Curating a Mythical Maine
PROFILE Thomas Denenberg – APRIL 2008
By Joshua Bodwell
Photography Darren Setlow
The PMA’s chief curator eyes the future with a firm grasp of the past
A paper sign on Thomas Denenberg’s office door reads “Snakes, Snakes, and Mice” in squat, black letters. The painter Winslow Homer once hand-lettered these same words onto a wooden board, which he hung on the door of his Prouts Neck studio as an eccentric “Do Not Disturb.”
While Denenberg’s homage to Homer may be printed on copier paper, it seems to serve its purpose: allowing the chief curator and deputy director of the Portland Museum of Art—the state’s oldest and largest public art museum—the peace and quiet he sometimes needs. When Denenberg joined the PMA almost two years ago he may have been just 38 years old, but he was no stranger to hard work; his lengthy resume of professorships, curatorial positions, publications, and awards looks as thoug it belongs to a much older man. The impressive list of achievements includes a curatorship at the Wadsworth Atheneum Museum of Art in Hartford, Connecticut—the oldest continuously operated public art museum in the country—and a book, Wallace Nutting and the Invention of Old America (Yale University Press, 2003).
When Denenberg, a Connecti-cut native, spoke recently at his alma mater, Bates College, he told the students that his secret to success in the art world has been “dumb luck and persistence.” But anyone who knows Denenberg will tell you that his assertion is only half accurate: after graduating from Bates, Denenberg attended Boston University, where he received his first master’s degree in American and New England studies, before going on to earn a PhD in the same field.
Beyond his “Snakes, Snakes, and Mice” sign, Denenberg’s office is a beautiful sprawl of art and culture. On his desk is a color-coded schedule mapping out the next three years of exhibits: the drawings of George Bellows will be arriving soon, as will a Pop Art show. Just beside this schedule sits a six-inch-thick white binder with a simple yet enigmatic label: “Rock and Roll.” Atop a wall of books about Maine and its artists rests not one but two paint-by-number renditions of Leonardo da Vinci’s The Last Supper.
This space speaks of a man not easy to pigeonhole.
While he appears to be something of a traditionalist on the exterior—and, in fact, he is in many ways—when you scratch the surface you find that Denenberg also bristles with a passion for modernism. His tastes and knowledge are as vast as they are eclectic. He can discuss Shaker furniture in the same breath as Le Corbusier, before seamlessly transitioning to the subtleties of a circa-1910 Wallace Nutting photograph, followed by a disquisition on the finer points of John Bisbee’s modernist nail sculptures. “You see, I think John is really quite traditional at heart,” says Denenberg, “and his choice of material isn’t so unusual…our connection to the nail and to welding runs deep…look at the popularity of Longfellow’s poem, ‘The Village Blacksmith.’”
This is Denenberg’s gift: sparking connections among the multitude of facts, images, and ideas ricocheting inside his head.
Connected to Maine via Bates and childhood memories of summer camp, Denenberg leapt when the opportunity to work for the PMA arose. Soon after he arrived, Denenberg realized that the quality of the staff and the building itself—not to mention its impressive collection—makes the PMA feel much larger than it truly is. “This is a big little museum,” he muses. With a thriving membership and a devoted community following, Denenberg says he will tread gingerly even as he strives to leave his mark on the institution.
One of the young curator’s main goals is to infuse the PMA with even more Maine art and artists. “I’ve always been fascinated with the role of this place in the history of American art,” he says. “From pretty much 1820 on, nearly every important American artist has been through Maine…so we can lay claim to almost any of them as part of our story.” Denenberg wants to assemble exhibits on seascapes and the American wilderness. “The last great show of seascapes was at the Whitney in the 1970s,” he adds with his patent brand of genteel authority. If there is someone in Maine capable of breathing life into such seemingly benign themes, it is very likely Thomas Denenberg.
He also hopes to shepherd along more mid-career retrospectives of living Maine artists; aside from landscape painter Thomas Crotty’s 2003 exhibition and the recent John Bisbee show, the PMA has featured few living Maine artists over the decades. Denenberg’s enthusiasm is bolstered by the fact that during its opening week at the end of January, Bisbee’s sculpture drew more visitors than the same time period of the Museum’s 2000 exhibit of the work of beloved photographer Ansel Adams.
“The way the community has bought into this museum is incredible,” says Denenberg. In addition to the Bisbee show, he points to a PMA lecture in January featuring New Yorker writer and author Adam Gopnik. The event brought out nearly 1,000 people on a bitter winter evening. “I’ve never lived in a community where you could have pulled that off!” he says with a combination of disbelief and evident satisfaction.
“There is an odd inclusive feeling here,” Denenberg says with a flicker in his eyes. He says “odd” because he has lived and worked in enough places to recognize that there is something inexpressibly unique about Maine. And this indefinable quality, even more than his childhood memories or connection to Bates, is what beckoned him back.
Working behind a door adorned with the words of Winslow Homer, an American master who fell captive to the allure of Maine, seems a good fit for Denenberg—for the curator may be an educated man rooted in facts and history, but he has remained an art lover, an enthusiast, and a dreamer irresistibly drawn to the mythic power of art.