PORTLAND (AP) – Prints have long been the neglected stepchild of art museums, taking a back seat to paintings and sculpture, even photography and crafts.

But in a dramatic role reversal, two centuries of prints are poised to take center stage in Maine as part of an ambitious project that organizers are trumpeting as the biggest fine arts collaboration in the state’s history.

Participants in “The Maine Print Project: Celebrating 200 Years of Printmaking in Maine” include 25 museums, galleries and colleges, which will offer exhibitions at various times beginning this month and continuing through March.

The project was the brainchild of Bruce Brown, veteran curator of the Center for Maine Contemporary Art in Rockport and longtime print collector. He convened a meeting of museum curators in September 2003 to see if other institutions might be interested in joining him in organizing print-related exhibitions.

“It just took off like a rocket. Everybody is interested in it,” said Brown, who’s retiring upon completion of the project. “There’s a tremendous amount of excitement.”

Prints can be made in various ways: carvings on woodblocks, engravings on metal plates, lithography on stone, silkscreens on plastic. The images are then printed onto paper, in some cases with the prints numbered as part of a limited edition before the block or plate is destroyed.

“It’s kind of the medium of Everyman,” Brown said. “Prints generally are more affordable, and the subjects are often those of everyday life.”

Maine’s printmaking history spans two centuries, going back even before statehood in 1820. The Maine Print Project’s earliest work is a warship at anchor that was published in Portland by Daniel Johnson in 1807 as the frontispiece of a book about rules governing marine shipping. Among the most recent prints are those created digital artists who produce their cutting-edge images at a computer.

Maine’s rich printmaking tradition reflects the many noted artists who have worked in that medium and have ties to the state, either as native sons and daughters, summer residents or people who moved to Maine to live there year-round.

Among the best known whose prints are included in the exhibitions: Winslow Homer, Marsden Hartley, Louise Nevelson, Robert Indiana, Edward Hopper, Rockwell Kent, William and Marguerite Zorach, Neil Welliver and Alex Katz.

Landscapes are well represented, as befits a state whose natural beauty is arguably its principal attraction. But the exhibitions go beyond seascapes and lighthouses to encompass a wide range of subjects and styles from Depression-era realism to abstract expressionism.

As organizers of the project began their planning, they quickly recognized the need for a book that would enhance the museum displays by providing context for the entire period and tying the many elements together.

“So little has been written about the history of printmaking in Maine that we needed something that would act as a cohesive force for all of this,” Brown said.

After being approached by Brown, David P. Becker, who has served as a curator at Boston’s Museum of Fine Arts and Harvard’s Fogg Art Museum, took on the job with gusto, turning out in nine months the groundbreaking volume, “The Imprint of Place: Maine Printmaking 1800-2005,” (The Center for Maine Contemporary Art and Down East Books, $35).

An unabashed print lover, Becker said museums have given short shrift to prints for various reasons, including their small format that fails to dominate a gallery and concerns that works of art on paper are susceptible to damage from exposure to light.

“Also, they aren’t as expensive, so people don’t give them as much regard,” he said, echoing Brown. “I love prints, I’ve chosen prints as my field of study, because they are considered, rightfully, the most democratic medium.”

The Maine Print Project’s 25 display venues include the works of some 350 printmakers and cover the length and breadth of the state, from the Ogunquit Museum of American Art near the state’s southern tip to the University of Maine at Presque Isle’s Reed Art Gallery, more than 300 miles to the north.

A handful of the larger institutions, including the Portland Museum of Art, the Maine Historical Society and the Center for Maine Contemporary Art, offer overviews of Maine printmaking. Other museums and galleries have chosen to focus on individual artists, specific techniques or groups of printmakers.

Supplementing the exhibits will be a series of educational programs, including studio demonstrations by artists and discussions by printmakers, curators and historians.

Perhaps as interesting as the exhibitions themselves is the breadth of the collaboration, a rarity in the art world where many institutions tend to go their own way.

Such efforts are not without precedent. In 2003, the Portland Museum of Art led five other institutions in putting on exhibitions of the work of Brazilian-born photographer Sebastiao Salgado. But the print exhibitions, if only in the number of participating museums and galleries, sets a new collaborative standard.

Becker hopes the exhibitions and the attention they generate will focus attention on the print medium to which he has devoted his career.

“This project will be a real stimulus for making people aware of it, that they can buy prints for their homes at reasonable prices,” he said.



On the Net:

http://www.maineprintproject.org



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