If the Center for Maine Contemporary Art in Rockland ever wanted to open a Portland branch, it already exists in Cove Street Arts.
At 11,000 square feet with 8,000 square feet of exhibition space, Cove Street pretty much matches CMCA’s 11,500 square feet and 5,500 square feet of gallery space. The big difference is that CMCA is a non-profit and Cove Street Arts is a business.
Owners John Danos and Kelley Lehr left law careers in Los Angeles in 2016 to purchase Greenhut Galleries, Portland’s oldest commercial art gallery, and last year they opened Cove Street Arts at 71 Cove St. in the lively East Bayside district, a former light industrial fringe neighborhood now home to art studios, microbreweries, coffee roasters, bike shops, yoga studios, and gyms.
“I’ve never been to a city this small that has such a rich cultural life,” Lehr said, pointing out the Indigo Arts Alliance across the street, which supports artists of African descent, the Running with Scissors studio building around the corner, and the nearby Zero Station frame shop and gallery.
Portland is such a small and open city that, by virtue of owning two art galleries, Danos and Lehr have quickly become important players in the local art scene.
In Greenhut Galleries, the couple took over an Old Port fixture with a roster of some 40 established artists. Greenhut was opened in 1977 by gallerist Peggy Greenhut Golden. Though it is housed in an oddly cramped storefront at 146 Middle St., it has outlived scores of Portland galleries by virtue of operating a frame shop and showing popular Maine artists with a penchant for painterly landscapes.
Currently (through Aug. 8), however, Greenhut is featuring mixed media print collages by Daniel Minter entitled “States of ?” and made in response to the Black Lives Matter movement as it helps Americans finally get serious about confronting our history of racism. Minter’s powerful, dark, layered images combine our colonial founders and fathers, America’s history of slavery, and scenes ripped from the media of Black men such as Eric Garner and George Floyd being killed by the police.
Minter, a co-founder of the Indigo Arts Alliance, also recently collaborated with artists Ryan Adams and Titi de Baccarat on “Counting from Thirteen,” an abstract that converted a former gas station at 754 Congress St. into a gray and grim memorial for Black people who have lost their lives to racism since the 13th Amendment outlawed slavery in 1865.
Cove Street Arts features all the space that Greenhut Galleries lacks and allows Danos and Lehr to mount several exhibitions at a time, most shows running for two months.
In just one year, interrupted by pandemic, Cove Street Arts has managed to feature major exhibitions by such artists as Grace DeGennaro, Harold Garde, Eva Goetz, Sean Alonzo Harris, Charlie Hewitt, Tom Paiement and the team of young Maine artists that sculptor John Bisbee took to New Jersey to pioneer an art space in an old shipyard.
One of the Cove Street galleries is always devoted to photography exhibitions curated by retired CMCA curator Bruce Brown, who more recently organized photography shows at the now-defunct PhoPa Gallery.
The photo show when I visited was “Architecture” (through Aug. 15), which featured architectural photography by David Clough, Jean Noon, Donald Peterson, Kristin Robinson, Sarah Szwajkos, and Brian Vanden Brink. The photographs ranged from documentary records of old and odd buildings (Vanden Brink) through editorial photos for glossy magazines (Szwajkos) to abstractions based on building forms and patterns (Peterson).
The wide-open spaces of Cove Street Arts were filled with three other shows – “Floriography: The Language of Flowers” (which ended Aug. 1); “Singular and Serial” (through Sept. 19), an exhibition of monotypes and monoprints drawn from the book of the same title and co-curated by artist Chris Beneman, who works at Greenhut, and “Lin Lisberger: Gravity” (through Aug. 29), a selection of wry wood sculptures by a fine Portland sculptor.
“Floriography” was a lovely, summer show of floral paintings by Eileen Gillespie, Beverly Hallam, Maret Hensick, and Marjorie Moskowitz. Gillespie’s gorgeous gestural abstractions reminded me fondly of paintings by the late Jon Imber.
In fact, by the time you read this, Cove Street Arts planned to have replaced “Floriography” with a much-anticipated Jon Imber retrospective (Aug. 6-Oct. 10). Imber (1950-2014) had his Boston and Maine career cut short by ALS, but he worked right up until the end. The Imber retrospective should include the narrative figures he painted under the influence of his Boston University mentor Philip Guston, the wildly beautiful landscapes and florals he painted on Deer Isle under the influence of Willem DeKooning and Imber’s wife Jill Hoy, and the brave portraits of friends and family he painted in his last years.
The formula for success in Maine art galleries seems to be diversity and Greenhut and Cove Street offer plenty. And local tastes, Danos said, seem to be changing.
“We’ve noticed things change just since 2016,” he said. “Beautiful pictures of the Maine coast are always popular, but there has been an uptick in people who are looking for more abstract, funkier things. We expect this may have to do with people from New York and Boston moving to Portland.”
There were years in the 1980s and 1990s when Greenhut Galleries, which began life as Posters Plus, was a solid mid-pack gallery in Portland. Today, combined with the expansive possibilities of Cove Street Arts, it is a visual arts leader.
Edgar Allen Beem has been writing about art in Maine since 1978.