Karl Swan Norberg at the Maine Artist Collective in Portland, Maine

August 1, 2021

August 1, 2021

Maine artists open Portland pop-up gallery in former Lululemon store

Inside gallery at 18 Exchange St. PH

By Renee Cordes

Months after athletic apparel retailer Lululemon closed its shop in Portland's Old Port, more than a dozen Maine artists have transformed the space into a pop-up gallery that opened on Sunday.

A rare affordable find in the city's high-rent retail district, the temporary gallery at 18 Exchange St. features the work of the new Maine Art Collective founded by Sue Vittner, Marni Prince and JoAnn Dowe.

"We wanted the Old Port and saw a few places there," Vittner, an artist and massage therapist, told Mainebiz. "We looked in Brunswick, too, but since I've had a massage place for about 15 years on Exchange, I knew that's where my heart is."

Soon after 18 Exchange St. was vacated last December, Vittner and three other artists eyed the space with interest. However, the listed monthly rent of $6,950 for 2,366 square feet was initially out of their price range.

As the group grew to 14 and the space stayed vacant, Vittner reached out to see if the owner would let the artists rent month-by-month until a permanent, full-price tenant was found. They struck a deal, but Vittner wouldn't disclose the current rent.

The space's former identity as a clothing store was evident on Sunday, from the large storefront window to former curtained fitting rooms being used for storage. The gallery pops with color and natural sunlight, and with a wide range of works on display including paintings, photographs and sculptures.

While minding the gallery that morning, Bar Harbor-based artist Karl Swan Norberg fielded questions from one couple seeking an oyster-themed work of art.

He told Mainebiz there were lots of works in stock to replace displayed pieces as they're sold, adding, "We hope we'll have to replace everything."

The artist, whose works were near the entrance, said he jumped at the chance to join the cooperative and have an Old Port audience, after being unable to find someplace affordable in Bar Harbor and opting instead for an online presence.

The Maine Art Collective gallery opened just in time for Portland's next First Friday Art Walk on Aug. 6, and is scheduled to be open through Sept. 30. The gallery is open daily from 10 a.m. until 8 p.m. and will host a special opening event for the public this Friday from 5-8 p.m.

Asked what the group will do after the pop-up ends, Vittner said the artists will play that by ear and signaled they'd consider a permanent space if the conditions are ideal.

"We consider this an experiment and are open to a permanent space if the location, price, etc., feel right," she said.

Though Vittner was not at the new space on Sunday, she told Mainebiz on Monday that the gallery was busy all day, "and we sold lots of paintings."

Karl Swan Norberg speaks with customers at the Maine Artists Collective

Karl Swan Norberg speaks with customers at the Maine Art Collective.

August 16, 2021

Artists seize opportunity to pop up in the Old Port

The Maine Art Collective is taking advantage of a vacancy on Exchange Street to run a temporary gallery.

Sensing an unusual opportunity, a group of Maine artists has taken advantage of upheavals in the retail landscape and opened a pop-up gallery in the heart of the Old Port.

The Maine Art Collective gallery at 18 Exchange St. opened in early August and will be open 10 a.m. to 6 p.m. daily through the end of September. It is run by 14 artists who formed a collective to share expenses, sweat equity and day-to-day staffing. Artists are displaying paintings in a variety of media and styles, as well photographs, sculpture and jewelry. It occupies a shop at the bottom of Exchange Street that used to be home to Lululemon, a yoga apparel shop that closed in December and had since been vacant.


WHAT: Maine Art Collective gallery

WHERE: 18 Exchange St., Portland

WHEN: 10 a.m. to 6 p.m. daily through September

INFO: Maine Art Collective on Facebook

Places like this had become unaffordable to artists, who were forced out of the Old Port years ago as rents increased with Portland’s growing stature as a hip city. Rents are still high and still largely unaffordable for artists, but the pandemic has created openings. With this space sitting empty, Sue Vittner and co-founders Marni Prince and JoAnn Dowe negotiated both a lower monthly rent and a month-to-month lease with landlord Joe Soley, while recruiting enough artists to “get the numbers to work,” Vittner said.

They were inspired by other artist-run galleries in Maine – specifically Local Color in Belfast – and in other cities across the country. “I have traveled a lot and have seen this kind of cooperative-type space all over the country. I always felt Portland would be a great place for it, and especially the Old Port with so much foot traffic,” said Vittner, an abstract painter.

She’s also a massage therapist with an office just up the street, on a second level, and has experienced changes in the Old Port from a 15-year perspective. The street-level gallery is an ideal location, she said. During its first 10 days, the gallery had sold 38 pieces of art – “and today is not over,” said artist Lucille Caruso Holt-Sottery, gallery-sitting at about 1:30 p.m. on Day 10. “And nearly everybody is from away. They’re all tourists.”

The work of Joyanna Margo hangs on a wall at the Maine Art Collective pop-up gallery on Exchange Street in Portland’s Old Port. Gregory Rec/Staff Photographer

With light wood floors and white walls, the Maine Art Collective occupies about 1,500 square feet of display space. It’s filled with the colors and energy of Maine in all seasons – greens and blues of land and water, pinks and yellows of summer blooms, and the purple shadows of winter’s fading light. Each artist has their own section of wall space. Prices range from $40 to $2,400, and each artist keeps 100 percent of sales.

They share equally in all costs and each artist volunteers shifts at the gallery, so someone is there during all public hours. Most live in Greater Portland and York County. One is from Bar Harbor, another from Gardiner.

