Jul 21, 2024  |  
 | Remer,MN
Sponsor:  QWIKET.COM 
Sponsor:  QWIKET.COM 
Sponsor:  QWIKET.COM 
Sponsor:  QWIKET.COM Sports Media Index – Perfect for Fantasy Sports Fans.
Sponsor:  QWIKET.COM Sports Media Index – Perfect for Fantasy Sports Fans. Track media mentions of your fantasy team.
National Review
National Review
9 Sep 2023
Brian T. Allen

NextImg:Maine’s Portland Museum Plans Expansion, Clobbers Its Collection with PC Trash

NRPLUS MEMBER ARTICLE {I} like all things Maine. It’s called Vacationland for its mountains, lakes, and wild, rocky Atlantic shores, but Maine has a lively, eccentric art scene and wonderful museums. I’ve written especially about the Portland Museum of Art over the years. It does nice exhibitions, often with Maine themes, and has a strong American collection anchored by Winslow Homer, a local. It’s a welcoming, unfussy place.

Earlier this summer I wrote about the PMA’s very good Todd Webb exhibition. Webb, another Mainer, photographed everyday life in Africa in pivotal 1958, when so many French colonies went independent. His vibrant, charming color photographs hadn’t been displayed much. Kooky curators ran amok. It’s colonialism, dears, they told us, and, by the by, how dare those black people look so happy. That white photographer must have tricked them! Such was the tone.

Still, the art’s so good. It repels cant.

Today I’ll write about the museum’s $100 million expansion plan, which seems needed and mostly a good idea, and Passages in American Art, its redo of its American galleries. Passages promises to be “a more expansive, equitable, and accessible story of American art.” It’s not terrible. It’s intellectually flaccid and incoherent, which frees the first-rate art to shine.

Preliminary rendering of the PMA’s new addition.

First, the building. The PMA hasn’t increased gallery space or capacity in 40 years. Portland itself, for years a gritty, troubled town, is on an upswing.

Rich people and young professionals want to live there for all the good things Maine offers. The PMA does good, scholarly exhibitions. It treats its donors well. Visitorship has been growing for years, as has its visibility. The museum is getting lots of collections as gifts but has no room to display them. It makes sense to get serious about an addition.

The high points of the new plan are lots more gallery space, a photography center for the PMA’s strong collection, a new lecture hall, artist studios, and classrooms. The museum envisions a community center, which seems like a distraction from its core mission. I think the expansion is part of a larger plan to improve Congress Square, an increasingly skanky public park and neighborhood in front of the museum.

Rooftop sculpture and gathering space.

The museum has hired LEVER Architecture, based in Portland, Ore., and Los Angeles, to design the project. It has never designed a museum building, a massive red flag furling in tsunami-size waves. According to its website, its specialty is sustainable architecture, but it also “stands up for racial and social justice and works to disrupt the systems that perpetuate inequality.” Color me leery.

The architect and museum plan to use mass timber, an engineered wood, as the core material in lieu of concrete and steel. Mass timber sequesters carbon, “delivering a 26.5% reduction in global warming potential,” I read in the PMA’s promotional material. Since most climate science is the stuff of quacks, I can only say that I hope the museum isn’t sinking a ton of money in what is still an experimental building material not much tried in Maine.

The initial design and renderings look very attractive. The design quotes the cosmology of the Wabanaki Confederacy, a collection of Native American tribes who occupied part of Maine and Maritime Canada before the Anglos arrived. The addition’s curved roofline aligns with the sun’s rising and setting positions during the summer solstice. It will provide 60,000 square feet of new space and unite the PMA’s multiple buildings into a single, flowing campus.

I have six quibbles with the plan, which seems a lot. First, the fact that the architect has never designed a museum, much less a museum fit to withstand Maine’s weather. Second, the architect and his team are on the other side of the country. Accessibility and responsiveness will be problems. Third, the PMA’s extreme environmental agenda will increase costs, and if its rationale is driven by climate change, it’s on a fool’s errand. Fourth, the PMA’s attendance consultants say “build and they will come,” and the visitors will pay, and there’ll be tens of thousands of them, all new. These projections are then baked into financial planning for the future.

Of all consultants who tell clients what they want to hear, these are the masters of sweet nothings. I’d never believe them. People will come once to see the new campus. Repeat visitors come for the programming. If paid attendance doesn’t soar as predicted, revenue will drop beneath projections. Budget cuts will then hit programs, which will depress attendance.

Fifth, and speaking of money, while Portland and its neighboring towns are now attracting millionaires and, here and there, billionaires, the donor base is still small. A goal of $100 million seems hefty, given this donor base and fundraising demands from Maine’s countless nonprofits, large and small.

Finally, I don’t think now is the time for expensive museum expansions, anywhere. Portland’s union-run schools betrayed their students, mostly poor and working class, by shutting for well over a year during the Covid mass hysteria. Repairing the damage to learning should be the priority for community leaders and those with serious means. An “inclusive and equitable art experience” seems a trifle compared with this and the other big problems Portland is facing.

