What a number - 970! Nearly a thousand entries for a juried
show in Portland, Maine. It staggers the imagination, but much
of the art world of the twenty-first century is indeed boggling. There are way
too many artists.
As it happened, I was an accidental witness to the genesis
of the biennial at Portland. A number of years ago, in 1994 if memory serves, I had lunch with Bill and Helen Thon, and with Cynthia
Hyde from the Caldbeck Gallery in Rockland,
down at the old Sportsman’s Grill on western part of Congress Street. I had been writing about
Bill’s work around that time and found it truly interesting. Bill had liked what I had written and there some
thought of doing a rather more extensive publication about Bill’s work, but
nothing came of it.
Bill was in his nineties and was nearly blind
from macular degeneration. He continued to work, finding ways
to use magnifiers, simplified imagery and black ink on white paper so he could see what he was doing.
In my opinion, and that of others, he was doing some of his best work in
years. I greatly admired, and still do, the level of character it took to keep
painting under those circumstances.
The Sportsman’s Grill, for those who never had the pleasure
of eating there, was a throwback to the fifties and was Bill’s favorite Portland eatery. He knocked back a couple of wicked-looking
martinis and proceeded to tell Cynthia and I about his offer of a staggering
amount of money, in the low hundreds of thousands, as a bequest to the museum to support a regular, annual juried show. His vision was paintings one year and
works on paper the next, alternating.
I was dumfounded. It had never occurred to me that he would possess
anything like that level of resources. I didn't give voice to my objections about
juried shows (which I dislike on principle) or about the limitations he was
considering. His idea was a bit old-fashioned, but then we were in an
old-fashioned drinkery, and it was none of my business. The museum was able
later on to enlarge upon his vision of what should be in the show.
The show as it has worked out has been the same sort of
mess, most of the time, as juried shows usually are. Juried shows are an art world artifact of the middle part of the 20th century, when there were
fewer artists and they were trained better. In an age where a show in Maine is going to get a
thousand entries, making a sensible selection from such a pool is next to
impossible. In Bill Thon’s palmy days there would have been a few dozen at
most, and that would be counting a lot of amateurs. And the standards would
have been clearer, if more limited. Juried shows made some sense back then. Now
they are just a way around doing the extensive curatorial work that a large
I’m hoping the current jury’s courageous selection of just
seventeen from this mass will result in something coherent and informative
with a distinct curatorial vision. It would be a great relief. I think that
Bill, were he alive, would be pleased.
Full disclosure: I’m married to one of the artists who were