Upgrading art Down East: Portland's new museum

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.

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.

''That's the real issue,'' explains museum director John Holverson, sitting behind his desk - a 17th-century Spanish table - surrounded by Renoir, Hals, and Corot paintings. ''We've provided a real facility to see these (regional) artists, and yet where do we go from here?'' he asks. ''We're never going to be a comprehensive museum, but it would be shortsighted not to go beyond what we have now.''

''The concept of Maine as our focus hasn't been restrictive so far,'' museum curator Michael Preble adds, ''because so many artists have been associated with Maine, either through the state's art schools or on their own. But the museum, like its audience, also has a lot of different art interests.''

Despite a small endowment and acquisition budget, the museum is optimistic about its chances of enlarging and upgrading its current collection, which in addition to the Homer paintings also includes a good selection of 19th-century decorative arts and the State of Maine Collection, an eclectic mix of work by artists associated with the state, among them Marsden Hartley, Edward Hopper, and Wyeth.

''Our job now is to find the people with the enthusiasm and resources to either donate works directly or buy them for the museum,'' Preble explains.

Because of the state's large and often affluent summer population, museum officials consider both year-round and seasonal residents as potential patrons. Statistics so far look promising. Since the official opening six months ago, more than 60,000 visitors have crossed the granite threshold on Congress Street, and membership rolls have tripled. Over 90 percent of those are full-time, in-state residents. ''In our old building, we'd get 20,000 visitors in a good year,'' Mr. Holverson, the director, says.

He has been museum curator as well as director during his 13-year tenure, and he is generally credited with bringing about the multimillion-dollar transformation of Maine's oldest art museum. At his request, Charles Shipman Payson, a Portland-born multimillionaire industrialist and art collector, donated 17 Homer watercolors and oils along with $10 million for the construction and endowment of a new wing that increased museum space tenfold. (The original museum - the McLellan-Sweat House (1800) and the L.D.M. Sweat Memorial (1911) - are to be renovated as well.)

According to officials, the Payson gifts were simply the catalyst for what Holverson called the ''largest capital fund raising in the history of the state.'' ''Maine isn't a state loaded with corporate philanthropy,'' says a spokesman for L.L. Bean Inc., the Maine-based outdoor-clothing company and one of the museum's major patrons. ''And what could be more out of doors than Homer's work?''

''It's not a question of us instilling an appreciation for art in Maine residents,'' adds Preble. ''It's just that now we can enjoy it in our own backyard.'' Current exhibits include selections from the State of Maine Collection, the Homer watercolors, oils and woodcuts, and paintings by Marsden Hartley. A collection of Venini glass on loan from the Smithsonian will go on display Oct. 26.

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