Maine’s Portland Museum of Art will more than double the size of its campus

The Maine Event

Maine’s Portland Museum of Art will more than double the size of its campus

The Portland Museum of Art’s Charles Shipman Payson Building, designed by Henry Cobb. The campus expansion will take place at the former Chamber of Congress building, seen on the left with the white columns. (John Phelan/ Wikimedia Commons/ CC BY-SA 4.0/)

Spanning three historic buildings along with the Henry Cobb-designed Payson Building, the Portland Museum of Art (PMA) already commands a formidable presence within the downtown core of Maine’s largest city. Now, as announced by the 140-year-old museum (founded in 1882 as the Portland Society of Art, it’s the oldest and largest public art institution in the Pine Tree State) and further reported earlier this week by the Portland Press Herald, the PMA has launched an $85 million capital campaign that will enable it to more double the physical footprint of its Congress Square campus.

The expansion, which would see the PMA’s square footage grow from 38,000 feet to nearly 100,000, is focused on the transformation of a site directly adjacent to the Payson Building at 142 Free Street that’s home to Portland’s former Chamber of Commerce building. (Remodeled in the 1920s by John Calvin Stevens, the structure previously housed the Free Street Baptist Church and, before that, a theater.) The nearly 200-year-old property was acquired by the PMA in October 2019 after its most recent occupant, the Children’s Museum & Theatre of Maine, announced it would be decamping to a more spacious new location designed by Bruner/Cott Architects in the city’s waterfront Thompson’s Point development.

It is not yet clear what will become of the old Chamber of Commerce/Children’s Museum building under the PMA’s expansion plans; as detailed by the Press Herald, it will either be significantly renovated and expanded or razed and replaced, pending a review of the city’s historic preservation ordinance. Either way, the museum envisions an “architecturally significant” structure rising six or seven stories tall.

(Judging by comments reacting to the Press Herald’s news article detailing the campus expansion plans, there appears to be a possible preservation storm brewing as some locals have expressed their displeasure in the potential demolition of the PMA’s landmark neighbor, which is within two historic districts, to make way for a new museum building.)

In addition to expanding its footprint at 142 Free Street, the PMA will embark on renovations at the four existing museum buildings during a second planned project phase aiming to unify the campus: the Greek Revival Clapp House (1832) at 97 Spring Street, the National Historic Landmark-designated McLellan-Sweat Mansion (completed in 1801 and significantly restored in 2002 to the tune of $12 million), the Beaux-Arts Sweat Memorial Galleries (1911), and, last but not least, Pei Cobb Freed & Partners’ brick-clad Payson Building, which debuted in 1983 as the largest and newest PMA building with 20,000 square feet of exhibition space.

“It’s time to envision the next great era in PMA history, one sparked through new, world-famous collections and an architecturally innovative and unified campus that serves as an epicenter for conversation, connection, and community,” said PMA director Mark Bessire is a press release.

A project timeline for the first phase has not yet been established as the PMA only this week officially kicked off fundraising for its so-called Blueprint capital campaign. (Per the Press Herald, which is a media sponsor of the campaign, $15 million was raised by the museum prior to launch.) A project architect will be selected and announced once fundraising is further along.

Although the expansion plans are still in the early stages, the Blueprint campaign has laid out its vision for what the newly constructed/renovated and expanded building at 142 Free Street will entail. On the ground floor of the new facility will be a community gathering space complete with classrooms, a free gallery, and flexible areas for “collaborations, partnerships, and communal food sharing” according to the museum. An auditorium would populate the building’s lower level while an entire floor would be dedicated to space for local nonprofit groups. Another floor would include additional classrooms and an all-ages maker space along with a planned photography center described as a “key component” of the campus renewal project. It would house a recent gift of 600-plus photographs from from photographer and philanthropist Judy Glickman Lauder.

Two additional floors would house much-needed gallery space for traveling exhibitions and administrative offices, respectively. Finally, the museum has envisioned an indoor-outdoor rooftop space complete with a sculpture garden, cafe, meeting facilities, and “opportunity for earned revenue.” The campus addition is also envisioned as a superlatively sustainable that will be “the first sustainable and green public building in Portland and just the fourth green public museum building in the country,” per the museum.

“We’ve been staying away from what kind of building, who’s the architect, because I think that gets in the way of what the community really wants,” Bessire recently told Hyperallergic. “We know we want it to be green, and the real change is what’s going in it.”

While buildings on the PMA campus have, as detailed above, undergone significant restoration work in recent decades, the museum hasn’t expanded its physical footprint since the opening of the Payson Building nearly four decades ago. This, detailed by the museum, has proved prohibitive and forced the institution to “reduce exhibition size, relocate marquee programs, and restrict capacity due to limits on our campus.” A vast majority of the museum’s continually growing, 18,000-object collection remains in storage. As further detailed by the museum, the PMA receives 170 to 515 percent more visitors than similarly-sized campuses of peer institutions and 140 to 585 percent more visitors than institutions with comparable collection sizes.

The planned expansion would see the space-constrained PMA’s exhibition-dedicated areas shoot up by 77 percent, community space grow by just over 200 percent, and operational space increase by 150 percent. With the addition of 60,000 square feet, PMA estimates that it could easily welcome between 300,000 and 500,000 visitors per year. In 2019, prior to the pandemic, the museum reached an all-time high attendance record with just under 177,000 visitors.

While famed for its collection of works by artists associated with Maine such as Winslow Homer, Andrew Wyeth, and John Marin as well as its largest-in-the-state European art collection, the PMA has considerably diversified its holdings over the past decade to include works by Kara Walker, Jeffrey Gibson, Daniel Minter, Tim Rollins & K.O.S., Clifford Ross, Theresa Secord, and others.

AN will check back once an architect for the PMA expansion has been announced.