A Collection of Companions
Inside the West End home of arts advocate Donna McNeil, a collection is filled with old friends
Snow has just started coating the steps of Donna McNeil’s townhouse in Portland’s West End. A storm is coming, but she’s the force of nature I’m here for. She greets me at the door in black leather pants and a white blouse. With long silver hair, McNeil is an ageless beauty, radiating grace and a confidence that’s commanding but not at all conceited. I bend down to take off my boots, but she stops me. “Oh, you don’t need to do that. Besides, the shoes make the outfit.”
McNeil, the former director of the Maine Arts Commission, knows beauty when she sees it—and it helps that she’s always looking. When she found her 1864 townhouse amid the historic housing stock and wide streets of the West End, it was “a wreck”— plywood floors, missing doors—but she saw potential in its high ceilings, period details, four working fireplaces, and a spot for a garden where she could grow herbs and flowers. “I said, ‘Yeah, okay. I can fix this.’” And with a little bit of help, she did. The house is now a showcase for her art collection, assembled over the years with an eclectic eye and a deep appreciation for Maine’s makers. “I find beauty in objects of all periods,” she says. “I feel the same way about music and food. I don’t like just one certain genre. I don’t put up boundaries like that. I think life is a lot more interesting that way—you can have brutalist next to antiques next to contemporary in a Victorian house, and it works.”
McNeil is as close to a patron saint of the arts as you’ll find. She has spent her career advocating for artists. After studying art (first at Syracuse University School of Art and then at Harvard, where she earned her master’s degree in art history) and owning and working at galleries, she was hired as the contemporary arts and public art associate of the Maine Arts Commission in 2003. “I felt like I was finally in a situation where I could really help artists,” she says. During her time with the commission, McNeil started the Good Idea Grant, funding artist-led projects across the state, and she oversaw the creation of Creative Communities Equal Economic Development, which provides funding for communities to foster creative industry and work collectively with government, business, and the arts. Under her leadership, Maine boasted the highest single award given by a state arts agency to an individual artist: $13,000 in five genres, given annually. Since retiring in 2013, McNeil has remained active in the Maine arts community, serving on the boards of Portland’s Space Gallery, Engine in Biddeford, and the Maine Charitable Mechanic Association. She recently helped curate and catalog an archive of work by internationally acclaimed artist, producer, musician, and writer Bob Crewe at Maine College of Art, before the Crewe Foundation’s $3 million gift to the college to create a program that explores the intersection between art and music. Last year, McNeil worked with furniture craftsman Thomas Moser on organizing the exhibition Legacy in Wood and writing its exhibition catalogue.
McNeil’s home reads like a who’s who of contemporary Maine artists—John Bielenberg, Lauren Fensterstock, Anna Hepler, Sage Lewis, Greg Parker, Scott Peterman, Randy Regier, Aaron Stephan, Shoshannah White—and they’re all people she has personal relationships with. “I know all of these artists, so there is an emotional connection with everything here,” she says.
As we move through her house from room to room, piece to piece, it’s evident that we are moving through McNeil’s story—her friendships, her experiences, her joys, her loss. “These pieces are my companions,” she says. “I go to different works of art on different days for different reasons, and each one can resonate differently with me. I think that’s the definition of a great work of art: each time you look at it, it brings something new to you, or it comforts you like an old friend.”
The stories McNeil shares about the artists give an added depth to her collection. Take the work of Greg Parker, for instance. Several abstracts by the master of geometric abstraction adorn her walls. McNeil fell in love with Parker’s work, and then fell in love with him. When she was the director of the Barn Gallery in Ogunquit and was curating an exhibition called Night Light, she decided to include his work. That studio visit led to a nine-year partnership with Parker. “I love living with Greg’s work. It remains perfectly sublime and contains a host of sweet memories,” she says.
On a table in her living room sits a small, intricate paper sculpture that looks like a waterwheel with a hand crank, resting on a book titled Science and Religion. Before McNeil met artist Aaron Stephan, she was assigned to review his work for a grant application. She went to an exhibition he had with his partner, artist Lauren Fensterstock, at the Hay Gallery in Portland. Stephan had created paper sculptures, and McNeil was captivated by a set of tools he had made from the words of philosophers Kant, Heidegger, Hegel, and others. “I found his work so refreshingly clever, thoughtful, thought provoking, and simply beautiful that I felt compelled to meet him in person and shake his hand,” says McNeil. Stephan, Fensterstock, and McNeil went out for drinks that night, the beginning of a long friendship. The waterwheel sculpture on the book was a gift Stephen brought when coming over for dinner one night. Written on the back cover of the book in high handwriting: “Sorry, no money for wine -hope this will do!”
Across the room is a pair of cherries by Fensterstock, part of a sculpture she created that included a silver bowl and a dozen silver cherries on stems. “It was such a happy thought—‘life is just a bowl of cherries,’” says McNeil. “I would have loved the whole bowl, but I could afford just the one stem. It’s still precious to me and resonant of the project writ large.”
Growing up an Air Force kid and moving every three years, McNeil never had a strong sense of security or community—until moving to Portland in 1990. Now, she considers the city her adopted hometown. “I deeply resonate with this community,” she says. “I like the people who choose to live in Maine. They’re unpretentious. They have a shared value around nature and quality of life.” And of course, she wouldn’t be here if it weren’t for the state’s strong arts community. “Maine seems to be refuge to a lot of people who want to make an unconventional life for themselves, because economically it is still possible to come here and cobble together a lot of different jobs, and have time for your creative life,” says McNeil, who continues to find creativity brewing in Maine’s far-flung pockets: instrument makers crafting cellos in the woods, a host of summer residency programs for artists and writers, even a school for conducting. “It’s such a strange and wonderful place,” she says, “a rich, rich place to live.”
McNeil makes the case for beauty as well as what she calls “Beauty with a capital B.” “My overriding thesis in life is beauty as truth, beauty as harmony, beauty as sanity,” she says. “How do you find it? How does it resonate within the objects in your life, the choices you make politically, your friendships?” These questions are rhetorical, and yet as we sit with her collection, snow blanketing the streets outside, it’s clear she’s found this answer: Live a life immersed in art.