Sam Mitchell has been collecting art from Maine artists since the 1980s and this year added to the works hanging in his Belfast condo. Staff photo by Brianna Soukup/Staff Photographer

Art galleries in Maine have seen an increase in sales throughout the pandemic, as buyers both in and out of state are sprucing up their homes, furnishing new ones and surrounding themselves with reminders of a cherished place. The pandemic has devastated much of the Maine art infrastructure, but art sales seem to be pandemic proof.

From York to Millinocket, galleries are defying national and international trends and experiencing brisk sales. Some gallery owners and artists link the surge in the sale of original artwork to the jump in the real-estate market, especially among out-of-state buyers, who are eager to fill their empty walls. Others say it’s because people are looking for moments of beauty and inspiration in their everyday lives that otherwise have become more bleak and less hopeful. Sales are being driven by wealthy people, who have generally fared well during pandemic, but middle-income people are buying art, too – to enrich their lives and to support artists.

In either case, that’s good news for Maine artists and galleries alike.

“People love Maine, and when they can’t be here they want something on their walls that reminds them of Maine,” said Lyn Asselta, a pastel painter from Damariscotta who shows at Gleason Fine Art in Boothbay Harbor. “Faced with being locked down, people had to make decisions about their lives – what do I want around me, where do I want to be? The answer is Maine. When the world can’t give you the places that offer an opportunity to relax or rest, then you bring those places into your home.”

Marsha Donahue, a painter from Millinocket, dropped off four North Woods watercolors at Caldbeck Gallery in Rockland in early August. Within a few weeks, all four sold, at $650 each, to a single collector from Philadelphia. “I was stunned,” said Donahue, who also has sold a lot of her own work and that of other artists at the gallery she owns and operates in Millinocket, North Light Gallery. Sales have been unusually strong, both online and in person, she said.

Brad Maushart, pictured in his Kennebunkport gallery, F8, says he’s been selling a lot of art since reopening in June, mostly to out-of-staters. Gregory Rec/Staff Photographer Buy this Photo

Brad Maushart, owner of F8 Gallery in Kennebunkport, said he has never seen busier weekends than what he’s seen lately. He sells only his own art in his downtown gallery, mostly loose, figurative paintings and a few photographs. As of last week, he had sold 78 paintings since he opened the gallery in June, “which is a lot,” he said, hesitating to reveal that number out of concern he might come across as boastful, especially when so many people are struggling. “It’s all out-of-staters – New York, New Jersey, Connecticut. A lot of people from Massachusetts,” he said.

He owns his building in the heart of Kennebunkport, and with the real estate market booming, people have advised him that now would be a good time to sell. “I would sell if the gallery would stop making money,” he said. “But why should I wrap it up if it keeps up like this?”

He sells paintings from $50 to $8,000 each. “I’ve sold a few at $2,000 and a lot at $200. The $50 ones, I’ve sold a ton of those. I went through all my inventory when the coronavirus started. My wife said, ‘Just put them to the side and see what happens.’ ”

Carol Eisenberg, who creates abstract digital photographs full of bright colors, sold more than two dozen pieces of art, from $700 to $2,800 each, including 19 from an exhibition at Carver Hill Gallery in Camden, which charges a commission on each sale. She sold five photos to one collector, three to another. “That is clearly not an everyday experience,” the Belfast artist said of selling five pieces to one person.

Janet Rathbun from Portland has been on a buying spree to support Maine art galleries and artists. She recently purchased a sculpture by Lise Becu, paintings by Ellie Barnet and George Lloyd, a photograph by Larry Hayden, jewelry by J.E. Paterak and a print by New York artist Devon Rodriquez. Because of the pandemic, she has committed more money than usual to supporting artists and galleries, though she wouldn’t specify how much.

Art work displayed in Sam Mitchell’s home. Mitchell said about 95 percent of the art in his home is from Maine artists, and he has been collecting art since the 1980s. Brianna Soukup/Staff Photographer

“Normally I would buy something if it caught my eye and we had the funds to do it, but I have been a little more conscientious during the pandemic,” she said. “One of the reasons I have bought a few things is an attempt to help the galleries through what is a really rough time. I think it’s a little more important now.”

Maine seems to be bucking an international trend. A study conducted by Art Basel and the Swiss investment firm UBS found that art galleries worldwide have reduced their staffs by a third since the beginning of 2020 and the value of art sales has fallen by 43 percent. With the pandemic grinding the world to a halt, art sales plummeted. But that never really happened in Maine, for a couple of reasons. The winter and spring are generally slow times for in-person art sales, with many galleries closed for the season and focusing on online sales and service. When they began reopening in June with pandemic restrictions in place, many galleries picked up where they left off last year – with steady foot traffic, a growing web presence and intense interest surrounding Maine art and artists. The boom in the real estate market helped.

