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Upgrading art Down East: Portland's new museum

By Hilary DeVriesStaff writer of The Christian Science Monitor / October 3, 1983

Portland, Maine

When the new Portland Museum of Art announced itself open back in May, the two culture capitals of the industrialized world - New York and Paris - sent up some scouts.

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After a look around the multimillion-dollar granite and brick museum that is just down the road from the Good Egg Cafe and home to a bumper crop of Winslow Homer paintings, the influential Parisian daily Le Monde decreed: ''Typically Yankee - independent, open to new ideas.'' Thomas Hoving, former director of New York's Metropolitan Museum of Art, gushed, ''You've simply got to see it.'' Maine, it seems, had just lumbered in from the cultural backwater, and critics everywhere were applauding this Down East renaissance.

Traditionally appreciated by artists and outdoorsmen for its breathtaking scenery and taciturn populace, Maine had been long underrated as a cultural must-see spot - that is, unless L. L. Bean was one's definition of Maine's best and brightest.

But now the addition of the $8.2 million Charles Shipman Payson Building to the 101-year-old Portland Museum of Art has changed all that. In typical Yankee style, Maine has quietly bootstrapped its way out of the artistic minor leagues. It may not be the Metropolitan Museum or the Louvre, but in cultural circles the new facility - the largest and priciest cultural project ever built in the state - is being hailed as one of the most significant regional art museums to come down the pike.

''I think it's great,'' says well-known Cambridge, Mass., architect and art collector Graham Gund. ''Of all the new museums to have opened since the end of World War II, its only rival is the Kimbell Art Museum in Fort Worth.''

''Regional art is a necessity,'' adds one art critic and appraiser. ''It's imperative to decentralize, and the Portland museum is totally appropriate to a smaller city.''

Designed by Henry N. Cobb of the architectural firm of I.M. Pei, the new museum wing - a four-story expanse of rich water-struck red brick that towers over Portland's busiest intersection - uses several unique design traits. Relying on classical proportions and a simple vocabulary of rectangles, circles, and squares, the building facade has a vaguely Italianate feel that echoes the Venetian Palazzo Ducale. Yet it also integrates with the traditional architecture of a city that has undergone substantial renovation since the 1960 s. Inside, a system of tiered galleries and a domed clerestory establish an intimate human scale while flooding the interior with a luminous sense of space and natural light. All building materials are indigenous to the state.

''Remarkable. Beautiful,'' exclaims artist Andrew Wyeth, who has long summered in the state and is considering making the museum a major repository of his work. ''I think it is a great chance for New England artists to exhibit their work.''

And therein lies the nub of the venture: providing a world-class showcase for regional artists' work while not ignoring the broader artistic spectrum.