American Art in a Maine Context: the Farnsworth Art Museum

For many museums, current trends toward localism have presented questions over the balance between collecting and exhibiting works with national significance versus those with more local, place-based significance. In the case of Rockland, Maine’s, Farnsworth Art Museum, however, this balance is built into the museum’s DNA. The Farnsworth’s mission is to “celebrate Maine’s role in American art,” and in service of this mission the museum presents nationally significant works of art by artists connected to Maine in diverse ways. This mission places the Farnsworth in a unique space within the museum context, as visitors are able to explore the full range of American art while maintaining a connection to the local historical and cultural environment.

FarnsworthAs Chief Curator Michael K. Komanecky explains, the Farnsworth takes a multifaceted approach to its mission; he notes that “nearly all of the artists whose work we show have some connection to Maine, but that does not mean we only show works that have defined or recognizable Maine subjects.” This broad definition of “connections to Maine” enables the museum to present a wide range of art, and the geographical context plays varying roles in interpretation across this range. For example, Komanecky comments that the museum’s recent exhibition of Paul Caponigro’s work explored his entire career, of which his work in Maine composed a small portion, and contrasts this case with that of Louise Nevelson, who grew up in Maine and whose work has been shown in the museum despite her lack of much work made in or about Maine. While the role of the Maine context in interpretation and presentation varies between works and exhibitions at the Farnsworth, this broad conception of the links between artist and place highlights the variety of ways in which Maine has proved significant in American art.

For visitors, the museum’s wide-ranging presentation of artists associated with Maine allows for a diversity of experiences and engagements within the museum. Komanecky notes that although many visitors are unaware of the museum’s focus, “in coming to the Farnsworth they see the broad sweep of American art from the eighteenth century to the present, and it’s not necessarily important that they recognize it – what they see is work by nationally significant artists whose context is sometimes focused on their work in Maine.” Visitors are able to see works by well-known artists and to take in the full range of American art, but those who seek a local context or wish to explore the artists’ stories are able to connect this national tradition to their own experiences in Maine.

As the museum moves forward, it continues to connect in new ways with audiences, which Komanecky describes as composed of “Maine natives, long-time residents, part-time residents, visitors from New England, the U.S. and abroad.” Given the breadth of this audience, the museum provides a range of experiences through its collection, exhibition, and programs. The museum offers programming that ranges from children’s programs and an animation course for adults to collaborations like studio crawls and its hosting of PechaKucha. This diverse programming provides an elegant complement to the Farnsworth’s collections and exhibitions, allowing Maine residents and visitors to continue to shape Maine’s role in American art. As the museum continues to promote both learning on American art and the creative life of its local community, it highlights the possibilities for connecting national culture with local engagement in the museum context.