ROCKLAND, Maine ― The Farnsworth Art Museum is working to diversify its collection and the artwork it spotlights by incorporating more work by women, Indigenous artists and artists of color, as well as more contemporary pieces and new mediums.
A first step toward these initiatives is the recent reinstallation of the four galleries that showcase work from the museum’s 15,000-piece collection. The exhibit, “Farnsworth Forward,” features historic artwork from the collection alongside more contemporary works and several new pieces that have been acquired by the museum.
Museum officials say this new reinstallation is a signal to “stay tuned” as the Farnsworth aims to share a more complete and up to date story of Maine’s role in American art.
“This isn’t the end all, this is the beginning because there’s a lot of initiatives afoot right now, as far as expanding the collection,” Farnsworth Art Museum Director Christopher Brownawell said. “This was the first step in that process, and it really will culminate in 2023 with the 75th anniversary.”
One of the first pieces acquired under the museum’s new contemporary program ― which will grow the collection to reflect the growing diversity of Maine’s art scene ― is a mixed-media assemblage piece titled “A Distant Holla, Deep Inside Us” by Daniel Minter, which is currently on display as part of “Farnsworth Forward.” Minter is an African American artist based in Portland who with his wife co-founded the Indigo Arts Alliance,
Another piece acquired through this program, and currently on display, is a large, vibrant painting by Ann Craven, titled “Pink Harvest Moon, Bright Red Dancing Trees, Cushing.” Craven is an artist who splits her time between Cushing and New York City.
The museum is also working to collect pieces that represent a broader range of mediums as well.
The Farnsworth has recently commissioned a piece from Jeremy Frey, a Wabanaki basketmaker, who incorporates a contemporary vein into the tradition of basketmaking, according to Farnsworth consulting curator Suzette McAvoy.
More contemporary photography is also being added to the collection, as is a video piece.
“This new initiative was really developed thinking about where there are holes, where are there artists that we should have collected that we didn’t and really beginning to pursue that and continue to celebrate the many artists that have found Maine this attractive setting to do their work,” Brownawell said.
The Farnsworth Art Museum opened in Rockland in 1948 and from the onset its mission was centered around highlighting Maine’s place in American art. The museum’s collection features prominent artists with Maine ties like Alex Katz, Louise Nevelson and Robert Indiana. The museum is known for its vast collection and exhibitions of work from all three generations of the Wyeth family.
But like many institutions in recent years, as social and racial justice movements sparked conversation and deeper thought regarding the need for better representation of diverse viewpoints, the Farnsworth has been reflecting on its mission and collection.
“It just made sense for us as an institution that is constantly evaluating its work, constantly evaluating what it does. Is there a way to do it better, are there holes in the collection, is the collection representative of what’s being done in the state? And our answer was, ‘We can do a better job,’” Brownawell said.
Funds from the recent sale of a Lynne Drexler painting from the museum’s collection will be used to help the museum acquire additional work. While selling work from the museum’s collection ― a process called deaccessioning ― is not done frequently, Brownawell said in this instance, with six Drexeler paintings in the collection that represented some redundancy, the museum’s board felt it was an appropriate move to take as it evaluated the collection.
A second painting by Drexler will be auctioned off later this spring, leaving four of her paintings still in the museum’s collection.
“It provides us an opportunity to really do some important work and to sort of advance the collection and really celebrate additional artists,” Brownawell said.
By summer, every gallery at the Farnsworth will be changed over. This will make room for several new spring exhibitions, including one dedicated to the work of the late artist Ashley Bryan, who died earlier this year.
The museum was recently gifted three of Bryan’s paintings, which are the first of his works the museum has added to its collection. These three paintings will be featured in the larger exhibit, titled “Ashley Bryan: Beauty in Return,” which will feature about 15 paintings and 30 illustrations as well as puppets and stained glass pieces made by Bryan. The exhibition opens on May 28 and will run through the end of the year.
“It’s amazing how [Bryan] is so admired and celebrated within that field that he’s most known, of children book illustration, but is not as widely known as he should be in terms of the kind of contributions that he’s made, not only to that field but to Maine and to people across America through his art,” Farnsworth guest curator Suzette McAvoy said.
By the fall the museum is also working to put on display its entire collection of work from artist and sculptor, Louise Nevelson, who immigrated to Rockland with her family in 1905 from what is now Ukraine. The Farnsworth has the second largest collection of Nevelson’s work.
With the museum working on an active acquisition program, Brownawell and McAvoy said more changes will be in store next year, when the museum turns 75, to incorporate the new pieces.
“This is sort of the first step,” Brownawell said. “Over the course of the next 12 months, we’ll be working on expanding, acquiring new work to sort of continue to expand the narrative here in the collection galleries.”