Bruce Brown knows well the corners and lines and probably what’s inside the drawers of the desk behind which he sits at the Center for Maine Contemporary Art. After all, the desk was Brown’s for many years, back when he was helping to build up CMCA and spent 20 years as curator of the well-regarded and popular center before retiring in 2006.
On one recent morning, Brown was in his element fielding phone calls and working with volunteers who were helping prepare the center for two shows.
“It feels like I never left,” he said. “It’s very familiar, with all the stresses and strains of ‘we gotta do this, we gotta do that, what’s our deadline?’ But also with the joys and the happy moments.”
Brown might be having fun behind his familiar desk, but it wasn’t exactly where he pictured himself a few months ago.
Like many nonprofit organizations in the current economic climate, CMCA found itself last fall weighed down by financial problems. The situation was so bad that the center’s board of trustees announced in October it was laying off four full-time employees and would close for the winter for the first time in more than a decade.
Who else but Brown to help right the ship? After a few phone calls back and forth, the retired curator, known during his CMCA tenure for visiting galleries and artists’ studios all over Maine, agreed to come from Portland to guide the center for the rest of the year.
These days, that means organizing and mounting the 2010 Biennial Juried Exhibition and the concurrent Meggan Gould photography show “Recto/Verso,” which both open today and close July 17.
Saturday is also the first day CMCA will be fully open to the public again since Dec. 20. It should be a big day for the shaken organization, and a big day for Brown, who will remain for a few months after newly hired director Suzette McAvoy arrives in September at the center.
Judith Daniels, chairwoman of CMCA’s board of trustees, knows the center is fortunate to have Brown on board.
“It was a gift from God, where he felt he had the time,” Daniels said. “He wanted to get us on our feet until we could figure out what our next steps were going to be.”
The events of last fall took many members of Maine’s art community by surprise.
To those outside the organization, CMCA seemed to be operating as usual. In the middle of October, the center sent out an e-mail announcing a call for artists to submit work to be considered for the 2010 Biennial. One day later, another e-mail was issued to publicize the center’s fall 2009 exhibitions, due to open Oct. 23.
Then on Friday, Oct. 20, those on CMCA’s mailing list got a very different message. Executive Director Mary Ann Schierholt — who had been hired about two months earlier — sent out a message announcing staff reductions, a reassessment of the center’s business model, and a winter recess in order to reorganize CMCA’s programming.
Among those who lost their jobs were curator Britta Konau, who took over Brown’s position in 2007, along with the education director, operations and finance manager, and curatorial and development assistant.
“It was very stressful and very clear that whatever the oversights that had occurred earlier, we were clearly in a situation where, in a highly seasonal business like ours, we couldn’t sustain the costs we had,” Daniels said. “In any business, the biggest costs are salary. It was just heartbreaking to have to [lay off staff].”
Winter closures among Maine’s galleries and museums are nothing new, but CMCA had been known for its programming at a time of year when most organizations tend to shut down. In January 2009, for example, four exhibitions went on display in CMCA’s galleries, all running through either February or March.
It became clear that wasn’t sustainable, Daniels said, and the decision was made last fall to close for the season in December 2009.
At some point, Daniels said, someone on the board of trustees called Brown to let him know what was going on. As Brown recalls it, the call included a sort of suggestion that the center’s former curator might have something to offer in terms of helping CMCA during its struggles.
Brown had been living in Portland and working in his retirement as an independent curator. But with his curator emeritus title from the center, he maintained a close relationship with CMCA, attending many openings and shows.
“I thought, only two of us in 25 years have had this job, and Mary Ann was just starting out and she was not used to working in gallery settings in a way,” Brown said. “I seemed to be the one with the knowledge to try. Plus, CMCA was the making of my life in so many ways. It was the greatest gift of my lifetime and it was payback time.”
A positive beginning
It seems fitting that CMCA’s next chapter will begin with the biennial, which over the years has become one of the center’s signature events.
“From my perspective, the idea of having the biennial, working with Maine artists, is a positive way to begin the season,” Brown said. “I think it is a trademark of ours and it is one thing that helps distinguish CMCA.”
Brown said CMCA’s first juried show was held in 1978, when former director Ben Goldsmith began a tradition of annual exhibitions. CMCA was known then as Maine Coast Artists.
But considering all of the work required of CMCA’s small staff, Brown said, combined with the development of the Portland Museum of Art’s own biennial, it made sense for the center to scale back to every two years rather than every year.
These days, the Portland museum’s biennial tends to attract more established artists, while CMCA usually gets submissions from emerging artists.
“With us, that was the whole idea [of a juried show] from the inception,” Brown said.
More than 650 artists submitted work last fall for the 2010 CMCA biennial, down about 100 from previous years. It may be, Brown said, the financial troubles scared away some artists.
Liz Awalt, a Massachusetts-based painter who spends her summers on Swan’s Island, said she might have been concerned if not for Brown’s presence.
“I suppose I would have been less inclined to submit if I felt the organization would not be capable of taking care of the work and showing it as promised,” she said in a recent e-mail. “I have a great deal of faith in Bruce Brown and in the incoming director to take care of the work and present it in a very professional manner.”
