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.
“The arts found a welcoming situation in Rockland because there was space available. People could try out their dreams,” O’Donovan said.
With arts businesses moving into empty storefronts, the shift to an arts-centric downtown wasn’t a case of one industry pushing out another, said Gordon page, director of Rockland Main Street Inc.
With the city’s history of changing industries — including shipbuilding, quarrying and fish processing — Page argues that the arts community is the latest iteration of Rockland’s changing identity.
“There’s been this concern of, ‘Oh, it’s all galleries, what happened to the retail stores?’ Well, the retails store left and created a vacancy,” Page said. “Rockland has a great history of being able to evolve over time. When one sector started to diminish, another started to come in.”
When art-centered businesses move in, cafes and restaurants often follow, O’Donovan said.
With Rockland now boasting more than 20 galleries and a slightly greater number of eateries, Page would argue that Rockland isn’t just an art destination but a dining destination as well.
“I just think it’s really interesting that all this has happened in a place that was more famous for being unsightly and smelly than anything else. And now look at it,” O’Donovan said.
Building on momentum
When CMCA leaders decided the museum had outgrown space in Rockport, they didn’t have to look far to find a place to relocate.
“We thought if we really wanted to maintain our role as a leader of contemporary art in the state, we need to relocate [to Rockland] to be a part of that,” McAvoy said.
CMCA has seen annual visitor numbers grow from about 8,000 in Rockport to 40,000 since opening in Rockland in June 2016, McAvoy said.
This year, the CMCA won the Governor’s Award for Tourism Excellence. The recognition by the Maine Office of Tourism reflected the museum’s transformation from small local facility to a draw for cultural tourism within the Maine arts community.
For July’s First Friday Art Walk, the CMCA saw 1,500 people walk through its doors in three hours, which McAvoy said speaks not just to the interest in the museum but the number of people drawn to Rockland for its art offerings.
“The awareness of Rockland as a significant art destination is only going to increase,” McAvoy said.
During the past five years, the number of galleries in Rockland has stayed about the same, with some closing and new ones opening in their place. This summer saw two new gallery additions to Main Street, the Clarke Gallery and the Stanhope and Spencer Gallery.
But does the city risk over-reliance on arts-related businesses?
“Trees have a way of pruning their own growth,” O’Donovan said. “Is there a point where it becomes too much? I don’t know. I don’t know how you determine that. I guess the marketplace determines that.”
To ensure future survival, many in Rockland’s art community are focusing on how to grow their base during the off-season.
Orlando Johnson said the decision to keep his gallery open year-round was a not only a commitment to his gallery but a commitment to the community.
“It’s not a part-time thing for me,” Johnson said. “It’s a point of view, a longer term view, of making it so Rockland isn’t just dependent on July and August. […] The way to grow it is to offer it.”
McAvoy of CMCA said the focus is on bolstering a “vibrant and lively community.”
“We don’t want people to feel like by living in Maine they’re missing out,” McAvoy said. “You can feel like you’re part of the contemporary conversation in the midcoast.”
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