Three year in, Portland Art Gallery hits its stride.
On the evening of April 6, rain was coming down in buckets, and many of those out on the sidewalks of the Old Port were scurrying to get home at the end of the workday. Some, however, were making their way through the deluge to the Portland Art Gallery on Middle Street, where a warm glow shone through the large front windows and jazz saxophonist Joe Rillo could be seen playing in a corner. Inside the gallery, newcomers shook off the raindrops and joined a convivial group of art collectors, artists, and friends who had come for painter Darthea Cross’s solo show. Sipping wine and nibbling cheese, they wandered between the two sections of the gallery—the solo space, hung with Cross’s reflective paintings of rock formations, and the group section, where a variety of other works were on display.
Portland Art Gallery takes a community- focused approach to the marketing and sale of art. “Our openings are meant to be very social and friendly,” says Jack Leonardi, managing partner of Art Collector Maine (ACM), which started as an online art enterprise in 2011 and now includes three physical galleries— Portland Art Gallery, Gallery at the Grand in Kennebunk, and the Gallery at Bald Head Cliff at the Cliff House in Cape Neddick. “Of course we want the people who stop into one of our galleries to be interested in the work and want to buy it, but it starts with creating an environment that is easy and fun, and a place people want to come.” Part of Maine Media Collective (MMC), ACM represents 85 artists, both painters and sculptors, including such well-known names as Eric Hopkins, Jane Dahmen, Jill Hoy, William Crosby, and Jean Jack.
Portland Art Gallery opened in the summer of 2014, in a bright, high-ceilinged space with a row of arched windows along one wall overlooking Silver Street. The solo show gallery space was added in 2016. “It gives us a reason to invite our clients and friends in here every month, and that’s important for our business,” says Leonardi. “From the artists’ perspective it’s an opportunity for them to be together and support each other,” says Emma Wilson, managing director of ACM. “Being an artist can be a very solitary experience, but if on the first Thursday of every month they can count on coming down here and having a glass of wine and seeing each other, it’s good for them, good for our clients, and good for us.”
Wilson, who has a master’s degree in social work, was looking to join a nonprofit when MMC principal Kevin Thomas approached her about joining the ACM team. She had some art world experience, including a stint at the Portland Museum of Art, but initially balked at the suggestion. “Then I realized it wasn’t like the art galleries you see in movies where there’s a person sitting behind a desk who comes out and makes you feel uncomfortable when you walk through the door,” she says. “What happens here is that we try to be welcoming and transparent; we share the stories about our artists and engage with our clients, and we also use a variety of ways to promote and get our artists’ names and images out there for the world to see.”
The myth of the starving artist is not one Portland Art Gallery wants to perpetuate. “In order for an artist to continue their work and not have to do six other things to be able to survive, we have to sell work for them and pay them,” says Leonardi. The gallery employs a membership model, and while at the beginning, “100 percent of our revenue was artist fees, now, 90 to 95 percent is from art sales,” he says. “We’re in the selling business. That’s what we need to do not only for our business, but for our artists’ businesses.”
Acknowledging that art is one of the most discretionary purchases anyone can make, Leonardi stresses that from the outset, the gallery has focused on offering pieces that people want to own. “We’re not trying to dictate to our clients what we think they should buy,” he says. The gallery also offers work at a broad range of prices—from $500 into the high five figures—“because you never know somebody’s entry point into buying original art,” he continues. “We don’t expect that everyone who comes in here is a buyer at the moment. We want them to love the environment, love the work, and when they’re ready, they’re ready.” Having an established connection to potential clients via the magazines—Maine Home + Design in particular—has also been a benefit. “Every gallery covets their relationships with interior designers, and we extend that to builders and architects,” says Wilson. “And we also have the concierge service, which makes it easier for them. We’ll do the work because it’s the relationship that matters to us.”
Wilson has driven as far as New York City to take a painting to a client, but that was an anomaly. A far more regular example of the gallery’s concierge service involves a local client who came to a First Thursday opening and couldn’t decide between several of the paintings. So Wilson took them to the client’s home. “Her husband was there—he wasn’t at the opening—and they decided on two pieces,” she says. “She wouldn’t have otherwise been able to see that there was a composition or palette difference that you don’t always notice when the paintings are here in the gallery, but your home environment brings out.”
Longtime client Johanna Christiansson’s first experience with ACM was at Gallery at the Grand, where she fell in love with a triptych by Jane Dahmen of the painter’s signature birch trees. Leonardi took the paintings to her Portland home on “the hottest day of the summer,” and spent the better part of two days laboring to hang them securely on one of her old, horsehair plaster walls. “He did everything to perfection,” she says. Christiansson has since acquired at least 11 more pieces from the galleries, including works by Ingunn Milla Joergensen, A.J. Bueche, and Tim Beavis. “They have some of the most wonderful artists and they’re educating people,” she says of the collective.
Leonardi and Wilson say that instead of seeing other Portland art galleries as competitors, there is an opportunity for them to support each other, much like the city’s thriving restaurant community does. Due to the growth in and around the Old Port, they believe Middle Street could support several more. “We hope we’re giving people optimism to open a gallery down here because we have been so successful,” says Leonardi. “We want people to make this a destination where they know they can come here, they can go to Greenhut just a few doors down, they can go to four other galleries right here, and it’s good for everybody.”