The contretemps over Art Collector Maine and its Portland Art Gallery, which has recently filled the pages of numerous news publications and social media sites, reflects a deeper debate about the future of our fair city by the sea.
To recap: Art Collector Maine (ACM) is a website started over three years ago by the publisher and the editor of the lifestyle magazines Maine, Maine Home + Design and Old Port, in collaboration with a Wall Street investor named Jack Leonardi. Artists pay up to $300 per month to have their work posted on the site. Last summer, the trio opened a gallery on Middle Street, Portland Art Gallery (PAG), which shows work by ACM artists chosen by Leonardi and his team.
Portland Art Gallery has redefined the relationship between a gallery and its artists. Traditionally, the art exhibited in galleries is carefully selected by the gallery owner or curator based on the quality of the work. In the case of PAG, the primary consideration is money — only artists who can afford to pay ACM’s hefty fees are eligible to have their work shown at PAG, a requirement that can aptly be characterized as “pay to play.”
Since news of this arrangement made the front page of the Maine Sunday Telegram last December, the resultant firestorm of protest from members of Maine’s arts community has been intense. Fueling the fire is the fact that ACM/PAG artists are often the subjects of profiles and promotions in the pages of the magazines owned and edited by ACM/PAG’s principals — a connection not explicitly disclosed to readers.
Publisher Kevin Thomas claims his intention is simply to sell more art using a “new” business model. But, in fact, this new venture is marketing and selling only the work of those privileged enough to be able to afford the monthly fees. It’s an exercise in branding and its guiding motive is profit. The notion, advanced by Leonardi, that the website offers a more “democratic” means of connecting buyers with artists, one that “treats all of its artists equally,” is absurd in light of the required fees. What about the artists for whom the $3,600 annual fee is far out of reach? This is not democracy. It’s economic elitism that excludes all but the wealthy few.
While there are certainly legitimate criticisms to be made of the traditional gallery model, curators who apply their aesthetic expertise to find and promote artists play a valuable role in the arts community. In the ACM/PAG model, that judgment is predicated on the artist’s personal wealth. ACM/PAG’s collection of paintings depicting lighthouses and pretty sailboats luffing across the horizon reflects this lack of curatorial discernment. As one former Portland gallery owner lamented in the Telegram article, Thomas and company “are trying to become the face of Maine art. But their artists may not be the best and the brightest. They just have the ability to pay.”
Other gallery owners have complained that ACM tries to “poach” their artists by offering a reduced monthly fee to those who join in groups of 20 or more. And according to the Union of Maine Visual Artists, some dues-paying members of ACM claim they’ve been “bullied” and “threatened with being blacklisted from coverage” in the magazines run by ACM/PAG’s principals if they stop paying for exposure.
What’s next? Will local bookstores stock only the work of authors who can afford to pay for shelf space?
The engines of gentrification are making Portland a very desirable place for the rich. Are we willing to sacrifice affordability and livability so Portland can become a playground for the wealthy? Will our city become defined by trendy restaurants and boutique hotels and fancy magazines full of air-brushed beautiful people, while the vast majority can no longer afford to rent, much less buy, a home here?
Given the ways ACM/PAG and their associated publications are marketing and selling the Portland and Maine “brands,” these are now questions worthy of serious discussion.
Bill Lundgren is an adjunct professor of English at Southern Maine Community College and a bookseller at Longfellow Books. His book reviews can be found at the literary salon/blog billandavescocktailhour.com. He lives in Portland.