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At two of Maine’s preeminent museums, the art remains—but much has changed

Visitors can still see a Wyeth or a Homer; the benches may be gone.

PORTLAND, Maine — The Portland Museum of Art, the largest and best-known museum in Maine, was looking forward to an exceptional year in 2020, maybe its best ever. “We’d anticipated 200,000 visitors this year,” says PMA director Mark Bessire. Those expectations started to crumble on March 13 when the museum shut down because of the pandemic. “We will never recover that lost revenue,” he says in a matter of fact way.

The PMA reopened last week and has been welcoming a modest number of visitors, from 50 to 100 a day. Museums aren’t meant to display art that no one sees so it’s good to be open again, but having just 75 visitors walk through the building in seven hours will not come close to working financially in the long run. “The best case scenario,” according to Bessire, “would be a $1.6 million gap in our budget this year.”

Like the PMA, the Farnsworth Art Museum in Rockland has just emerged from a storm the likes of which it never imagined. When it reopens to the public on June 26, visitors will notice some differences. Things you touch—benches and interactive displays, for instance—will be gone.

“In the past I would describe [a visit] as very much a free-roam experience—‘I like that exhibition’ or ‘I want to go back and see that piece of art,’ “ says Farnsworth director Chris Brownawell. “At least for the forseeable future we’re going to have to keep people moving in one direction through the building. They’ll have a chance to see all our exhibitions, but it’ll be a little more prescribed experience than in the past.”

Over the last three months both the PMA and the Farnsworth have re-evaluated not only their visitor experiences but also their missions. They’ve already made some changes; more will come. (Watch our interviews with Mark Bessire and Chris Brownawell for a more detailed description.) For now, here’s a silver lining for patrons: When you stroll through the galleries, there will be fewer guests so you’ll have plenty of room in which to step back and admire all those impressive works of art.

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