The state has always been a haven for artists. Now, the rest of the art world is starting to catch up.
One of the key tourist attractions of Thomaston, Maine, an orderly town of white steeples and colonial houses, is a storefront selling arts and crafts made by the state’s prison inmates. The shop is full of stuffed animals, cornhole boards painted with lobsters, and carved schooners.
Nothing on Main Street suggests the presence of a red-hot contemporary art gallery from New York. And yet trendsetting Karma opened its first outpost outside the Big Apple here last year.
The gallery is located in a restored 1914 former Catholic church, with soaring ceilings and lovely stained-glass details. Artist Ann Craven, known for her depictions of moonlit landscapes and birds (one of which soared to $680,400 at the Ammann Collection sale in May), bought the building five years ago with the intention to turn it into her studio.
In the end, “it was too grand,” said Brendan Dugan, owner of Karma, which represents Craven and her husband Peter Halley. “She felt more comfortable painting in her barn” in the nearby town of Cushing.
Karma took over the space instead. It still belongs to Craven, who collaborates with the gallery on annual exhibitions. This summer, they staged “Sanctuary,” an exquisite show of abstract sculpture by Thaddeus Mosley and intimate figurative paintings by Frank Walter, two Black artists born in 1926. (The Maine show has very New York prices: $30,000 to $100,000 for the paintings and about $200,000 for the sculptures.)
“The church was a community space,” Dugan said. “The show is a dialogue between these two artists and it also continues this idea of a community.”
The art community in Maine is growing, with top contemporary artists and art advisors moving there part or full time. Some, like me and my painter husband Greg Goldberg, linger after dropping off kids at summer camp. We sought advice from fellow artists and Maine frequenters Gelah Penn and Stephen Maine, who recommended 250 Main, a boutique hotel with a curatorial program in Rockland. Art advisor Todd Levin shared his routine en route from Portland to Rockland: a lobster roll at Red’s Eats in Wiscasset, a berry pie at Moody’s Diner in Waldoboro, and the Maine State Prison Showroom in Thomaston.
“In the way artists wanted to go to Italy throughout history, it’s the same with Maine,” said Saara Pritchard, a partner at Art Intelligence Global advisory, who’s been a driving market force behind Maine artist Lynne Drexler. The remoteness. The beauty of nature. Other artists. (And don’t forget the thriving food scene.)
These long-term draws have been newly enhanced by the flexibility of remote work, the ability to sell art to an international audience from a remote location, and growing cultural infrastructure in the state.
The resolution of a prolonged legal battle over Robert Indiana’s estate recently cleared the way for the creation of a museum dedicated to the Pop artist, who lived on the Maine island of Vinalhaven. In 2016, the Center for Maine Contemporary Art (CMCA) opened an expansion designed by architect Toshiko Mori. The sleek building currently has a solo show “Hawkeye” by Reggie Burrows Hodges, whose paintings have ignited bidding wars at auction in the past year, and a group show of Maine artists, including Craven, Katherine Bradford, and Inka Essenhigh.
Maine’s allure traces back to the great American landscape painter Winslow Homer (1836–1910), who moved to Prouts Neck in 1883 and whose powerful depictions of the sea are now the subject of “Crosscurrents,” a solo exhibition at the Metropolitan Museum of Art (through July 31).
Those who followed Homer to Maine include realist painter and illustrator N.C. Wyeth, who spent 25 summers there and whose son Andrew and grandson Jamie continued the family tradition. Colby College—whose art collection has been greatly enhanced by donations from longtime Maine resident Alex Katz—recently acquired two coastal islands where Andrew Wyeth painted some of his best-known works.
“There’s been a legacy of artists coming to Maine because of the light,” said Morgan Long, London-based art advisor with the Fine Art Group, who grew up in Camden.
The state has renowned artist colonies. One of them first formed in the mid-19th century on the remote Monhegan Island. There are at least 15 artist residencies in the state, including the influential Skowhegan School of Painting and Sculpture, which has attracted generations of artists since its founding in 1946. Among the first residents was Ashley Bryan, a Black artist whose vibrant representational paintings are currently on view at the Farnsworth.
“Maine has played this unique role in American art that’s not as widely recognized as it should be,” said Suzette McAvoy, who curated the show and is working on a survey of Maine artists to celebrate Farnsworth’s 75th anniversary next year.
The museum is filled with many familiar names who have ties to the state: Modernist Marsden Hartley was born in Lewiston in 1877; sculptor Louise Nevelson came to Rockland from the czarist Russia as a 5-year-old; color field painter Kenneth Noland spent his last decade at Port Clyde.
Today, the art community is chill and collegiate. It’s not uncommon for people to drive for two hours to attend an art opening.
“A lot of artists come to Maine to fly under the radar and spend time in the studio,” said McAvoy, under whose leadership CMCA built its new home. “This is where the work gets done. Even if the work is not directly influenced or inspired by Maine, there’s something about Maine that filters into the work.”
Perhaps no one has taken Maine’s beauty and isolation as far as artist Lynne Drexler, who settled on Monhegan Island in the 1980s, painting in virtual obscurity for the next 16 years until her death. Last spring, Farnsworth decided to deaccession two of her paintings to raise funds to increase the diversity of its holdings.
The museum got an unexpected windfall as the paintings generated almost $3 million, 18 times their joint high estimate.
Pritchard, an art advisor with an eye for rediscovering overlooked artists, traveled to Maine from New York twice since October, to study Drexler’s archives at the Monhegan Museum, look at her paintings, and speak to people who knew her. I got to meet two of them as I took a choppy, hour-long boat to Monhegan this week: Bill Boynton and Jackie Boegel, the husband-and-wife team behind Lupine Gallery, which has been at the heart of the island’s art community since 1985.
“She’s finally getting the recognition she deserves,” Boegel said about Drexler, who was a friend. “It moved to Rockland, Portland, and beyond.”
While few day tourists come to Monhegan because of Drexler, the gallery has been getting lots of inquiries about her work since March, when the first Farnsworth painting sold for $1.2 million at Christie’s.
“She was prolific,” Boegel said. “People liked her work and they wanted to support her.”
Drexler often bartered with her paintings. Now those who own them—or their children—are trying to figure out what to do given the price spike.
“We say, ‘If you like them, keep them,’” said Boynton. “But make sure you have the insurance.”