Although the overall numbers were down, the number of artists who will be exhibiting at CMCA for the first time — Brown said 19 of the 41 selected artists would be new to the center — is up from previous biennials.
There were five in the 2008 show, he added.
The only requirement for submission is that artists must have some connection to Maine, whether they were born here, studied here, or are year-round or seasonal residents. Artists working in any media are eligible, as long as the work is original in concept and design, and was created within the past two years.
The judges for the biennial were George Adams of the George Adams Gallery in New York; Rachael Arauz, a Boston-based independent curator; and Belfast artist Dennis Pinette.
While the show will include plenty of traditional media such as painting, prints and photography, Brown was surprised by the lack of work featuring new technologies dealing with video or audio.
Landscapes will be an undercurrent this year, and will be the focus of an Art Talk panel in July with biennial artists Carrie Dickason, James Mullen and Jessica George.
“As always, the judges were looking for work that was a little unusual and quite contemporary but also there. And obviously Maine is so landscape-based that I think they wanted to try to honor that tradition as well,” Brown said.
There also are several larger installations in the show, including works from Dickason who is affiliated with the Haystack Mountain School of Crafts in Deer Isle; and separate works from Rangeley couple Justin Richel and Shannon Rankin.
Photographers who will display work in the biennial include Michael Alpert of Bangor, Richard Barnett of Thomaston, Tillman Crane of Camden, Linda Griffith of Blaine and Todd Watts of Blanchard.
Paintings will be on display from artists including Janice Anthony of Jackson, Christopher Baker of Sedgwick, George Bayliss of Deer Isle, Rebecca Daugherty of Stonington, Connie Hayes of Rockland, John Lorence of Newcastle, Alison Rector of Monroe, Ken Sahr of Lamoine and Heather Thayer of Bar Harbor.
The drawings of Kenny Cole of Monroe and Susan Cooney of Belfast, among others, were accepted, along with a fiber piece by Gabrielle D’Italia of Newburgh and a large-scale wood and steelwork by J.T. Gibson of Morrill.
Point A to point B
Brown may be the man behind the desk this summer, but when McAvoy arrives at CMCA she’ll begin her work with an eye toward the future.
The former chief curator of the Farnsworth Art Museum in Rockland, the well-regarded McAvoy had worked last month for CMCA on a consulting basis, helping the organization with its restructuring. Brown said he has had a “very positive” relationship over the years with the Belfast resident.
McAvoy’s role will be both that of curator and director, organizing shows and running the center’s daily operations.
Right now, Daniels said, the center seems to be on better footing.
Before Schierholt left, Daniels said, she slashed $100,000 from a budget that last year was more than $500,000. An annual fund appeal brought in more than $80,000, which she said was more than previous years.
CMCA likely will remain at its current staffing level, with Brown in Rockport for the rest of the year, McAvoy settling this fall into her new position and Paula Blanchard working as operations manager. The center could hire part-time workers to staff the front desk, and two interns are coming through a program with Bowdoin College.
“I think we’re past the stage where people have to worry,” Daniels said. “It still will be a lot of hard work, but we all feel very optimistic now.”
The center will close again for winter 2010-11, but one positive development this year is the introduction of free admission for all patrons. The center still plans to offer memberships, Daniels said, and visitors are welcome to donate.
“We never want to have to turn someone away because either they don’t have the $5 or they don’t want to pay it,” she said. “We just want to encourage as much traffic as we can and encourage people to come. This is a community gesture we want to make.”
The board of trustees also would like in the future to have a capital campaign in order to develop an endowment, Daniels said, but not until things are settled in the current season.
Meanwhile, Brown said he has been happy to do what he can for CMCA. He’s not drawing a salary although, he said, he could receive some compensation after the annual CMCA Auction, which is scheduled for Sunday, Aug. 1.
And Brown will be happy to cede the reigns to McAvoy after the rest of CMCA’s season, which includes solo exhibitions by painter-printmakers Yvonne Jacquette, Dozier Bell and Will Barnet; a sound installation by Nate Aldrich and Zach Poff; and the exhibition “Maine Photographers: Ten Years Later.”
“My goal is just to try to get from point A to point B, from closure to reopening, and to offer enough stability until the next chapter can begin,” Brown said. “I’m grateful there will be one.”
The 2010 CMCA Biennial Juried Exhibition opens with an artists’ reception 2 to 5 p.m. Saturday, May 29. The Meggan Gould exhibit “Recto/Verso” opens the same day.
Art Talks about the Biennial will be held at 2 p.m. Sunday, June 20, and again at 2 p.m. Sunday, July 11.
Gould will give an Art Talk at 2 p.m. Sunday, June 27.
CMCA, at 162 Russell Ave. in Rockport, is open 10 a.m.-5 p.m. Tuesday through Saturday and 1-4 p.m. Sundays. The center is closed Mondays.
For information on the Center for Maine Contemporary Art, visit www.cmcanow.org or call 236-2875.