The Portland Museum of Art is launching a once-in-a-generation, $85 million capital campaign to expand a downtown campus that no longer has enough space to accommodate both its growing collection of diverse work and a steadily increasing number of visitors.
The centerpiece of the plan is an “architecturally significant” building that will either expand on or replace the former Children’s Museum and more than double the amount of overall space in use. The existing museum buildings – the McLellan House, the Sweat Memorial Galleries, the Clapp House and the Payson Building, whose signature arches face the intersection of Congress and High streets – will then be renovated to unify with the new construction.
Museum director Mark Bessire said the project, for which a timeline has not been set, will position the PMA for decades to come and has the potential to transform not only Congress Square but the entire art scene in Maine and the region. “Right now, because of our growth, the real risk is not to build,” he said in an interview last week. “We’re at capacity. If museums don’t continue to grow, if you fall back, it can take a generation to recover.”
The initiative, which has been referred to internally as the “Blueprint,” will officially launch on Monday, but it has been incubating for years. In 2014, a local architect was commissioned to survey the buildings and grounds and design a campus master plan. The long-expected 2019 purchase of a building at 142 Free St., which housed the Children’s Museum and Theatre of Maine, presented a golden opportunity for expansion. And the forced closure of the art museum when the pandemic hit created unexpected planning time.
A proposed new building would be green in design and construction – one of only a handful of such public museums in the country – and would increase the campus’s square footage from 38,000 to nearly 100,000. By comparison, the Museum of Fine Art in Boston is three times that size. But the addition would allow Portland to accommodate between 300,000 and 500,000 visitors every year to view a collection that includes impressionist masters like Monet and Renoir, Maine icons Winslow Homer and Andrew Wyeth, among others, and more contemporary names like mixed-media artist David Driskell and photographer Nan Goldin.