How art galleries hurt the Arts District

Among the least credible arguments in favor of selling Congress Square Park to investors who want to turn most of the public square into a private events center is the notion that such a center will boost the city’s struggling downtown Arts District.

Steve Hewins, interim executive director of Portland’s Downtown District, cited this as a big reason he supports the sale when I met with him last week. On Monday night, after more than three hours of public testimony — most of it from opponents of the sale — the Portland City Council postponed a vote on the transaction until next week.

One of the supporters of the sale quoted in the Portland Press Herald’s coverage of the meeting was Ed Pollack, whom the paper erroneously identified as the owner of an art gallery on Congress Street. (Pollack’s gallery is on Forest Avenue.) Pollack’s perspective is in line with Hewins’: We need more foot traffic downtown to support existing businesses in the Arts District and encourage others to fill vacant commercial space.

“I am a small business and a very precarious one,” Pollack reportedly told the councilors. “They’re blighting influences to see empty storefronts.”

With all due respect to Mr. Pollack — whose gallery, A Fine Thing, contains an exceptional collection of fine art — businesses like his are a major reason there is not more foot traffic downtown.

This past Tuesday, I conducted an experiment to test that assertion: I pretended I was a visitor to the city and walked the Arts District in search of art.

The first thing I noticed is that there are relatively few art galleries in the Arts District these days. Restaurants are, by far, the most common type of business downtown, followed by secondhand shops, ethnic markets and hair salons. There’s more art for sale on the walls of restaurants and coffee shops downtown than on the walls of all the district’s galleries combined.

I started at the district’s western end, Longfellow Square, and then walked east along Congress, nearly to High Street, before I encountered a storefront with art for sale: the Holly Ready Gallery. Like a couple other galleries in the district, including Pollack’s and Bridge Gallery, Ready’s does not keep regular business hours. It doubles as her studio and is open by chance or appointment. Ready happened to be there on this afternoon, working on another seascape, but, having no intention to buy one, I was reluctant to interrupt her and walked on.

Next up was Gleason Fine Art, which also deals primarily in Maine land- and seascapes and is also rarely open. Its hours are typical of most galleries in the district: Wednesday through Friday from 11 a.m. to 6 p.m., and Saturday from 11 a.m. to 5 p.m. One wonders what other type of commercial enterprise could survive on Congress Street if it were open only four days a week, for a total of 27 hours. There’s no need to wonder what effect businesses that are closed most of the week have on other businesses in the area.

A little farther down the block, I finally got a chance to stand in front of some actual art. Not at a gallery, though. A sign on the sidewalk announced that work by Anastasia Weigle was on view on the second floor of the Maine Charitable Mechanic Association. I climbed the stairs, but I couldn’t find the exhibit until a woman in the association’s little library pointed to three partitions set up to display Weigle’s surreal assemblages.

I’m a big fan of Weigle’s work (my other favorite local assemblage artist is Frank Turek, a leader of the effort to save Congress Square) and was pleased to see more of it at the only actual gallery open downtown that day, Constellation Gallery. Constellation is a nonprofit owned by the Maine Artist Collective and primarily operated by painter and City Councilor Dave Marshall.

Marshall was there on Tuesday. (The gallery is open everyday from noon to 4 p.m.) He recounted how he’s been trying to improve Congress Square since he was elected seven years ago and how forces inside City Hall have stalled and thwarted that effort all along the way, culminating in the back-door deal to sell most of it to the redevelopers of the adjacent Eastland Park Hotel.

The most striking piece of artwork I saw that day at Constellation was a photograph by Kyler Henningsen. Titled “Eastland Sunset,” it captures the top of the hotel with its iconic sign backlit by a fiery orange sky. Matted and framed, it costs $50. Now that’s what I call a good deal.

Chris Busby

About Chris Busby

Chris Busby is editor and publisher of The Bollard, a monthly magazine about Portland. He writes a weekly column for the BDN.