Other artists participating in the collective are Amy Kelly, Clare Mohs, Dianne Chicoine, Joyanna Margo, Karl Swan Norberg, Laurie Russo-Smith, Lee Thompson, Lynn Ericson, Marci Spier and Marsha Campbell.

“For me, what was truly inspiring is we didn’t know each other beforehand,” said Holt-Sottery, who lives in Cape Elizabeth. “I had never met Sue or any of the other artists. We came together as 14 people and put this amazing collection together in a matter of (just a few days).”

Campbell, who lives in Portland, has the distinction of selling the first piece of art at the gallery. It was also the first piece of art she has ever sold.

“I have dabbled in art and been artistic all my life, but it wasn’t until after I retired that I could take classes and see if I could be serious about it,” said Campbell, 73. “It’s fun to be in the gallery mix. We have people of all ages. Some have been doing it all their lives and been to art school, and others who have come to it on their own, as I have.”

She was in the gallery on the last day of July, meeting the other artists and preparing for the opening the next day. The gallery wasn’t officially open, but the doors were open and people wandered in. A couple appreciated a scene Campbell had painted of a friend’s shed and snow-covered field in New Gloucester, cast in the late-day light.

“They loved it and they bought it. They said it reminded them of Massachusetts, where they are from,” said Campbell, who posed for a photo with the couple and their painting. “It was fun to meet them, and it was my first sale ever. We were all very excited. It was a great way to start the gallery.”

Campbell has lived in Portland for 40 years and never remembers the Old Port so busy. “It’s changed. Half the businesses I knew are gone. It’s a very different place, but it’s bustling.”

The artists will show and sell their work every day during the height of the late-summer and early-fall tourist season, and then re-evaluate their options next year. Because of high rents in the Old Port and despite the fabulous early sales, Vittner isn’t sure if the gallery would sell enough art over 12 months for the artists to commit to an annual lease.

“Come January and February, you know what it’s like in Portland. I don’t think we can say that because it works for these two months, it would work the whole year,” she said. “But this is the perfect situation for us to do this now.”


September 8, 2021

Art Seen: The short, happy life of Maine Art Collective Gallery


 Edgar Allen Beem

 -Inside the Maine Art Collective Gallery at 18 Exchange St. in Portland. (Courtesy MAC)

The Maine Art Collective Gallery is a pop-up gallery at 18 Exchange St. in Portland that is giving 14 artists an opportunity to show their work until the end of September.

Artist-run galleries are the norm in Portland these days, so, no matter how short-lived, Maine Art Collective is in good company.

The artists, mostly unknown even to each other, were pulled together by artist and massage therapist Sue Vittner who has a studio nearby in the Old Port. Vittner co-founded the collective with designer/yoga instructor Marni Prince and shamanic healer JoAnne Dowe.

A picture containing text, blue, colorful, boat

Description automatically generated“Monday Morning,” 18×24 acrylic, by Lynn Ericson.

Vittner shows very simple and restful finger-painted landscapes, Prince makes glossy landscapes in slick alcohol ink, and Dowe creates naturalistic abstractions with recycled materials such as bark, leaves, feathers, and shells.

I was only familiar with three of the collective artists. Lynn Ericson, a graphic designer known for her pet portraits, shows colorful, upbeat landscapes. Karl Swan Norberg, who owned the former Swan Dive restaurant in Portland, creates thick, polished imagist paintings that read like large wall tiles. And I reviewed Lauri Russo-Smith’s symbolic landscape watercolors late last year in another pop-up show organized by the Maine Jewish Museum. 

The Maine Art Collective also includes Marsha Campbell, Dianne Chicoine, Lucille Caruso Holt-Sottery, Amy Kelly, Joyanna Margo, Clare A. Mohs, Marci Spiers, and Lee Thompson. For the most part, the collective art is colorful, decorative, and very affordable, as in 6-by-6-inch paintings for as little as $45.

Perhaps the most ambitious art in the show is the painterly grid abstractions by Marci Spier, managing director of Speedwell Projects in Portland. Her work is thoughtful, complex, and possesses its own pattern vocabulary.

“Into the Woods,” 24×36 oil on panel, by Marci Spier.

Visiting the Maine Art Collective Gallery reminded me that the contemporary art scene in Portland began right there in the Old Port back in the 1960s with artists renting spaces along the waterfront for exhibitions and opening parties. Indeed, galleries in Maine have long been DIY affairs.

Maine Coast Artists, now the Center for Maine Contemporary Art in Rockland (1952); Barn Gallery in Ogunquit (1952); Maine Art Gallery in Wiscasset (1958); Harlow Gallery in Hallowell (1963); Deer Isle Artist Association (1973); Union of Maine Visual Artists (1975), and Artfellows in Belfast (1980-1997) were all artist-run collectives and cooperatives.

More recently, we have seen Lupine Cottage (2005), Local Color (2018), and Belfast Harbor Artisans (2018), all in Belfast; Art Space Gallery in Rockland (2005), and Able Baker Contemporary (2016) and New System Exhibitions (2018) in Portland.

Maine Art Collective Gallery is taking advantage of a short-term vacancy and is unlikely to survive in its present form, but the long-term lesson of the last half-century is worth noting. The main reason Maine Coast Artists grew into the Center for Maine Contemporary Art and became Maine’s most important venue for showing new art and artists is that it eventually stopped being a members-only organization and became more selective, invitational, and curatorial.

But Maine Art Collective is fun while it lasts.

Edgar Allen Beem has been writing about art in Maine since 1978.