Dennis Gleason, co-owner of Gleason Fine Art in Boothbay Harbor, isn’t sure if sales are up over this time last year, but they’re at least holding even, which is far better than he expected earlier this year. He said he is selling art to many new customers, both people who have lived in the area for some time as well as newcomers to Maine. “We are experiencing new buyers, and, generally speaking, higher prices,” he said.

Gleason holds a real estate license and said trends in the real estate market often correlate with trends in the art market. A tight housing inventory and a spike in home sales to out-of-state buyers pushed the median price of single-family homes in Maine up 17.4 percent in August, with roughly one-third of home sales involving someone moving to Maine from elsewhere. Those who can afford to buy new houses are filling those homes with art, and those who can’t find their dream home are renovating existing homes, he said. Both trends have helped the art gallery, which specializes in contemporary and traditional Maine art. “People are spending more time at home and more money on home improvement. They are tired of looking at their walls and want to spruce them up,” he said. “And people who are buying homes with empty walls are buying things to put on them.”

Art work displayed in Sam Mitchell’s home where about 95 percent of the works on the walls are by Maine artists. Brianna Soukup/Staff Photographer

Jeremy Fogg, co-owner of Barridoff Galleries in South Portland, said the gallery sold 90 percent of the art put up for auction at its August sale and set 22 sales records, including for Dahlov Ipcar and Lynne Drexler. Ipcar’s “Zebra Wood,” a painting from 1968, sold for $40,260, an auction record for the Maine artist and illustrator, who spent most of her life in Georgetown and made fanciful, energetic paintings of animals. “People are buying property who want Maine art in their homes,” Fogg said. “There is that shift to everybody wanting to move here, and they want to fill their walls with art.”

At Grant Wahlquist Gallery, a contemporary art gallery in Portland, sales are up 20 percent over last year, estimated owner Grant Wahlquist. He agreed with Gleason that people who spent time at home earlier this year invested in art to improve their homes and personal space. “We have a lot of new clients who are coming in and buying multiple works, not just one,” he said. Foot traffic has been steady since he reopened in June. “People were driving down from the midcoast or driving up from Boston after they got their COVID test. They were just so happy and excited to be in a room with art again,” he said.

In York, the George Marshall Store Gallery also opened in June to steady business. Throughout the summer, curator and gallery director Mary Harding affixed red dots to the labels of pieces hanging in the gallery, indicating sales. On one day in September, red dots documented $25,250 worth of sales of art display, and that was a fraction of the work sold at that point in the season, Harding said. “There is pent-up desire,” she said. “We’ve had excellent sales since we opened back up in June.”

John Danos, co-owner of Cove Street Arts and Greenhut Galleries in Portland, said all the summer shows did well at all price points, from $1,200 for a small painting by Mary Bourke to $24,000 for a large piece by Jon Imber. Paintings by Daniel Minter priced in the $4,o00 range and John Whalley paintings for $10,000 also sold well. “We’ve seen upswings in sales and the number of people coming in. Right after the shutdown, we had tons of people bringing in framing. I think it was people sitting around cleaning up attics, and all of a sudden they wanted all these things reframed. But especially in August and September, the sales picked up,” Danos said. “People who were locked in their homes for months, all of a sudden they all seemed to say at once, ‘It would be nice to have something new on the walls.’ ”

That described Sam Mitchell, a real estate agent from Belfast, whose condo is full of art. He’s a 30-year collector of Maine art, and sometimes budgets as much as $20,000 a year for art. He said he’s “probably” within his budget this year, even after a buying spree when he saw one of Eisenberg’s digital photos inspired by the coronavirus on social media. He arranged to buy three of them, along with two from another photographic series.

Sam Mitchell points out the coronavirus in the pieces of art he recently purchased from artist Carol Eisenberg that hang above his bed. Staff photo by Brianna Soukup/Staff Photographer

“This is a huge time in our lives, as far as history goes,” Mitchell said, explaining his attraction to the “dangerous beauty” of the artist’s coronavirus series. “These are dangerous, troubling times that we are in, and I love that it is documented in this way.” He decided to buy the photographs because of his instinctive attraction to the work itself, not the subject matter. “They’re just beautiful. When you see them in person, the quality of the printing, how deep and rich the colors are, the density of it, the paper she chose to print on – all just beautiful,” he said.

Collector Rick Franklin, a pharmaceutical executive with a home in Warren and avid collector of Maine art, also recently purchased a photograph from Eisenberg as a personal reward after his company, Constant Therapeutics, had a drug accepted in a COVID-related clinical trial. “We had good news, and I felt like celebrating,” he said.

But he didn’t buy one of her coronavirus photos. He paid $1,500 for an abstract piece called “Ancient Forest” because, he said, “it felt kind of stable in an unstable world.”


Only subscribers are eligible to post comments. Please subscribe or to participate in the conversation. Here’s why.

Use the form below to reset your password. When you've submitted your account email, we will send an email with a reset code.

filed under: