Center for Maine Contemporary Art: the house has crashed

By Rufus Foshee | Dec 03, 2009

Just a few weeks after the Center for Maine Contemporary Art in Rockport hired a new executive director, Mary Ann Schierholt, and added promising board members, its activities were diminished. All the staff but the director were sent home.

To say this seems strange is an understatement.

Just the same, Judith Daniels, one of the co-chairmen of the board, assured me that plans are under way for a revival at CMCA.

For some time I have been skeptical about just how CMCA has been run and for whom. Just a few weeks ago I had an interview with Judith Daniels. I pointed out to her that there were too many artists on the board and said the same to Anne Edmonds, another board member. Anne's typically candid reply was, "Remember, the place started as an artists' cooperative endeavor."

Perhaps if one may be able to see how to rebuild something that has crashed, one needs to look closely at why the crash occurred in the first place. There is no getting around the fact that boards of trustees must make it their business to see when things are cracking and take steps to prevent crashes. Clearly this was not the preoccupation of the board members of CMCA.

One must ask how it is that an institution as old as CMCA has not made its priority getting substantial board members, representatives of the community who are not only capable of giving to that institution, but members who also have an interest in seeing long-term fruition.

Basically, such people must be those who have more at stake than their own needs. In the case of CMCA, such board members must be leaders who not only have a deep abiding interest in culture but who also know how a healthy cultural organization is able to grow a community. What the Farnsworth Art Museum has done for Rockland is a prime example.

As individuals, each of the current CMCA board members may be great people, but it is clear that they have not been tending to longtime planning and housekeeping.

It seems past time that the co-chairmen, Judith Daniels and Dudley Zopp, call an emergency meeting to determine if the lamp can be relit with the current board. If not, then they should immediately restructure the board.

I am glad that I had five years on the Maine Arts Council where I learned a great deal about how boards of trustees do not work and how a few do. During my tenure, The Shakespeare Players were operating in Camden and had a very hardworking board that raised a lot of money. But all around Maine, I learned that people just love to have their names on letterheads as board members, never reluctant to say, "I am a board member."

Most organizations, when and if they die, do not have a heart attack and leave instantly. To the contrary, they die slow, long deaths.

It is time the board go back to square one and ask, "Whom do we serve?" That is a tough question to answer. If the answer is that it has served the community, then why is there not more public support? If the answer is that it serves a special interest group, that group needs a new address.

Then the question is: If we are going to serve the community, who in this community might be willing to serve on such a board and work together for long-term results? Who in the community would be proud to serve on the board and see the institution bloom?

In the process there must be a redefining of the mission of CMCA or perhaps a totally new mission needs to be constructed for its future.

If it is the primary mission of CMCA to show new work created by artists in Maine, then another question needs an answer: Is there enough quality work being done to justify the mission?

CMCA exists in Midcoast Maine where there are many pretensions as to what art is and who succeeds in doing it, but this does not deliver the product. Yes, art is a product, just as everything is.

To my knowledge, CMCA is unique in that its mission is to show art, not to house it in any permanent way, as does the Farnsworth, for example.

Are there enough mature art patrons to support the concept of CMCA? Just because a number of people dress up and go and have a bottle of beer at openings does not qualify one as an art patron.

In its past operations, CMCA may not have been up to the job of planning and executing exciting exhibitions with enough frequency. Did the gallery hew too closely to what it imagined the art goers in the area wanted, instead of challenging those goers with new exciting advancements in contemporary art?

It may surprise many, as it has me, that the Robert Indiana exhibition at the Farnsworth has been held over by popular demand. It gave me great joy to send Bob an e-mail saying, "I never thought I would live long enough to see you, just like the latest flick, held over by popular demand." I have followed his career since 1960.

So, here in Midcoast Maine, what lesson is to be learned from the demand for holding over the Indiana exhibition? The work is not remotely like anything else the Farnsworth has ever shown. Surely this means something.

What has made the Indiana exhibition so popular? Whether there is a ready answer, it is good news that so advanced an artist as Indiana is in demand in the same complex where the Wyeth family has reigned.

When CMCA's revival gets under way, perhaps it will ask itself what challenges are possible that were not reached for in the past. For example, its mission states, "The Center for Maine Contemporary Art is a nonprofit organization advancing contemporary art in Maine through exhibitions and educational programs."

Just what does this mean, "contemporary art in Maine"? Was this intended to mean art created in Maine, art created by Maine artists, or contemporary art that would benefit art patrons in Maine? This mission needs a great deal of thought, ending in a rebirth.

In its call for participants for the 2009 juried exhibition, CMCA made the ground rules very clear, but its choice of jurors baffles: George Adams, George Adams Gallery, New York; Rachael Arauz, independent curator, Boston, Mass.; and Dennis Pinette, artist, Belfast, Maine. Adams represents artists whose work is less than distinguished. Surely there are people here in Maine who are capable of jurying such a competition. Putting a Maine artist on the jury seems unwise.

The co-chairmen of the board must reconsider many things, a priority among them the jury described above.

Rufus Foshee writes from his home in Camden.

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