ROCKLAND, Maine — Even if you take only a passing look at the crowds of people that filter through downtown Rockland, it’s hard to miss a theme.
The little identifiers are usually located on someone’s lapel or maybe on the bottom corner of their shirt, if they’re being discreet: admission stickers, of varying colors, to either the Farnsworth Art Museum or the Center for Maine Contemporary Art.
Once you notice, you’ll begin see them everywhere — on patrons in coffee shops and retail businesses, artfully discarded over trash cans.
They serve as a reminder of your place in small city of 7,000 people that is striving for a reputation as the arts capital of Maine.
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“If you look at the number of galleries, including the Farnsworth and the CMCA, there is a very high density [of art in Rockland]. You don’t have to go very far from where you parked your car to get ahold of these things. The amount of work and the quality of work within such an easy reach is very unusual,” Orlando Johnson, owner of the Blackhole gallery and current organizer of the group, Arts in Rockland, said.
The standing of Rockland as an arts destination, not just in the midcoast region but for Maine as a whole, has been developing during the past two decades.
In the early 1990s, the Farnsworth, Caldbeck Gallery and Strand Theater were the only art-centered establishments calling Rockland home. Now, more than 20 galleries — including two that opened this year — and the recently relocated Center for Maine Contemporary Arts are helping to make up the critical mass drawing thousands of art enthusiasts to the city each year.
“It’s elevated to a point now where it merits the title, ‘The arts capital of Maine.’ Walk down the street and every other building is art-related, whether it be on Main Street or off Main Street,” Chris Brownawell, executive director of the Farnsworth, said.
People involved with Rockland’s downtown and arts community say the growth of the city as an arts destination is the latest way Rockland is reinventing itself and are hopeful that the arts will benefit the city culturally and economically into the future.
Maine’s role in American art
Long before Rockland was known for its arts scene, there was the Farnsworth.
This year, the Farnsworth is celebrating its 70th anniversary, having opened under relatively random circumstances in 1948.
The museum was born out of the last will and testament of Lucy Farnsworth, the daughter of William Farnsworth, a Rockland businessman who worked in the granite industry and raised his family in the city. When Lucy died in 1935, her will instructed that all of her assets be used to build a library and art museum on Main Street to honor of her father.
The Farnsworth family collected art, but they were not “serious collectors,” Brownawell said, so it was “to the surprise of everyone” that Lucy included establishing an art museum in her will.
Both the museum and a collection had to be built. The original collection of 500 pieces was bought for $50,000, Brownawell said, including pieces from a then up-and-coming Andrew Wyeth. From the outset, those building the collection focused on highlighting Maine’s role in American art, Brownawell said.
“The Farnsworth, at this point, was a standalone,” Brownawell said. “Artists were attracted to the region but there weren’t any commercial galleries.”
Today, the Farnsworth’s collection includes 15,000 pieces, and the museum attracts 100,000 visitors annually. Brownawell said the institution has grown into a “$57 million economic driver for the region.”
While the focus is still on showcasing how Maine intersects with American art, the museum has expanded to include 14 galleries and has about eight exhibitions on display, including one by internationally renowned Chinese artist Ai Weiwei.
Four years after the Farnsworth opened, Maine Coast Artists — which is now the CMCA — opened in Rockport, the next town north of Rockland on Route 1. The museum focused on showcasing the work of contemporary artists with strong ties to Maine.
Simultaneously, artists were being drawn to Maine to attend the Skowhegan School of Painting and Sculpture. Many of these artists — including a young Robert Indiana — migrated east to the midcoast.
By the late 1950s and early 1960s, a “significant number of leading American artists” spent summers in the midcoast, according to CMCA Executive Director Suzette McAvoy.
There are three legs that make up the art world, McAvoy said: there are the artists; the institutions, like the Farnsworth and the CMCA; and the galleries.
It takes all three for an arts community to thrive. Going into the second half of the 20th century, Rockland and the midcoast in general had the first two pieces of the equation.
But it would take decades for the galleries to follow.
Open space and a changing Rockland
Tom O’Donovan had been operating Harbor Square Gallery for 15 years in Camden when he decided to move to Rockland in 1995.
At the time Rockland’s Main Street was about a third vacant and the city had a reputation as a gritty, working waterfront community bathed in the smell of fish processing.
With Camden rents rising, O’Donovan could own a building in Rockland for less than he was paying up the coast. The Farnsworth was directly adjacent to the property he was interested in, so he took a shot.
“In retrospect, it was kind of an insane thing to do,” O’Donovan said. “It seems like ever since that day [I bought the property], everything that has happened has supported that decision.”
During the next decade, the Farnsworth would undergo a series of expansions and more galleries — such as the Dowling Walsh Gallery — moved onto Main Street, to join Harbor Square Gallery and the Caldbeck Gallery.
Affordable open space within a stone’s throw of an art institution like the Farnsworth was an enticing situation for galleries or just artists who wanted studio space.