Robert Indiana’s “Seven” outside the Portland Museum of Art. Derek Davis/Staff Photographer

It looks like the biennial, acts like the biennial and is named in tribute to the beloved Maine artist who left money in his will to create the biennial.

But the Portland Museum of Art says its new open, juried exhibition for Maine artists is not the biennial and instead is a time capsule of the moment, a one-time exhibition in the museum’s ongoing contemporary art program that’s meant to reflect the turmoil, upheaval and collective loss of 2020.

Call it what you want. “Untitled, 2020: Art From Maine In A ____ Time” is exactly the exhibition that Maine artists have been asking for, and need, to capture the moment of uncertainty caused by the pandemic and the certainty of conviction behind the demand for social justice, said Katherine Bradford, a painter from Brunswick and New York and one of five jurors who will choose art for the exhibition, which will open early next year.

“There has been a lot of discussion and actually a lot of debate about how the PMA does their biennials. I don’t know if this a biennial, but it is certainly an open call for an exhibition for artists in Maine. This is what artists in Maine have been asking for for a long time, and here it is,” Bradford said. “This is very good news and a fantastic opportunity for everyone.”

Artists who are interested in entering don’t have time to dither. The deadline for applying is Sept. 30. The exhibition will open Feb. 12 and run through May 31.

It is named in tribute to Helen E. and William E. Thon, whose bequest to the museum in 2001 helped established the PMA’s biennial as the premier open, juried exhibition for Maine artists. It existed as such for a decade, when the museum moved away from a juried exhibition with an open call to one curated by a member of the museum’s curatorial team or guest curators.

Last fall the PMA announced it was replacing the Maine biennial with an international triennial, featuring curated artwork by artists from Maine and those who live in and work in Arctic countries as a way to explore contemporary art about and inspired by climate change and the connections among artists in the northern tier.

Because of the pandemic, the international triennial is on hold. “Untitled, 2020” is a one-time exhibition in response to current events that fills the void of the postponed triennial while continuing the museum’s ongoing commitment to contemporary art by Maine artists, said Graeme Kennedy, communications director for the museum. “We are dedicated to this recurring contemporary art series that the Thon gift enables,” he said.

Some artists and others have complained as the PMA has moved away from an open-call format, with a jury, to one where artists are selected without applying by curators. In February, former museum director Daniel E. O’Leary, who worked with the Thons to write their bequest to fund the biennial, and Thon’s nephew, Vincent Gaglione of Scarsdale, New York, who was executor of the Thon estate, both filed complaints with Maine attorney general, concerned the museum was misinterpreting the Thons’ wishes and not honoring the intent of his will. It is unclear how seriously the AG’s office investigated the complaints, and a spokesperson for the attorney general’s office declined to confirm or deny the existence of an inquiry.

O’Leary said he was pleased with the return of an open, juried exhibition and hoped it would continue beyond this exhibition.

“Having the museum reinstate a juried approach to the biennial process is a wonderful step for two reasons. First, it restores respect for and compliance with William Thon’s fine vision for the arts in Maine. Second, it empowers current, active Maine artists and allows them to review and assess the works of their peers,” O’Leary said. “Hopefully the museum will choose to fully embrace this opportunity that William Thon so generously endowed and do justice to the event with an excellent catalog, an adequate marketing strategy, and a fine opening event.”

The guidelines for entry are straightforward. It’s open to any artist living and working in Maine in 2020, and all art must be made in Maine this year. All work in any media will be considered.

Juror and craft artist Ayumi Horie of Portland is urging wide participation.

“It is crucial that we get the word out to as many as different circles and communities as we can. I can’t speak for all the jurors, but I am looking for work that may challenge what has traditionally been considered, quote unquote, art within the museum,” said Horie, a studio potter from Portland and national figure in American craft. “Artists have been particularly engaged with protests this year, and I am curious how they have used their organizational skills and artistic practices to make work about the protests.”

In addition to Horie and Bradford, jurors are artist and art presenter Cody Castle-Stack of Portland, Passamaquoddy basketmaker Jeremy Frey of Eddington and photographer Sean Alonzo Harris of Waterville.

Jaime DeSimone, curator of contemporary art at the PMA and curatorial liaison for this exhibition, said the museum assembled a panel of jurors to represent racial and ethnic diversity, as well as broad geographic reach across the state and different circles of artists.

Horie comes from the world of craft, and serves as a trustee at the American Craft Council and vice president of the board at Haystack Mountain School of Crafts in Deer Isle. Frey is an award-winning basketmaker, with baskets in museum collections across the country including the Smithsonian Institution. Bradford is a leading contemporary painter, a past Guggenheim Fellow and winner of the Joan Mitchell Award, with work in the collections of the PMA, the Metropolitan Museum of Art and many other top museums. Castle-Stack, who lives in Portland and grew up in Old Orchard Beach, represents emerging artists. He’s an artist himself and co-founder of the nonprofit Portland art space New System Laundry in West Bayside, where many young artists get their start.

The blank space in the exhibition’s title references the uncertain nature of the year. People can fill in the blank with whatever word that describes their year, said museum director Mark Bessire. “It can be a cuss word, it can be whatever you want,” he said on a Zoom chat with museum supporters introducing the exhibition. “We are in such a time, we want you to fill in the blank about the full title to the exhibition.”

Harris echoed Horie’s call for wide participation among artists who are making art in response to the pandemic and the social justice movement, particularly artists of color. “I hope we hear from a lot of people and not the usual suspects. I am hoping for a larger and more diverse crop of artists,” said Harris.

Frey said yes to serving as a juror because he is interested in what other artists are making and thinking about. “Just because of the times we’re living in, it’s an interesting project. And I also see it as a real learning experience, to work with such talented artists and such a wonderful museum and to get on the inside of all of that,” he said.

Castle-Stack, 26, said he was “flabbergasted” with the invitation and inspired by the opportunity and responsibility “to represent what is going on in Portland and the younger generation of artists who have moved here over the last 10 years.”

The jurors operate in unique circles and communities of artists and makers, in Maine and across the country and world, DeSimone said. While she has no preconceived ideas about what the show will be, she expects it will represent a broad range of art, craft and all manner of making.

“The way I have been talking about it internally, this is a show for artists by artists,” she said. “This art will be a time capsule for our state during this important moment for our world that we can’t define.”


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