artists when openings occur.

The availability has been a boon to artists who graduated from the Maine College of Art, which is next door.

“These affordable studio spaces located right next door to MECA have been a critical resource for our alumni, students and faculty for years. We are thrilled that SPACE will continue this legacy, allowing creative entrepreneurs to thrive on Congress Street,” MECA President Don Tuski said in the press release.

Buckwalter said she prefers the studio to working at home.

“I get distracted easily,” she said. “When I come here, I know it is time to work.”

The acquisition also ensures the future of Pickwick Independent Press, housed on the second floor. Pickwick is a joint venture of 25 artists offering a variety of presses and tools for art production.

Pickwick proprietor Pilar Nadal praised the purchase.

“I’m thrilled that Pickwick Independent Press, as well as the 30 other artists in the building, has a secure home going forward and that our new landlords are not only committed to the arts, but are a driving force of innovation and culture in our community,” she said.

May said fundraising began in earnest, but quietly, last spring. By the time efforts became public in July, Space had raised about 50 percent of its $538,000 goal.

Over the years, the programming emphasis has shifted according, in part, to other venues available. May said concerts were an early staple, but were held less often as more clubs opened in the area.

Space now screens more films because independent theater The Movies on Exchange closed in 2009 at 10 Exhange St.

“Our intention is to be open to the community when we meet our goals and theirs,” May said. He expects a broader public outreach, including the residency program and more open studio events for artists to show their work.

“We want to celebrate the activities and tell the stories,” he said.

Space Gallery Executive Director Nat May on Nov. 12 said the gallery expects to increase its public outreach and establish a residency program after buying its building at 538 Congress St. in Portland.

After a fundraising campaign netted $584,000, Space Gallery will be able to buy the 538 Congress St. building it has occupied since 2002.

Space Gallery staffer Anne Buckwalter markets the nonprofit and has a studio upstairs: “When I come here, I know it is time to work,” she said Nov. 12.

Portland City Hall reporter for The Forecaster. Baltimore native, lived in Maine since 1989. A journalist since 2005, covering much of Cumberland and York counties. I joined The Forecaster in 2012.