This isn’t to say the PMA doesn’t need new space. I like the museum a lot and hope its quest unfolds to its advantage. I admire the director and trust he’ll match the need with the money. These big projects always evolve along the way.

Don’t hum “Sugar, Sugar” since that triggers thoughts of slavery, as do sugar bowls made in Portland. Left: Portland Glass Company, Covered Sugar Bowl, 1863–1873, glass. (Gift of Mrs. Frank Herbert Swan and Marshall Swan in memory of Frank Herbert Swan, photo courtesy of Portland Museum of Art) Right: Portland Glass Company, Covered Sugar Bowl, 1869–1873, pressed glass with Loop & Dart pattern. (The Marion P. Dana Collection of Portland Glass, gift of Maine Savings Bank, photo courtesy of Portland Museum of Art)

Passages in American Art has, as far as I can tell, three components. It showcases the PMA’s esteemed collection of American art starting with Homer, who lived in nearby Prouts Neck, and running into the early 20th century when so many young Modernists came to Maine. It views this art through the lens of the American slave trade, Maine’s ecology, and the various Wabanaki tribes, past and present. Finally, curators cede interpretation to a chorus of community voices. These include nonprofit leaders, maritime specialists, public-school teachers, tribal leaders, artists, craftsmen, and at least one businessman.

The word “passages” in the title refers to the Middle Passage, the course that most slave ships followed in crossing the Atlantic. It’s also the passage from one side of a river to another, the passage of goods in global trade, and “the passage of laws, tides, and time,” I read in the introduction. No wonder it’s a muddle.

Example of community voice label.

I abhor programs of community voices in art museums. While I think the PMA’s curators acted as traffic cops and did some quality control, Passages fails by having well beyond too many chefs spoiling the lobster bisque. Most of the community voices come from interest groups with agendas and talking points. I’ve seen these types of shows before. It’s rare to read or hear something that’s not insipid or predictable or idiotic.

Curators are best left to interpreting art. It’s their calling. They can and should listen and learn, but a good curator knows how to make art meaningful to all kinds of people.

The “community voices” approach started a few years ago when language first became a minefield. Curators gave drafts of their labels to “sensitivity editors” trained to spot inapt terms and microaggressions. Then “community voices” went public as cover for curators worried about offending someone post-opening. Now, curators seem willing and happy to let the “community” write the labels themselves.

George Wesley Bellows, Matinicus, 1916, oil on canvas.

On substance, slavery in New England is a fascinating, awkward fact. I don’t mind museums tackling it. Professors at Harvard and Yale owned slaves, as did many but by no means most rich people in this little corner of the world. Native American tribes bought and sold black slaves as well as Native slaves. Wee Vermont was its own country in the 1770s and 1780s. I live in Arlington, then the capital of the Vermont Republic, which abolished slavery before its admission to the union in 1791. But, otherwise, New England moved in increments.

All of this is news to most people. Until 1820, Maine was an outlying part of Massachusetts, where slavery gradually declined and, in the 1790s, seems to have disappeared. Here and there Passages names names, as it does in describing a ceremonial Grace Cup from the early 1740s. It belonged to the Pepperrell family from Kittery.

Pezé Pilleau, Ceremonial Grace Cup of Pepperrell Silver, 1740–1745, silver.

We learn that the paterfamilias owned slaves and grew rich in part from the slave trade. Bad. How does this develop the Grace Cup, a hefty piece of English religious silver, owned by Pepperrell, as a work of art? Of course, it doesn’t, and the PMA isn’t a history museum. “He bought this from the sweat of slaves” doesn’t take us anywhere. Most great art patrons through the centuries were ruthless bastards, though with good taste.

One problem with Passages is a basic one. We don’t know much about slavery in Maine. It’s a recent subject in scholarship. I’d welcome some good, old-fashioned history. That’s historical fact, not fancies like what the 1619 Project peddles. That’s foundational in building a case that slavery in Maine was pervasive rather than isolated, which, I suspect, it was. I don’t think the PMA and the community chorus would ever acknowledge this. It steps on the storyline. I also think the topic’s too politicized as well as too tangential to support an art-history show.

And then there are inane observations. “The relationship of black people to water is something glossed over or erased completely,” sayeth one community voice. “Many black people lived in cities, which are usually by a river. . . . We came over here, across water.” Did Kamala Harris sneak into town? Commenting on Weatherbeaten, Homer’s fantastic, cinematic crashing-waves picture, Chris Newell, who works for the Akomawt Educational Initiative, a Wabanaki advocacy group, complains about private ownership of shorelines.

He has a point. We can’t see some of the scenes Homer painted today because of private ownership of much of Prouts Neck, though I’ve hiked its trails and the PMA owns Homer’s studio in Prouts. That said, the show’s about the art and about Homer’s use of the scene to make universal points.

Once again, sugar bowls take it on the chin. A case of sugar bowls made by the Portland Glass Company reminds us that slave labor harvested sugar cane and was as bad for antebellum teeth as it is for ours.

A “water protector” sees no connection between people in this picture. Victor de Grailly, Eastport and Passamaquoddy Bay, c. 1842, oil on canvas.

