Portland, Maine, may not have the Portlandia hype associated with that other Portland, but it has so no shortage of creative energy and has carved out a thriving artistic identity in its own right. The small city is filled with galleries, artist studios, and creative collaborations, and its flagship museum, the Portland Museum of Art (PMA), is tapping into this energy. As part of its Free Friday programming, PMA has invited local artists into the museum context to create artist interventions – on-the-spot engagements in the galleries between visitors and artists.
The program is rooted in the local artist community and reflects an ongoing conversation between the museum and Portland’s artists. A team of Portland-based artists was assembled in 2012 to aid Julia Einstein, Assistant Director of Family and Studio Learning at PMA, in developing programs that would both encourage understanding of the artistic process and foster appreciation for and engagement with the museum’s collection. In discussing this process, Einstein explains, “I liked the idea of presenting an artist’s guide to the collection, revealing how an artist looks, bringing the artist’s voice into the galleries, showing how creativity works, bringing studio practice out and into the Museum and sharing the creative impulse.” The group drew on these ideas to develop ideas for individual artist interventions, and a dynamic series of interventions has grown out of this ongoing sketching, discussing, and developing of ideas. As Einstein notes, “the structure is flexible and is meant to change to fit with each artist’s plan,” and artists find their own ways of engaging with visitors or catalyzing particular experiences within the museum.
In keeping with the initial focus on fostering connections between these artist interventions and the museum’s diverse collection, PMA has tied the interventions program to its curatorial programs in effective ways. In 2013, the interventions program was included in the interpretive plan for the 2013 Biennial exhibition, and artists with works displayed in the Biennial were able to expand on concepts in the show in novel ways through the interventions. By inviting visitors to “meet artists and participate in an experience designed by artists to reveal a museum process or to provoke a dialogue,” viewers were able to gain new lenses into works represented in the Biennial exhibition. This year, the interventions are similarly tied to curatorial programming, with artists from Portland intervening to point out new ways of interpreting the museum’s exhibitions.
Beyond its ties with the curatorial aims of the museum, the artist interventions support a broad swath of goals that fit into the museum’s mission of enriching lives through the visual arts. Einstein sees the driving goals of the program as maximizing the experience of looking at original art, fostering dialogue between artist voices and the museum’s audience, engaging Maine’s artist community, and creating programs that focus on creativity and the creative impulse. This holistic approach to programming reflects the process-based thinking that lies at the heart of the artist interventions program, and PMA does more than pay lip service to the value of artist voices. Einstein notes that planning interventions is a collaborative effort between the artists and herself, and likens the process to a form of studio practice within the context of the museum’s galleries. As these processes and practices are translated into engaging programming at PMA, the conversation and interplay between museum and artist expands to involve the museum’s audiences, fostering new ways of looking both at art and the possibilities for creativity within and beyond museum spaces.