Mark Bessire has big plans for the Portland Museum of Art. “I want us to be the best regional museum in America,” he says. In his five years as director, he’s grown membership to record highs, completed the opening of Winslow Homer’s studio to the public, and fostered relationships with local nonprofits and national museums alike. This spring, the PMA made its greatest advancement yet when they announced that they’d tapped Scott Simons Architects to develop a new campus master plan—set to encompass everything from the land the museum’s buildings are on to the collections they house. We chatted with Bessire about Portland’s growth, this summer’s Richard Estes show, and why he wants kids Instagramming in the galleries.
What are some of your favorite works at the PMA that should be on everyone’s must-see list?
The great thing about working in a museum is that you get a chance to have a new favorite work of art on a regular basis. There is a wonderful Dennis Miller Bunker portrait of Portland native Walter Griffin that I pass on my way to the office everyday. Frederic Edwin Church’s Mount Katahdin from Millinocket Camp is beautiful and romantic—while inch-for-inch, Winslow Homer’s Sharpshooter could be one of the top five American paintings of all time.
During our last interview, you confessed that you were on the hunt to “find the great shows in the margins—shows that should be in New York.” Have you made any progress?
Yes, this summer, we will have a show of work by photorealist painter Richard Estes, for which we joined forces with the Smithsonian American Art Museum. For more than 40 years, he’s been working in Manhattan and in Maine. It will be a fun surprise to see Katahdin and Acadia next to Columbus Circle and the Brooklyn Bridge.
How are you switching up the way the museum is showing art?
In 2016, we will close the museum for six weeks and reopen on Valentine’s Day with the entire museum reinstalled. We want to be less chronological and more thematic. More conversational and engaging than you walking in here and us telling you, “Here’s the history of art from 1890 to 2010.”
What gets you excited to go to work in the morning?
The potential of social media and the twenty-first century museum. Five years ago, museums were terrified to allow photography because of copyright reasons. But how many times do you see someone actually photograph that Renoir and go and make a poster and try to make money? If they do, we have lawyers and protections. But if it’s in our collection, the best thing we can do is to have a 12-year-old take a selfie with a painting and share it with 120 friends. In the past, every museum in the country would have scolded her for doing that, but if that’s how she communicates with her friends, we have to help her communicate with her friends—not stop her.
How do you see the city of Portland influencing the museum and vice versa?
Portland is full of energy right now. We’re in the center of town, and because we have the highest visitation of anyone nearby, 150,000 visitors a year, we can be the linchpin. The more relationships we build, we can help those organizations expand. Because the better each one of us does, the better we all do. If it’s First Friday, and people are in the museum and galleries, that brings people downtown to go into the restaurants, so they’re full. We’re at that moment, and we’re all bringing each other along for the ride.
What’s the goal of the master plan?
We have a voice as a historical anchor, but we clearly want to be part of a progressive change. In terms of urban planning, our key interest is enabling Congress Square to succeed like Monument and Longfellow Squares. We think it should focus on people—not moving vehicles through Portland as fast and efficiently as possible. Right now, we’re collecting ideas. It could mean anything from a multi-use tower to a cultural center.
Why Scott Simons?
The board chose him because he has a strong local presence of solving difficult issues. He said something along the lines of, “You’re not hiring me to build buildings. You’re hiring me to create a vision of where the museum wants to be in the future.” Then everyone relaxed. We’re not in a big building mode. We’re not in a hurry.