A “water protector and college student” looked at a modest view of Eastport and Passamaquoddy Bay from 1842 by the French artist Victor de Grailly. The bay’s filled with pleasure boats and commercial ships. On the shore, couples ride in carriages and picnickers revel. “I don’t see a connection between people. . . . I don’t see kindness and tradition,” she says. She’s not going to see anything that undermines a “they stole our land” worldview. George Bellows’s Matinicus, from 1916, depicts fishermen by the dock on this little island. A community voice called the picture romantic and then blamed the Irish for black dockworkers’ losing their jobs in the 1850s. And Bellows painted island fishermen, not stevedores in Portland.

Left: James Abbott McNeill Whistler, Miss Florence Leyland, c. 1873, oil on canvas. (Gift of Mr. and Mrs. Benjamin Strouse, photo courtesy of Portland Museum of Art) Right: John Singer Sargent, Ellen Archer Eveleth Smith (1856-1925) (Mrs. Henry St. John Smith), 1883, oil on canvas. (Gift of Dr. and Mrs. Henry St. John Smith and their children, photo courtesy of Portland Museum of Art)

Fiona Hopper, who is a Wabanaki-studies coordinator in the Portland school system, tackles misogyny in Whistler’s portrait of Florence Leyland, the daughter of one of his patrons. It’s from the 1870s. “When I looked at this picture, I was thinking about women’s rights,” Hopper reports.

It’s an inky picture, and Florence’s legs seem to fade into black, leading Hopper to see gender-driven disempowerment. She mused about interviewing the subject. “Did she feel a sense of control over any of the choices she was making . . . did she feel like she had power . . . if she had children, who determined when and how many,” and on and on.

A good curator would have told Hopper that Whistler would never have done something as tacky as contriving a metaphoric amputee. And what does this have to do with the slave trade, climate change, and the Wabanaki? Florence was born ultra-rich, married Virginia Woolf’s cousin, who was an artist working for India’s viceroy, cavorted with the Pre-Raphaelites and the Bloomsbury crowd, had three sons, and died ultra-rich in 1921. No tears need be shed for her.

Next to her is a Sargent portrait of Mrs. Henry St. John Smith from 1883. We’re told her great-great-great grandfather owned a slave in the 1760s. Who cares? And how did the community and curatorial bloodhounds fail to detect that Whistler’s mother was a Confederate sympathizer?

Why are there two Monets and a Courbet in this gallery? I don’t know. I thought, “Ah, the French will get it now, the brutes,” but the labels were entirely neutral.

Sometimes the interpretation is distracting as well as inane. A long, birchbark Wabanaki canoe from the 1880s is in the middle of a gallery of seascapes. It’s handsome. I have no problem with considering it an example of the art of design. A Penobscot tribal leader asks us, “What were the people’s lives like who used this canoe everyday?” He then tells us what he wants us to imagine. They happily gathered fiddleheads, trout, and salmon, not a tomahawk in sight. In the same label, a birchbark canoe-maker working today described how the thing was built. His information was sound. That said, the multiple messages derailed me from the topic at hand, which, I think, was ownership of waterfront property.

Marguerite Thompson Zorach, The Woolwich Marshes, c. 1935, oil on canvas.

Some of the interpretation is very on-point. Roger Milliken, who ran a family-owned logging company, analyzed Logging on the Saco, a painting by Gibeon Bradbury from the 1870s. He explains the dynamics of a logjam and adds that logging is good for Maine’s economy. Gayle Bowness, a program manager for the Gulf of Maine Research Institute, tells us how a road depicted in Marguerite Zorach’s Woolwich Marshes, from 1935, hurt the marsh’s health. The State of Maine removed the road in 2022. Both Maine and Vermont have been remarkably good stewards of land, sea, and rivers over the past 50 years.

Passages occupies an entire floor. We’re stuck with it for a while. It’s a mess, but I did learn how to break a logjam, and not a figurative one, and seeing the Homers is always a pleasure. Going in, I knew very little about the Wabanaki, who seem to have cast a spell over the museum’s leadership. A problem is I didn’t learn much about them, either, or much I find reliable. No label glumly says “they stole our land,” but over and over that’s certainly implicit. The show pushes grievances and grudges, not education.

My ancestors were English Saxons. Nobody’s crying about Norman brutality after 1066, and brutal the Normans were. It’s a dead end. They’re a conquered people, like the Wabanaki as well as the Etruscans, Aztecs, Moors, Spartans, Lusitanians, and hundreds of millions of others. Such is our imperfect world.

And why are the Mellon, Luce, and Terra Foundations supporting this junk? It’s hard enough to attract young people to American art history. College majors in art history, especially those focusing on American prewar art, are tanking in numbers. What Passages in American Art flogs, along with the big foundations, is anti-art. Young people intuit this and don’t want to be a part of it.

That said, overall, I enjoyed my visit. The art’s a joy to see since many old favorites are there. It’s always enlightening to know what curators are doing, even if it’s a flat tire in a tub of tears. I hope they leave unmolested the museum’s great work by John Marin, Lois Dodd, Bernard Langlais, Neil Welliver, Richard Estes, Yvonne Jacquette, and Kathy Bradford.