Each week the Orient spotlights different aspects of the arts and entertainment scene in Portland. This week's installment focuses on art galleries.
While Portland is home to a wealth of art, two galleries—curated specifically around educational goals and contemporary issues—should be of particular interest to members of the Bowdoin community. Located adjacent to each other on Congress Street in the heart of the city's Art District are The Salt Institute for Documentary Studies Gallery and the Institute of Contemporary Art at Maine College of Art (ICA at MECA).
At Salt, which offers a semester-long program that teaches responsible storytelling in writing, radio and photography, there is an organic fluidity between the gallery and the workshop space. Walking through the main entrance, gallery visitors are greeted both by the curated wall space that curves along its outer walls as well as by the Salt classroom. The wall between the two is left porous with open interior windows, so visitors may be privy to snippets of documentary studies classroom discussion.
Donna Galluzzo, the executive director at Salt, explained that although the inclusion of public gallery space has been part of Salt for years, the Institute's recent move to the renovated space on Congress Street made that connection more evident.
"The interconnected space is very symbolic and does a variety of things for us—both public and private," said Galluzzo. "The space certainly reflects the way we approach projects."
Visiting the gallery, one certainly gets a taste of this interconnection between the creation of documentary work and its public display. Last week when I traveled to the gallery, I heard discussion of that seminal question from which all documentary study springs: "What's the difference between storytellers and reporters? What are we?"
This question is one at the heart of the current show, About Face, which showcases beautifully crafted photography stories from last semester's Salt students. The stories, each comprised of several black and white or color photographs, tell Maine stories ranging from those of drag queens or the sea urchin industry to more personal experiences with autism or the repercussions of suicide. All stories show the beautiful storytelling inherent in responsible documentary reporting.
Twice a year, at the end of both academic semesters, Salt's gallery houses exhibit student work. For the remainder of the year, the gallery shows the work of professional documentary storytellers.
"This mix of student and professional work is very important to us," Galluzzo said. "The connection is that we are always showing documentary work...displaying what we do. There is always a link to what we teach because educational programming is always at the core."
This mix adds inevitable variety and depth to Salt's exhibits: student work is always based on Maine stories while the work of visiting artists offers stories from all over the globe.
In selecting outside work, Galluzzo explains that the Institute chooses work that "speaks personally to Salt."
"We teach about professional documentary storytellers in our class rooms, so it is important for us to show professional work that sets a bar and shows that collaboration with the community," she added.
This notion of community engagement is central to the non-profit gallery, which is free and open to the public.
"In the end it's all about getting good visuals up on the wall," said Galluzzo, who explained that whatever the media—whether it be photograph, writing or multi-media productions—the key is always to inspire that formative viewing experience.
For this reason, Salt's gallery is consistently part of Portland's First Friday Art Walk and also houses many community events, including the upcoming receptions for the Jewish Film Festival and GLBT Film Festival in March.
"Our goal," Galluzo said, "is to always show work, either our own or work that we strongly believe in."
Across the street, the ICA at MECA has similar goals at hand. While this gallery focuses on "leading edge exhibitions and public programs that showcase new perspective and new trends in contemporary art," its intent is to serve as one of Maine College of Art's educational resources.
These exhibits include the work of influential national, international and emerging artists. The gallery also exhibits the annual final shows of the MFA and BFA MECA students and the bi-annual MECA alumni show.
Like Salt's gallery, the ICA is physically connected to MECA's main building and studio space, which symbolizes the relationship between the creation of art and the viewing experience.
"While our shows are occasionally comprised of student work, they are always created in support of broader educational curricula," said the director of the gallery Lauren Fensterstock.
She notes that, while this support is specifically aimed toward MECA, there is a breadth and depth to the exhibits that allow them to support the study of art in a broader sense.
"We are very welcoming to visiting classes," Fensterstock said, referring to visits that MECA classes have made, as well as those made from other local colleges and high schools. "We definitely encourage this gallery space to be used as a laboratory. We want the viewing experience to be one that inspires learning and creativity."
This motive is evident in the current show, Exchange, which runs at ICA until mid-April.
Exchange is predicated on exploring "collaboration as the means to transfer ideas and generate new modes of thinking," said Fensterstock. "It focuses on this idea of working together to develop things that a single person just can't do—an idea so central to all modes of art making."
The exhibit features work in all media that explores this central idea either thematically or in the project's construction and realization.
Initially formed around the installation Animal Dreaming, a collaboration between the renowned pairing of painter Max Gimblett and poet and cultural critic Lewis Hyde, the exhibit includes a video installation by Caitlin Berrigan, a community participatory piece by Debb Todd Wheeler and live-streamed camera obscura captures by David K. Ross.
"It's a beautiful and important thing, this idea of collaboration," said Fensterstock. "At MECA there is a lot of talk about collaborating. And nationally there is a lot of talk about collaboration. This idea of coming together is really central to the political climate right now. It's not just an artistic process, it's an ideology."
As at Salt's Gallery, this idea of community engagement is at the core of ICA's practice and in addition to participating in Portland's First Friday, the gallery houses several guest lectures and workshops in conjunction with its exhibits.
Thus, as winter continues to perpetuate the need for beautiful distraction and inspiration, the galleries at Salt and ICA hold exhibits that promise to trigger creativity and artistic thought for Bowdoin students who are willing to make the short trip to Portland.
Gallery at The Salt Institute for Documentary Studies
561 Congress Street
Tuesday-Friday 12 p.m.-4:30 p.m.
and First Fridays
Free and open to the public
'About Face' will be showing through February 26 before moving to The Frontier Café in Fort Andross.
The Institute of Contemporary Art at Maine College of Art
522 Congress Street
Wednesday-Sunday11 a.m.-5 p.m.
Thursday 11 a.m.-7 p.m.
and First Fridays
Free and open to the public
'Exchange' will be showing through April 11.