The 2018 PMA Biennial Spotlight: Guest Curator Nat May

The 2018 PMA Biennial Spotlight: Guest Curator Nat May

The 2018 Portland Museum of Art Biennial opened last week with excitement and enthusiasm. While the exhibition is on view, we're sharing profiles of curators and participating artists to bring you a closer look into the show. We started last week with artist Jenny McGee Dougherty, whose large-scale mural "Debris" greets visitors as they enter the exhibition. Stay tuned for more Biennial spotlights here on the blog, check out the guide to Biennial programs, or dig deep into interviews, artwork reproductions, and more in the exhibition catalogue, available online or in the PMA Store!

If you are even a little bit familiar with the art scene in Portland, Nat May is a name you will surely recognize—from his 13-year tenure as Executive Director of SPACE Gallery to his co-founding of The Bakery Photo Collective to his time on the Board of Creative Portland and the Portland Arts and Culture Alliance, you have likely encountered Nat or his work in one way or another, perhaps without even realizing it.

Just down Congress Street from the PMA, SPACE Gallery is a community organization with a commitment to "mixing it up." During his time as Executive Director, Nat made it a priority to bring artists, musicians, authors, and other creatives a new audience, and likewise, he worked to bring art, music, films, and more to folks in Maine who may have otherwise never seeked them out. SPACE has been hugely successful, but Nat attributes much of its popularity to audience demand. From experience, he knows that people appreciate dynamic programming and a wide diversity of artists, and they'll keep coming back for more.

SPACE Gallery, Portland, Maine. Photo by Corey Templeton

Beyond SPACE, Nat's passion for elevating local artists remains palpable. He knew in his approach to the 2018 PMA Biennial that he needed to work with others to bring forth a full spectrum of art here in Maine. As Nat describes, "the idea of a Maine show felt complex enough to me that I preferred a team approach, creating a dialogue made richer by multiple voices. ...It was important to make group decisions about what and how artworks were seen, and it made a lot of sense to invite people whose awareness and insight into the Maine art community would be different from mine. Theresa [Secord], Sarah [Workneh], and Mark [Bessire] bring experiences to the table that complement my own. Having several minds decide who ought to be considered has made a much richer artist list."

Mark Bessire (left) and Nat May recording interviews for the Biennial catalogue in the Maine Public studio

From the start, it was important to Nat to select artists for the Biennial who have never before exhibited at the PMA. In fact, all but one artist, David Driskell, have never had work on display here at the museum. "To show work in a museum can be an important step for an artist, and to present work to a museum audience can invite a unique opportunity for dialogue and exchange in our varied cultural community," he explains. Indeed, it's important for Nat as a curator to highlight artists ready to start a conversation. "These artists are people who live in our communities, and they are engaging in issues we all care about. ...They are ready to talk to us, and they want to talk to us. It's time to engage."

Left: Séan Alonzo Harris (United States, born 1968), "Kennedy Park Series, Plate #463," 2017, inkjet print. © Séan Alonzo Harris. Right: Jonathan Mess (United States, born 1975), "Reclaim No. 44: Cross Sections" 2015, various reclaimed ceramic materials. Courtesy of the artist. © Jonathan Mess. Photo by Luc Demers 

With an emphasis on culture and community, Nat chose to focus less on the regional identity of Maine, and more on the fact that we all carry with us connections and identities that reach far beyond the state. "Anyone walking into this show, if they didn't know what museum they were in, if they didn't know that this was a Maine‑based Biennial, I don't think that Maine shines through, not topically, not in terms of the identities represented. ...That makes me proud of Maine as a place for making work connected to a larger world." He continues, "The people who are connected to Maine are not making work that's different from people making work anywhere. If there's a lesson from this show, I want it to be that. We can find pride in our region and find pride in our community and who's working here. But these folks are not defined by that."

David Moses Bridges (Passamaquoddy, 1962 – 2017) and Steve Cayard (United States, born 1956), Reis Education Canoe, 2013, white cedar, rock maple, and red spruce. Abbe Museum, Bar Harbor, Maine. Gift of Donna and David Reis. © David Moses Bridges and Steve Cayard. Photo by Luc Demers.

To hear more from Nat, don't miss his Noontime Talk on the PMA Biennial this Friday, February 2; and follow the PMA blog for our weekly profiles of artists participating in the PMA Biennial!

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February 2, 2018
Communications Assistant

Maggie is a native of Hallowell, Maine. She is passionate about museums and art accessibility. At Simmons College in Boston, she studied Arts Administration with a focus on management and marketing. While in college she worked in education at the Museum of Fine Arts, Boston. Upon graduation, she took a year to explore the south and work at the Virginia Museum of Fine Arts in Richmond, Virginia. She is happy to be back in her favorite city, living in the west end with her fiancé, Sam, and her dog, Phoebe.