The Portland Phoenix

Art (Un)Seen: What we don’t see in Maine

Artist Richard Prince as photographed by Gordon M. Grant in Prince's studio in Sagaponack, New York, Aug. 10, 2006. Prince, a 1971 graduate of Nasson College in Springvale, is one of America’s most successful artists, but his work is rarely seen in Maine. (Courtesy Gordon M. Grant)

Having written about art in Maine for 40 years, I have seen enough Homer, Hartley, Marin, and Wyeth to last a lifetime.

What I have not seen are major exhibitions of Jean-Michel Basquiat, Jeff Koons, Peter Doig, or Christopher Wool. And it’s very unlikely I ever will, at least not here in Maine.

Most museums and galleries in Maine have a Maine focus. Those that don’t tend to be academic institutions that cast a wide international net for contemporary art often focused on themes of identity and inclusiveness.

I cite Basquiat, Koons, Doig, and Wool as artists missing from Maine because I read recently in the Artprice Report of contemporary art auctions that over the past 20 years those four artists accounted for 75 of the top 100 sale prices by artists born after 1945. 

Jean-Michael Basquiat (1960-1988) is the tragic legend of the art world, a street artist from Brooklyn who died of a heroin overdose at age 27. Basquiat is the auction king, his work having fetched some $2 billion over 20 years with a top selling price of $110 million.

Jeff Koons (b. 1955) is the art world equivalent of the Wall Street broker he once was, promoting his chrome balloon dogs and rabbits to $938 million in total auction sales and a top price of $91 million.

Christopher Wool (b. 1955) painted stenciled words to the tune of $623 million and a top price of $29.9 million.

But it’s Peter Doig (b. 1959) I’d really like to see exhibited in Maine.

Doig, who was born in Scotland and lives in Trinidad, had total sales of $490 million and a top price of $28.8 million, but, cash value aside, Doig’s painterly figures are not dissimilar from some of Maine’s more visionary figurative painters. He would provide great context for painters such as Katherine Bradford, Matt Blackwell, Michael Waterman, and Charles Wilder Oakes.

It is my contention that Maine artists and Maine audiences would benefit enormously from more exposure to what goes on in the rest of the art world. When I spoke to one of the out-of-state jurors for a major open juried exhibition here in Maine, this was borne out.

“I can tell you,” said the juror, who had just looked at thousands of Maine artworks, “there are many, many artists who obviously haven’t done their homework as far as keeping abreast of current art ideas. Sometimes this results in very charming and original work, but more often I see embarrassingly unsophisticated work.”

Why Maine artists and audiences don’t get to see many big-name artists unless they go to New York mostly comes down to money.

“The cost involved is too much for small institutions,” said Suzette McAvoy, director of the Center for Maine Contemporary Art. “Borrowing, insuring and shipping work that costs $100,000 or more is too expensive.”

Most of the art sold in Maine is Maine art that sells for hundreds and thousands of dollars, not tens or hundreds of thousands, let alone millions.

Portland gallerist Grant Wahlquist, who regularly shows artists “from away,” wrote in an email, “To the extent I am approached by local people looking to buy they tend to place a priority on artists who live here, and not only that, Maine artists who make work that is recognizable as such (e.g., landscapes).”

Wahlquist added he has always thought “a show by Joe Bradley would be absolutely beautiful at CMCA. He’s a Maine native, important, and very expensive. I guarantee you the cost of that show would be larger than CMCA’s operating budget for an entire year.”

Bradley (b. 1975) is a Kittery native who paints constructed abstract canvases that can sell for as much as $3 million each.

I confess I do not know Bradley’s work, but there are a couple of other major Maine-connected artists I wish we could see more of in Maine: Kara Walker and Richard Prince.

Kara Walker in 2005. (Cameron Wittig photo for Walker Art Center, Minneapolis,

Walker (b. 1969) is one of the country’s premier African-American artists. She lived and worked in Portland 20 years ago while her then-husband was teaching at Maine College of Art. Walker’s cut-out and painted images of slavery and reconstruction have sold for as much as $500,000.

Curators and museum directors at Portland Museum of Art, Bowdoin College Museum of Art, and Colby College Museum of Art all rightly pointed out that Maine museums have shown individual works by Walker and other important Black artists, but a couple of prints does not an exhibition make. I’d like to see more.

Prince (b. 1949) was a student at Nasson College (Class of 1971) when I was there briefly. He is now one of America’s art stars, famous for appropriating and rephotographing the work of others. One of his nurse paintings, drawn from the cover of a pulp-fiction paperback, sold for $8.4 million. 

The museum officials I contacted all rightly pushed back against sale prices as the measure of an artist’s importance. True enough, yet I have to believe that collectors do not pay millions of dollars for work by artists who are unimportant.

As crass as it may sound, museums might do wonders for art appreciation if they listed the value of a work on their wall labels. Knowing that a painting or sculpture is worth two or three times as much as your house or 20 times your annual income gives you a whole new perspective on the value of art.

Because few Maine museums can afford much in the way of contemporary art, they have to find other ways to acquire it. The Colby College Museum of Art, to me Maine’s most interesting art museum, has been fortunate to have modern master Alex Katz, who summers in Lincolnville, buying contemporary art for it.

“Abstract Model,” by Dana Schutz, is a gift of the Alex Katz Foundation to the Colby College Museum of Art in Waterville. (Courtesy Colby College Museum of Art)

The Alex Katz Foundation has given Colby more than 500 works of art since 2004. Katz’s gifts include works by artists such as Jennifer Bartlett, Marsden Hartley, Chantal Joffes, Elizabeth Murray, Elizabeth Peyton, and Dana Schutz.

“In terms of the art Alex gives to Colby more than half is by women artists,” Diana Tuite, Katz Curator of Modern and Contemporary Art at Colby, said. “He has had a significant impact on women artists.”

Women still have not achieved anything like parity in the art market. There are, in fact, only seven women among the top 100 contemporary artists in terms of auction sales: Cindy Sherman, Cecily Brown, Marlene Dumas, Jenny Saville, Elizabeth Peyton, Rosemarie Trockel, and Beatriz Milhazes.

Colby also benefits from the Lunder Institute for American Art, which brings research fellows and visiting artists to Maine. The institute has hosted two important Black artists: Torkwase Dyson and Theaster Gates.

To get more bang for limited contemporary art bucks, the Colby and Bowdoin museums have joined with museums at Middlebury College, Mount Holyoke College, Brandeis University, and Skidmore College to form the New Media Arts Consortium to jointly acquire digital and interactive new media by living artists. The inaugural acquisition was a stop-action film by South African artist William Kentridge. 

I contacted several of Maine’s best artists to ask them whether they in any way shared my concern about the paucity of exhibitions of contemporary art by non-Maine artists. To be honest, a few did not.

Aaron Stephan (b. 1974), one of the state’s leading artists and one commissioned to make art all over the country, told me, however, that he would love to see “more dynamic contemporary art in Maine.”

“I like Richard Prince and would love to see a show of his work here,” Stephan wrote. “I always thought that drawing regional lines within cultural scenes is harmful to everyone. Most artists work best with an immersive understanding of the world around them – not isolation and ignorance.”

My point exactly.

Edgar Allen Beem has been writing about art in Maine since 1978.

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