For Suzette McAvoy, running the Center for Maine Contemporary Art is about risks, relationships and the rewards of building a community.
As the Center for Maine Contemporary Art in Rockland prepared for its grand opening in 2016, Ogunquit-based sculptor Jonathan Borofsky was there day and night building Digital Man, a 24-foot tower of colorful, cookie-cutter people. Borofsky’s solo show was the main event and he’d be leaving Digital Man behind as a permanent fixture in the courtyard. That is, once he finished it. “He kept expanding it,” says Suzette McAvoy, CMCA’s director and chief curator. “We didn’t know what we were going to get, but fortunately that’s the kind of thing we can do.
“Risk is a big part of contemporary art,” she adds. “And as an institution, we have to be willing to take risks, too.”
The fruits of that risk-taking are evident all around McAvoy. Under her leadership, CMCA has transformed from a small institution on the brink of financial ruin into a destination that draws 40,000 visitors annually and has helped transform Rockland, once a gritty, working class city to be passed through quickly, into what many are calling the new art capital of Maine.
A construction crew is working outside CMCA to make the once-industrial street more pedestrian friendly, using pavers that match CMCA’s. “We were pioneers down here,” explains McAvoy, surveying the project from her office. “Now the city is bringing the streetscape to us.”
Designed by architect Toshiko Mori, CMCA’s sleekly modern building features an all-glass, street-level façade that allows passersby not only a glimpse of the art on exhibit, but also of the staff in their offices. “I love that I can see visitors come in,” says McAvoy. “And they can see us, and see that there’s people behind the scenes making this work happen. That brings a warmth to it.”
Like the building she runs, McAvoy is polished and accessible. A chic dresser with a sophisticated urban style (designer Isaac Mizrahi’s memoir was a recent read), McAvoy, 60, projects a no-nonsense attitude, but one-on-one, is extremely affable. Her office shelves are as carefully curated as CMCA’s walls: horizontally stacked art books are displayed with works from artists who have shown there—including Alex Katz and John Walker—along with pieces by her daughter, Elizabeth, who studied at the Rhode Island School of Design. To McAvoy, these works are not a “collection” so much as keepsakes representing years of curation and, more important, the personal relationships that drive her passion for contemporary art.
McAvoy is from Oneonta, a college town in central New York. One of the benefits of living in a college town was Saturday Seminars, a program where high school students could take classes at the state university. “I took a studio printing class and a history of English art and architecture,” she says. “We actually traveled to England for a week as part of that course. Both classes really got me interested in art and art history.”
When McAvoy entered Hobart and William Smith College, however, she took a more practical route. “I was pre-law. I didn’t think that you could do anything related to art as a profession.” Then she took an introduction to art history class to fulfill curriculum requirements, fell in love and switched her major.
Contemporary art didn’t interest McAvoy until senior year, when she curated her first show, of sculptor Genevieve Karr Hamlin’s work, as her senior project. She got to know Karr, selected the work, arranged for shipping, insurance and the installation. “I loved it all. I realized that this is what I wanted to do: work with objects as well as with people.”
Her first job, at the Smithsonian Museum of American History, was strictly objects, doing condition reports, photographing and cataloging—“Peggy Fleming’s ice skates, Muhammad Ali’s robe, a Stradivarius cello.” Working for a massive museum taught McAvoy a lot—including that it wasn’t for her. “Before I left for graduate school, the Smithsonian’s registrar, Virginia Beets, said to me, ‘There’s just as much need for family practitioners as there is for heart surgeons. Not everyone needs to be a specialist.’ That stuck with me.”
McAvoy attended the Cooperstown Graduate Program for museum studies, then worked at Cornell University’s Johnson Museum as a curatorial assistant. While there she married Brendan McAvoy, and when he decided to pursue graduate studies in marine affairs at the University of Rhode Island in Kingston, she landed a job as the director of the URI gallery. “It worked out nicely,” she says, adding with a smile, “and one of us had a salary.”
When she was offered a job as chief curator at the Farnsworth Museum in Rockland, that worked for her Merchant Marine husband as well. “Brendan said, ‘Oh, coast of Maine? I think I can get a job.’” He found work at the Maritime Academy in Castine and they moved to Belfast in the spring of 1989 and have lived there since. McAvoy worked at the Farnsworth until August 1995. But then, with a 9-month-old daughter, Elizabeth, no available child care, and her husband shipping commercially, sometimes for three months at a time, she decided to step back. “I did some consulting,” she says, “and worked with a little gallery in Belfast, just to keep my hand in things until Elizabeth was in school.”
When the Farnsworth acquired the J.J. Newberry’s building to create the Morehouse Wing for Contemporary Art, McAvoy was hired back as adjunct curator. “I only wanted to work part time,” she says, “but they wanted somebody who was going to focus on building the contemporary collection and program. So I got pulled back in.” She returned to the role of chief curator in 2003, and became the museum’s interim director in 2006.
Three years later, McAvoy was diagnosed with breast cancer. “I took it as a sign,” she says. “I’d been at the Farnsworth for quite a long time, and I thought, You should take a break.”
