The Farnsworth at 60
The Farnsworth Art Museum is the engine that drives Rockland, Maine. For most of its 60 years, the Farnsworth was a sleepy backwater institution featuring a historic house museum, a private library, and an art gallery.
This little downtown complex, known by its proper name — the William A. Farnsworth Library and Art Museum — was a bequest to the midcoast Maine port city from Lucy Farnsworth, the spinster daughter of the lime quarry and kiln baron whose name it bears in perpetuity.
In the go-go years of the 1980s and 1990s, the Farnsworth blossomed into a major regional art museum, acquiring an entire city block for its cultural purposes and becoming the New England pole of the wonderful world of Wyeth with the creation of a Wyeth Center and the conversion of a church across the street into a permanent Wyeth family art gallery.
As the Farnsworth attracted more and more money, art, and attention, the old fishing port evolved into an art mecca, with good cafes, bookstores, and arts-and-crafts galleries sprouting up all over downtown. In recent years, having lost the support it once enjoyed from credit card giant MBNA when CEO Charles Cawley, a local summer resident, retired in 2003 — and having weathered the downturn in the U.S. economy and culture that followed the September 11, 2001 — attacks, the Farnsworth, like a good many arts institutions, has been running a deficit and struggling to maintain its prominence and its great promise.
These days, however, the Farnsworth seems to have found new life and energy, owing in large part to changes in leadership. In 2006, Lora Urbanelli came to Maine from the Rhode Island School of Design Museum to take over as director. In 2007, the Farnsworth then hired new chief curator Michael Komanecky from the Phoenix Art Museum and new director of education Roger Dell from the Fitchburg Art Museum.
“I finally feel as though we have all the pieces in place to fulfill the vision we had when I came,” says Lora Urbanelli. “We want to re-engage the community, become a national model for museum education, and bring people back into the Farnsworth.”
Although the Wyeth Center is all Wyeth all the time and is a decided draw for the Farnsworth, the museum is celebrating its 60th anniversary by focusing on its own collection. (Most of the works by N.C., Andrew, and Jamie Wyeth are on loan from the family foundation.) In many cases, that means that art that hasn’t seen the light of day in years will be coming out of storage.
The anniversary’s focus on the museum’s collection not only celebrates it core mission but also allows the new staff to familiarize themselves with the Farnsworth’s riches. Roger Dell will use the Farnsworth’s holdings, for example, to conduct a marathon 12-session course titled “Achieving American Art” (Wednesdays, April 2-June 18) using the Farnsworth’s collection to recap American art history.
Curator Michael Komanecky has learned the collection by mounting not one but five shows (all beginning March 8):
— The Farnsworth and the Art of Our Time (thru June 15)
— Uncommon Treasures: Folk Art from the Farnsworth (thru November 30)
— Picturing the Decades: 60 Years of Photography (thru June 1)
— Louise Nevelson (thru February 1, 2009)
— Alex Katz and Friends (through October 26)
Sculptor Louise Nevelson grew up in Rockland, and the Farnsworth claims the “second-largest public holding of Nevelson’s work in the world.” Painter Alex Katz, darling of the New York art world and a Lincolnville summer resident, is more closely associated with the Colby College Museum of Art in Waterville, Maine, where a substantial collection of his own work is housed, but in recent years the Alex Katz Foundation has quietly been helping the Farnsworth purchase contemporary works by artists such as Philip Pearlstein, Janet Fish, Red Grooms, and Francesco Clemente who have little or no relation to Maine.
This ambitious summer season speaks volumes to the Farnsworth’s aspirations to be more than the Maine repository of all things Wyeth, and to its determination to remain a vital player in the economic and cultural life of coastal Maine.
“When MBNA pulled its support, we did not cut back,” says director Lora Urbanelli. “We gave ourselves five years to build the support level back up. We did not want to retract to meet the bottom line.”
A public grand-opening party will be held Friday, April 4, from 7 to 9 p.m.
Please Note: This information was accurate at the time of publication. When planning a trip, please confirm details by directly contacting any company or establishment you intend to visit.