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Turning a Blue-Collar Town Into Maine's Year-Round Arts Destination

The Center for Maine Contemporary Art (CMCA) building by Toshiko Mori stakes Rockland’s claim to a rich artistic legacy.

Toshiko Mori Architect

The grimy barges in the harbor of Rockland, Maine, and the abandoned quarries a mile inland seem unchanged from when Edward Hopper painted them in the 1920s. A cement plant dominates the horizon. And until 10 years ago, the smell of a sardine factory blanketed Main Street when an east wind blew.

But the new Center for Maine Contemporary Art (CMCA), dedicated to showing the works of living artists with a connection to Maine, stakes the town’s new claim to a rich artistic legacy through glass and steel.

The building, designed by Toshiko Mori, opened last June on Winter Street, which leads to the waterfront’s empty lots and dilapidated buildings. Until a year ago, CMCA was housed in a converted livery stable in Rockport, the next town up the coast.

It’s a block down from the Farnsworth Museum, with its fine collection of 19th- and 20th-century American art. On the day before the CMCA opening, three women with Farnsworth stickers on their shirts tentatively followed a freshly painted gray stripe that runs down Winter Street. Just past a bakery’s loading dock, a real sidewalk of paving stones takes over from the paint. The sidewalk opens into a bright courtyard. Walls of glass panels enclose the courtyard and look into the building.

The women stopped in their tracks. “Wow!” they exclaimed. “Wow!” In the weeks before it officially opened, so many people reacted to the building with that word that CMCA printed hats that say “WOW.”

“Museums turn themselves away from the public; they don’t open themselves the way they should,” Mori says. “Here, the courtyard opens off the street and the glass walls open into the courtyard. That integrates the life of the city into the museum.” In person, it appears as urban and theatrical as an Italian piazza.

The building plays with light. For two centuries that slanting light, more about contrast than color, has lured artists to the Pine Tree State. Fitz Henry Lane, Frederic Church, Winslow Homer, George Bellows, Rockwell Kent, Edward Hopper, John Marin, Alex Katz—Luminists, impressionists, members of the Ashcan School, modernists—all worked in Maine in the summer and in the winter returned to New York.

CMCA aims to focus attention on the ties between Maine art and the broader world. Founded more than 60 years ago as an artists’ collective, it’s a scrappy organization with no permanent collection. Its new building represents their aspiration.

It’s not quite a museum. The courtyard occupies 15 percent of its footprint—empty space that could have become galleries or storage. “I was surprised that the board accepted this design,” Mori says, “but within their modesty, they are ambitious. They wanted a building to change thinking within the community.”

And outside the community, too: CMCA commissioned Mori to design a stage for exhibitions. Suzette McAvoy, CMCA’s director, who guided the project from wild idea to finished building, sees it as a key to the evolution of this working-class town, population 7,200, into a year-round arts destination.

Gulls hover above a fish unloading operation in Rockland. (AP Photo/Robert F. Bukaty)

It’s a funky place where restaurants and small galleries can afford the rent on Main Street, though a luxury hotel opened this summer. From Rockland, ferries cross Penobscot Bay to Matinicus, a remote fishing island where turf (or maybe surf) wars break out periodically, as well as to bucolic, patrician North Haven and its rougher southern twin Vinalhaven, whose granite quarries provided the stone for the Washington Monument and the Brooklyn Bridge.

Toshiko Mori has a house on North Haven; she has been, she says, “in and out of Rockland for 33 years.” She has become friends with boat builders, and she collaborates with a local fabricating company to manufacture hardware for her projects, most recently a series of Novartis research buildings in Cambridge, Massachusetts, Basel, and Shanghai. The architect describes Rockland as a “working town, with a working waterfront, with an artistic intuition.”

That also describes her own work: spare to the edge of erasure, exacting in detail. The CMCA building occupies the site of a garage built for summer residents and retains the garage’s footprint and volume. Corrugated metal sheathes the building’s outer shell. Mori translates industrial materials and vocabulary into elements of design. An interior wall of wooden dowels echoes the vertical corrugated siding. Windows in the largest gallery rise from the roof in banks of right-angled triangles. The other two galleries are windowless meditative spaces.

A Rollin Leonard exhibit inside the CMCA. (Toshiko Mori Architect)

In practical terms, the city hopes CMCA will spur construction on the waterfront. The Farnsworth Museum attracts tourists; CMCA expects do so as well while anchoring a working community. In Maine, there’s been a lot of talk about Rockland becoming a hip place. A growing population of creative people live there, but many don’t stay all year. “Nobody wants to be here in January,” Rockland’s mayor, Louise MacClellan-Ruf, says. Though commerce tends to follow art, the pace of conversion to a year-round creative economy, she adds, is “creeping.”

For the inaugural exhibition, McAvoy chose the work of three artists who work in Maine and show internationally: Jonathan Borofsky’s colorful humanoid Lego constructions and hallucinogenic drawings fill the large gallery, Rollin Leonard’sVernal Pond, morphing, digitally manipulated photographs, and Katz’s small paintings—his pond and woods in Lincolnville, his family—are in another. Each artist made his reputation south of the Owl’s Head lighthouse at the entrance to Rockland harbor.

Mori’s building has changed the landscape. It embodies Rockland’s economy of means, its lack of pretention, and its oblique and shifting light. The courtyard delights and disorients, priming us to look at what is inside. In the big gallery, through those high, north-facing windows, all you see is sky and the patterns of time. Mori has made CMCA itself into a work of art, a reflection on the light that draws artists—and then everyone else—to Maine.

About the Author

  • Deborah Weisgall
    Deborah Weisgall writes about the arts for various national publications including the New York Times, Esquire, and The Atlantic; she is also the author of two novels and a memoir.