“Risk is a big part of contemporary art,” says Suzette McAvoy, the director and chief curator of the Center for Maine Contemporary Art. “And as an institution, we have to be willing to take risks, too.”
But McAvoy is not one to remain idle. Once her cancer treatment was completed she took another job, as director of Waterfall Arts in Belfast. She committed to a year: “Just to get them started. It was basically in my backyard.” She worked as an independent curator and consultant. She wrote an art column. Then in 2010, CMCA came calling, with two board members asking McAvoy to help rebuild trust in the struggling institution. “They were in Rockport then,” she recalls, “and were facing financial trouble. They had tried to be year-round instead of seasonal, but the cost to run that building, which was built in the 19th century as a livery stable and had no foot traffic, drained what resources they had. There was a question of whether it was going to make it.”
She’d used CMCA as a resource while she was at the Farnsworth, as a place to introduce her to new artists. “It’s the only statewide organization serving the artists of Maine, and had been doing that since 1952. To see it not survive this rough patch…it just seemed worth a try.”
McAvoy started as director in the fall of 2010 with the Quimby Family Foundation providing an operating support grant to cover her salary for the first year. With McAvoy at the helm, a few of CMCA’s former board members returned and provided support; the board and membership grew slowly but steadily. In 2012, CMCA’s 60th-anniversary year, McAvoy presented a strategic plan to the board.
“I said that if we were going to survive we’d have to move,” she says. They had four parking spaces, were in a residential neighborhood and couldn’t expand. Nor could they show a lot of large scale contemporary work, like that of John Bisbee and Kathy Bradford. New media was especially problematic. “There were hardly any electrical outlets. We had a little projection in one of our biennials, and had to show it in a closet.”
With a capital campaign in full swing, McAvoy and the board explored several Midcoast communities for CMCA’s new site. When a building in Rockland being used as art spaces became available, says McAvoy, “We thought it was ideal because it’s so close to the Farnsworth, and there’s city parking across the street. All we had to do is renovate and expand.” Those plans ground to a halt when it was discovered that the building, once a fireproof garage, was full of asbestos. “We decided to tear it down. But that gave us the opportunity to get a purpose-built building. Of course, that added something like a million dollars to our capital campaign.”
McAvoy immediately thought of Toshiko Mori, who had designed the Farnsworth’s first expansion in 1995 and had since become internationally known. “But she was willing to do it, and at a much reduced fee. She loved the idea of giving back to Rockland.”
When Mori and her team presented their plan for the U-shaped building, she explained that the center courtyard could be used as both a performance and gathering space, and the glass facade would allow the public to see in. “She said it’s where museums are going, this idea of transparency, of including the community. It’s like an embrace to the community.”
Not everyone hugged back. “A vocal group wanted it to be red brick to match Main Street. We argued that we’re about contemporary art and of the moment, and the building should reflect our mission.”
For McAvoy, a modern building had another benefit. “The idea for this institution was to create something that was going to attract young people,” she says. “People said, ‘Rockland was always a working-class community, and we need to bring back that working waterfront.’ But my argument was that we have to create a community that young people want to live and work in, and the only way to do that is to make it so they don’t feel like they’re missing out by living here.” Now there are more than a dozen art galleries in Rockland, First Fridays “are huge” and McAvoy oversees both a staff and membership list that trends young.
“I credit Suzette with no less than changing the cultural landscape of Rockland,” says Donna McNeil, executive director of the Ellis-Beauregard Foundation, which has partnered with CMCA for its new Fellowship in the Visual Arts.
McAvoy sees CMCA as representing a new chapter in the ongoing story of Maine’s role in American art. “We’re not a collecting institution, like a traditional museum,” she says. “So we can respond to things more quickly and program shows about current issues. We work directly with the artists, so the work tends to come right out of the studio and is very, very new.” That can be risky, but McAvoy says she’s learned to trust her instincts, and her artists. “They’ve never let me down.”
That trust was on display this summer with Hubris Atë Nemesis, an installation by Ellis-Beauregard Fellows and artistic collaborators Wade Kavanaugh and Stephen B. Nguyen. It transformed a room at CMCA into a curvaceous and sweeping plywood landscape symbolising Maine’s rugged and dynamic coast. “All of our works are site-specific,” says Kavanaugh, “but this was the first time we’ve ever used just plywood, so the pristine CMCA gallery space became our studio. It takes a lot of courage for a museum director to trust artists and to give them the space they need to work through challenges.”
Last fall, the goals of her first strategic plan met, McAvoy completed her second, which includes creating an endowment and expanding outreach. “We need to make the general public across the state, and then beyond, know who we are.”
It’s easy to imagine McAvoy being courted by a larger institution with a more national presence. But she would still prefer being a family practitioner to being a heart surgeon.
“I’d always rather be in a small institution like this, where I get to work with a small, dedicated team, and everybody does a little bit of everything,” she says. “We’re not only creating this institution. We’re creating this community.”
Stacey Kors is the former editor of Take Magazine and has written extensively about the arts, including for the New York Times, Financial Times, The Boston Globe and TimeOut New York. She lives with her husband and dog in the oldest house on Peaks Island.