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Flush With New Acquisitions, Maine’s Portland Museum of Art Launches an $85 Million Expansion Campaign

The proposed new building would be designed with sustainable materials and provide 62,000 square-feet of additional space.

Portland Museum of Art Courtesy of Portland Museum of Art

The Portland Museum of Art in Maine is seeking $85 million in funds for a dramatic expansion of its downtown campus. According to the Portland Press Herald, the cornerstone of the proposal is a new six- or seven-story building on the site of the former Children’s Museum that would more than double the institution’s square footage. The existing PMA buildings will then be renovated to complement the new construction.

The proposed building would be designed with sustainable materials, and would increase the museum’s square footage from 38,000 to 100,000. The museum has yet to set a timeline for the project, but following the launch of the fundraising campaign, there will be a competition to select an architect. Given the scale of the project, the museum estimated it could be at least three years before groundbreaking.

If realized, this will be the most ambitious renovation in the PMA’s 140-year history. Three of the four museum buildings are over a century old, and recent efforts—including a $12 million campaign in 2002—have prioritized restoration over expansion. After years of scheming, the PMA acquired in 2019 the site of the former Children’s Museum and Theatre of Maine, offering the opportunity to reimagine its campus boundaries. The new campaign comes at a pivotal moment for the Maine institution, too: visitor attendance has steadily grown in recent years, with an all-time high of 176,464 visitors in 2019.

“Right now, because of our growth, the real risk is not to build,” Portland Museum of Art director Mark Bessire said in an interview with the Portland Press Herald. “We’re at capacity. If museums don’t continue to grow, if you fall back, it can take a generation to recover.”

The museum’s collection has also expanded in the last decade, and it now counts around 18,000 pieces. More recently, curators have focused on diversifying its holdings—historically rich in famous Mainers like Winslow Homer and Rockwell Kent—with contemporary artists of color. In 2008, the museum counted zero artists of color on view; only woman was exhibited. Today, its collection includes pieces by Kara Walker and Jeffrey Gibson, and the museum regularly displays art from Maine’s Wabanaki communities.

Earlier this year, the museum received a gift of 69 pieces from local patrons Owen and Anna Wells. The gift included works by some of the most important American photographers of the 20th century, including Ansel Adams, Paul Strand, and Margaret Bourke-White. Currently, the museum has space to display only a fraction of its collection, leaving the majority in storage.

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