The Universal Notebook: A Portland Museum of Art Biennial beef

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The Portland Museum of Art Biennial has become an important exhibition of new Maine art. This year it will be held from Oct. 8 to Jan. 3, 2016, but it is already generating controversy because of the way the artists were selected.

The exhibition is underwritten by a bequest from the estate of artist William Thon (1906-2000). When the $4 million bequest was announced in 2001, the museum reported that Thon wanted to support contemporary artists in Maine and had left the money to support an open, juried biennial.

Every two years, artists with Maine connections are invited to send slides to a jury of two or three distinguished judges. Typically, 800 to 900 artists submit and 50 or so are selected.

Open juried shows tend to be democratic free-for-all grab-bag exhibitions, often with very little thematic unity. Who gets in and what is shown depends on the tastes and interests of the jurors. The usual beef is that some of artists selected invariably have Maine connections that are tangential at best.

This year the beef is that the biennial was neither open nor juried. It was curated.

For 2015, the museum asked Alison Ferris, a former Bowdoin College Museum of Art curator who is now a curator with the Kohler Art Center in Wisconsin, to organize the show. Ferris selected 32 artists ranging from well-known artists such as painters Lois Dodd, Emily Nelligan and John Walker, and sculptor John Bisbee, to conceptual artist Anna Hepler and Native American basket makers Jeremy Frey, George Neptune, Theresa Secord and Sarah Sockbeson.

Of the 32 artists selected for the biennial, I am familiar with the work of 18. That’s a good thing, because discovering new talent is one of the primary functions of such exhibitions. Only three of the 32 have appeared in previous biennials.

Leaders of the Union of Maine Visual Arts, the state’s art advocacy group, are upset because Maine artists did not get to submit this time. As UMVA President Robert Shetterly wrote to PMA Director Mark Bessire and Chief Curator Jessica May, “It is with disappointment that we read the recent announcement that the Portland Museum of Art 2105 Biennial will not include an open call to artists. We consider this major change to be a serious blow to the overall health of Maine art and the 800-plus Maine artists who usually enter the Biennial.”

Editors of the UMVA Quarterly Journal wrote that “the UMVA reflects the disappointment that many Maine artists feel at this reversal in the William Thon bequest to the museum for a juried biennial.”

Artists might be surprised, however, what Thon’s will actually states how he wanted his money spent. Thon did specify that he wanted the income from his endowment fund “used to present, and award prizes for, a biennial juried show of Maine artists.” But he also specified in the next sentence that “a Maine artist is a painter who has lived in and worked for substantial periods of time in the state of Maine.”

Imagine the hue and cry if the biennial were restricted to painters; no sculptors, photographers, printmakers or videographers need apply.

But in the very next paragraph, Thon generously noted, “I recognize that there may be times when, for any one of a number of valid reasons, the Portland Museum of Art may decide not to present a biennial juried show of the works of Maine painters. I have every confidence that in such a case the Portland Museum of Art will use the income in other appropriate ways to encourage Maine painters and generally to enhance the ability of the Portland Museum of Art to flourish and to enrich the cultural life and experience of the people of Maine.”

Museum officials and UMVA leaders have agreed to meet to discuss their differences.

But if an open, juried exhibition of Maine artists is important, and I believe it is, the logical response for the Union of Maine Visual Artists would be to organize just such an exhibition. Art museums are not by nature democratic institutions. Art advocacy organizations are.

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Freelance journalist Edgar Allen Beem lives in Brunswick. The Universal Notebook is his personal, weekly look at the world around him.