Forget the Hamptons. Artists, dealers and advisers gather in a new bucolic center for contemporary art: Maine
The Art Detective is a weekly column by Katya Kazakina for Artnet News Pro that lifts the curtain on what is really current on the art market.
One of the main tourist attractions in Thomaston, Maine, an orderly city of white steeples and colonial houses, is a storefront selling arts and crafts made by state prison inmates. The shop is full of stuffed animals, painted lobster cornholes and sculpted schooners.
Nothing on Main Street suggests the presence of a burning New York contemporary art gallery. And yet, forward-thinking Karma opened its first outpost outside the Big Apple here last year.
The gallery is located in a restored 1914 old Catholic church, with high ceilings and beautiful stained glass windows. Artist Ann Craven, known for her depictions of moonlit landscapes and birds (one of which soared to $680,400 at the Ammann Collection sale in May), bought the building there. five years with the intention of making it his workshop.
In the end, “it was too grand,” said Brendan Dugan, owner of Karma, who represents Craven and her husband Peter Halley. “She felt more comfortable painting in her barn” in the nearby town of Cushing.
Karma took over the space instead. It still belongs to Craven, who collaborates with the gallery on annual exhibitions. This summer, they staged “Sanctuary”, an exquisite display of abstract sculptures by Thaddeus Mosley and intimate figurative paintings by Frank Walter, two black artists born in 1926. (The Maine exhibit has very New York prices: $30,000 to $100,000 for the paintings and about $200,000 for the sculptures.)
“The church was a community space,” Dugan said. “The show is a dialogue between these two artists and it also pursues this idea of community.”
Maine’s art community is growing, with top contemporary artists and art advisors moving here part-time or full-time. Some, like me and my painter husband Greg Goldberg, linger after dropping the kids off at summer camp. We asked fellow artists and Maine regulars Gelah Penn and Stephen Maine for advice, who recommended 250 Main, a boutique hotel with a conservation program in Rockland. Artistic advisor Todd Levin shared his routine en route from Portland to Rockland: a lobster roll at Red’s Eats in Wiscasset, a berry pie at Moody’s Diner in Waldoboro and the Maine State Prison Showroom in Thomaston.
“The way artists wanted to go to Italy throughout history, it’s the same with Maine,” said Saara Pritchard, partner at Art Intelligence Global Advisory, who was a market driving force behind the Maine artist Lynne Drexler. The distance. Nature’s beauty. Other artists. (And don’t forget the thriving food scene.)
These long-term lures have recently been enhanced by the flexibility of remote working, the ability to sell art to international audiences from a remote location, and the growth of cultural infrastructure in the state.
The resolution of a protracted legal battle over the estate of Robert Indiana recently paved the way for the creation of a museum dedicated to the pop artist, who lived on Vinalhaven Island in Maine. In 2016, the Center for Maine Contemporary Art (CMCA) opened an extension designed by architect Toshiko Mori. The sleek building is currently hosting a solo ‘Hawkeye’ exhibition by Reggie Burrows Hodges, whose paintings sparked bidding wars at auction last year, and a group show by Maine artists including Craven, Katherine Bradford and Inka Essenhigh.
Maine’s appeal dates back to the great American landscape painter Winslow Homer (1836-1910), who moved to Prouts Neck in 1883 and whose powerful depictions of the sea are now the subject of “Crosscurrents”, a solo exhibition at the Metropolitan Museum of Art. (until July 31).
Among those who followed Homer to Maine were the realist painter and illustrator NC Wyeth, who spent 25 summers there and whose son Andrew and grandson Jamie carried on the family tradition. Colby College, whose art collection has been greatly enhanced by donations from longtime Maine resident Alex Katz, recently acquired two coastal islands where Andrew Wyeth painted some of his best known works.
“There’s been a legacy of artists coming to Maine because of the light,” said Morgan Long, London-based art adviser to the Fine Art Group, who grew up in Camden.
The state has colonies of renowned artists. One of them first formed in the mid-19th century on the isolated island of Monhegan. There are at least 15 artist residencies in the state, including the influential Skowhegan School of Painting and Sculpture, which has attracted generations of artists since its founding in 1946. Early residents included Ashley Bryan, a black artist whose vibrant figurative paintings are currently on view at Farnsworth.
“Maine has played this unique role in American art that isn’t as widely recognized as it should be,” said Suzette McAvoy, who curated the exhibit and is working on a survey of artists in the area. Maine to celebrate Farnsworth’s 75th anniversary next year.
The museum is filled with many household names that have ties to the state: Modernist Marsden Hartley was born in Lewiston in 1877; sculptor Louise Nevelson came to Rockland from Tsarist Russia when she was 5; Color field painter Kenneth Noland spent his last decade in Port Clyde.
Today, the arts community is laid back and collegial. It is not uncommon for people to drive two hours to attend an opening.
“A lot of artists come to Maine to fly under the radar and spend time in the studio,” said McAvoy, under whose guidance CMCA has built its new home. “That’s where the work is done. Even though the work is not directly influenced or inspired by Maine, there is something about Maine that filters into the work.
Perhaps no one has taken Maine’s beauty and isolation as far as artist Lynne Drexler, who settled on Monhegan Island in the 1980s, painting in near-darkness during the next 16 years until his death. Last spring, Farnsworth decided to dispose of two of his paintings in order to raise funds to increase the diversity of his collections.
The museum got an unexpected windfall as the paintings generated nearly $3 million, or 18 times their joint high estimate.
Pritchard, an arts adviser keen to rediscover overlooked artists, has traveled to Maine from New York twice since October, to study Drexler’s archives at the Monhegan Museum, view her paintings and talk to people who knew her. I got to meet two of them as I took a choppy hour-long boat ride to Monhegan this week: Bill Boynton and Jackie Boegel, the husband-and-wife team behind Lupine Gallery, who have been at the heart of the community artist of the island since 1985.
“She’s finally getting the recognition she deserves,” Boegel said of Drexler, who was a friend. “He moved to Rockland, Portland and beyond.”
While few tourists come to Monhegan because of Drexler, the gallery has received many inquiries about his work since March, when Farnsworth’s first painting sold for $1.2 million at Christie’s.
“She was prolific,” Boegel said. “People loved her work and they wanted to support her.”
Drexler often bartered with his paintings. Now those who own them – or their children – are trying to figure out what to do given the skyrocketing prices.
“We say, ‘If you like them, keep them,'” Boynton said. “But make sure you have the insurance.”
Follow Artnet News on Facebook:
Want to stay one step ahead of the art world? Subscribe to our newsletter to receive breaking news, revealing interviews and incisive reviews that move the conversation forward.