ROCKLAND, Maine — The planned relocation of the Center for Maine Contemporary Art to Rockland is the latest chapter in the epic story of the city’s conversion into a cultural center.
The Farnsworth Art Museum has been in Rockland since it opened in 1948, and for decades it was nearly alone in its promotion of the arts in Rockland. But since the early 1990s, when the Farnsworth underwent an expansion — that included the conversion of a former church into the Wyeth Center — the museum has become a magnet for art galleries and artists.
And that attraction has grown each year.
Christopher Brownawell, the executive director of the Farnsworth, said the Center for Maine Contemporary Art’s decision to move is another opportunity for Rockland.
“This is a further concentration of the arts in Rockland,” Brownawell said.
The Farnsworth attracts 100,000 people each year. A study done in 2009 by the Maine Arts Commission found that museums such as the Farnsworth have a significant economic impact for their communities. The spending by patrons of the Farnsworth in 2009 was estimated at $12 million — the second most of any museum in Maine other than the Portland Museum of Art.
The Farnsworth is not only a cultural center but an economic engine for the area, Brownawell said.
“Rockland is a very dynamic and exciting area. We have great restaurants and new ones opening all the time. They complement each other,” Brownawell said.
Suzette McAvoy, the director of the Center for Maine Contemporary Art, said that an analysis completed for the nonprofit arts organization this year by consultant Chris Shrum made it clear that the move to Rockland was in its best interest. The center now sees about 9,000 patrons a year at its location in Rockport village. That number will swell to between 35,000 to 50,000 people annually by being in downtown Rockland, the report concluded.
“This will be a huge jump. There will be a spillover to the gift shop sales and admissions,” she said.
The analysis projected a $100,000 annual increase in admission/donation revenues, McAvoy said.
The center now operates from late May through December, but she expects that the season could extend to 10 months or more by being located in Rockland. The center was established in Rockport village by a group of artists.
And being in Rockland means the center and the artists whose work is displayed can participate in the city’s successful First Friday program in which the galleries all open for receptions on the first Fridays of the month from May through December.
The Center for Maine Contemporary Art is in the midst of a campaign to raise $4 million with the center expected to open in Rockland at the start of 2015. The arts organization has signed an agreement to purchase 21 Winter St. This site is located behind the historic Strand Theatre which has added to the visual arts scene in the community since it was renovated in 2005 by the Simmons family.
McAvoy said the center would be a counterpoint with its contemporary art to the anchor of the Farnsworth which features historical works of art.
The move to the flourishing art center of Rockland will also create more jobs, although the exact number is not yet known, she said.
Art museums in Maine employ 1,300 people, according to the 2009 Maine Arts Commission report.
Artist Bruce Busko said he had a gallery in Long Island, but that its slow season was during the summer and he wanted to find a summer gallery to show his art. His son attended the College of the Atlantic in Bar Harbor, and he visited Maine during that time. The building where his gallery is located came up for sale, and he purchased it.
Busko opened the the Landing Gallery on Elm Street in downtown Rockland in 2006, adjacent to the Farnsworth. Since the Landing opened in 2006, the number of galleries opening in Rockland has increased each year. He counted 17 galleries when he arrived, and now there are 29. The Center for Maine Contemporary Art’s move will bring that to 30.
“It’s like a snowball effect. Rockland keeps gathering momentum with more and more galleries,” Busko said.
Artist Roberta Baumann who operates the Landing with Busko said Rockland has now more galleries than downtown Portland.
The growth in arts in Rockland has impressed them.
“It is amazing to find so much in one place,” Busko said. “For a small community, Rockland isn’t too far down the list in terms of the top art communities in New England.”
And Busko and Baumann said Rockland is also becoming a foodie center for Maine with the addition of downtown restaurants.
Busko is a mixed media artist, creating both photographs and oil paintings. Baumann’s speciality is photography.
Rockland’s growth is evidenced particularly on the first Fridays when the art-walks are held. The streets of the city of 7,300-year round residents are filled with visitors who have come to Rockland to see the wide variety of artworks on display.