ROCKLAND, Maine ― The Farnsworth Art Museum is working to diversify its collection and the artworks it showcases by incorporating more works by women, Indigenous artists and artists of color, as well as more contemporary pieces and new mediums.
A first step towards these initiatives is the recent relocation of the four galleries which feature works from the museum’s 15,000-piece collection. The exhibition, “Farnsworth Forward”, features historical works of art from the collection alongside more contemporary works and several new pieces acquired by the museum.
Museum officials say the new relocation is a signal to “stay tuned” as the Farnsworth aims to share a more complete and up-to-date history of Maine’s role in American art.
“It’s not the end, it’s the beginning because there are a lot of initiatives going on at the moment, in terms of expanding the collection,” said Farnsworth Art Museum director Christopher Brownawell. “It was the first step in this process, and it will really culminate in 2023 with the 75th anniversary.”
One of the first pieces acquired as part of the museum’s new contemporary program ― which will expand the collection to reflect the growing diversity of Maine’s art scene ― is a multimedia assemblage titled “A Distant Holla, Deep Inside Us” by Daniel Minter , which is currently on display as part of “Farnsworth Forward”. Minter is a Portland-based African-American artist who, along 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 divides her time between Cushing and New York.
The museum also strives to collect pieces that also represent a wider range of mediums.
The Farnsworth recently commissioned a piece from Jeremy Frey, a Wabanaki basket weaver, which incorporates a contemporary vein in the basket weaving tradition, according to Farnsworth’s consultant curator, Suzette McAvoy.
More contemporary photographs are also added to the collection, as well as a video piece.
“This new initiative was really developed thinking where are the holes, where are the artists that we should have collected and we haven’t really started to pursue that and continue to celebrate the many artists who have found Maine this attractive setting to do their work,” Brownawell said.
The Farnsworth Art Museum opened in Rockland in 1948, and from the beginning its mission centered on showcasing Maine’s place in American art. The museum’s collection features prominent artists with Maine ties such as Alex Katz, Louise Nevelson, and Robert Indiana. The museum is known for its extensive collection and exhibits of works from all three generations of the Wyeth family.
But like many institutions in recent years, as social and racial justice movements have sparked conversations and deeper reflection on the need for better representation of diverse viewpoints, the Farnsworth has reflected on its mission and his collection.
“It made sense to us as an institution that is constantly evaluating its work, constantly evaluating what it does. Is there a way to do better, are there holes in the collection, is the collection representative of what’s being done in the state?” And our response was, “We can do a better job,” Brownawell said.
Funds from the recent sale of a painting by Lynne Drexler from the museum’s collection will be used to help the museum acquire additional works. Although the sale of works from the museum’s collection – a process called alienation – does not occur frequently, Brownawell said in this case, with six paintings by Drexeler in the collection representing some redundancy, the board of the museum felt it was an appropriate decision to make as it assessed the collection.
A second painting by Drexler will be auctioned later this spring, leaving four of his paintings still in the museum’s collection.
“It gives us the opportunity to really do important work and move the collection forward and really celebrate other artists,” Brownawell said.
By summer, all the Farnsworth galleries will be transformed. This will make way for several new spring exhibitions, including one dedicated to the work of the late artist Ashley Bryan, who died earlier this year.
The museum recently received three of Bryan’s paintings, which are the first of his works that the museum has added to its collection. These three paintings will be featured in the larger exhibition, titled “Ashley Bryan: Beauty Returning,” which will include approximately 15 paintings and 30 illustrations as well as puppets and stained glass made by Bryan. The exhibition opens on May 28 and will run until the end of the year.
“It’s amazing how [Bryan] is so admired and celebrated in this field that he is best known, of children’s book illustration, but is not as widely known as he should be in terms of the type of contributions he has brought, not only to this field but to Maine and to people across America through his art,” said Farnsworth Guest Curator Suzette McAvoy.
By fall, the museum is also working to display its entire collection of works by 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 works by Nevelson.
While the museum works on an active acquisition program, Brownawell and McAvoy said further changes will be in store next year, when the museum turns 75, to incorporate the new pieces.
“It’s kind of the first step,” Brownawell said. “Over the next 12 months we will be working on expanding, acquiring new works to kind of continue to expand the narrative here in the galleries of the collection.”