The Pleasures of Small

June 19, 2013

A couple of weeks ago I had the urge to leave Sackville and drive down to Maine and visit a couple of art museums or, as we call them in Canada, art galleries that are on my lists of favourites. They are the Portland Museum of Art in, of course, Portland and the Farnsworth Art Museum in Rockland. Both museums are, by the standards of major institutions, small and that, in my mind, makes them special. They are not small either in their ambition or quality, but they are places that you can visit without getting lost or overwhelmed. They are places that make you feel welcomed. They have staff, both professional and volunteer, who seem to be happy to be there. In both places I come out happier than when I entered.

PaysonFacadeCloseupThe Portland Museum of Art is the larger of the two. It is Maine’s largest art museum in Maine’s largest city, but, again, what is large in Maine is small by other standards in New England. Portland’s population is just over 66,000 and I don’t know how many Portland Museums you could fit into the Metropolitan Museum of Art, but it would be an interesting statistic. Portland has other treasures, there are world class restaurants, its old port area is charming and it is a very walkable city, but the Museum of Art is in a class all its own. Each time I visit, I come away refreshed. It has a very fine and interesting permanent collection; a good book store, that has books I cannot fine elsewhere and nice little cafe that keeps me in the museum a bit longer. Their special shows are always interesting. This time there was an exhibition on loan from New York’s Museum of Modern Art of The William S. Paley Collection: A Taste for Modernism which I might review for Vie des Arts in the fall issue. It certainly was an exhibition that was interesting to me and rang all my bells.

I have spent quite a bit of life in large museums around the world and have been suitably impressed by their collections and blockbuster exhibitions, but I usually come away exhausted even if I am exhilarated. Too much of a good thing is often just too much. Blockbuster exhibitions often are accompanied by blockbuster crowds which make looking at the art difficult if not impossible. I am happy that great art is made available to the masses at least those who can pay twenty-five bucks a head for the privilege and, that with my press card, I can get in free and sometimes even to special press viewings, but I certainly prefer the atmosphere of a venue like the Portland Museum of Art where I can see the stuff on the walls. Do I sound like an elitist? Yes, I am an elitist, but the Portland Museum is far from being an elitist place. While I was there kids on tour were running all over the place and the folks in the place looked reasonably normal to me, just that there were not so many of them that you could not see the forest for the trees.

Of course, museums, small and large, want to get people into their institutions and, if need be, will move Heaven and Hell to do so. There are several million people living in close range of Portland and I am thankful that all of them don’t want to visit its art museum at the same time. Frankly, many visitors to the area are likely more interested in lobster rolls and steamed clams than fine art. I should be careful about telling people how wonderful the Portland Museum of Art is. It could become like a restaurant that becomes so famous, and Portland as a couple of these, that it takes months to get a reservation. I am afraid, however, that the cat is truly out of the bag and that it is common knowledge that the Portland Museum of Art is one of the finest arts museum, small or otherwise, in New England.

farnsworth exteriorThe Farnsworth Art Museum is very different from the Portland Museum of Art. Located in the small harbor town of Rockland with a population under 8000 it is north of Portland and halfway to Bar Harbor. A smaller gallery than Portland’s, but with a strong regional collection that includes not only Maine born artists, but artists who painted in the state like Edward Hopper, Marsden Hartley, Rockwell Kent and John Marin. An interesting inclusion is Louise Nevelson who was a Rockland native. You will also find works by more modern artists who worked in Maine such as Alex Katz, Neil Welliver and Robert Indiana. However, what draws people to this gallery is its collection and connection with the Wyeth family; N.C., Andrew and Jamie. There are important works by the three artists in the museum and more by them in the Wyeth Center, part of their complex, which is in a converted church across the street from the main building. The main exhibition at the center this summer are original painted illustrations, mostly in oil, by N.C. Wyeth the father of Andrew and grandfather of Jamie. The exhibition is a reminder of what book illustration once was and that art can run in families through generations as it did in the Middle Ages and the Renaissance that really was a family business founded on hard work and solid training.

Both of these art museums show that excellence can be achieved with limited resources in smaller communities as long as there is a will by the people who run them and those who support them. There are many more really outstanding small fine arts galleries to be found all over the world. I have visited many, but there are many more for me to see. Well, I think it is time for a bucket list. Any ideas?

© Virgil Hammock, Sackville NB Canada, Wednesday, 12 June, 2013.

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