A Couples Commitment


by Joshua Bodwell Photography Irvin Serrano

The Gleasons’ decades of dedication to Maine art

In spite of this economy, the city’s Arts District is really gaining some traction,” says Marty Gleason, sunken into a leather armchair in the back gallery of Gleason Fine Art on Portland’s Congress Street.

Beside Marty, her husband and business partner Dennis Gleason nods in agreement.

Outside, it is a bracing day, yet the street is busy. The gallery door swings open occasionally and an art browser is carried in on a gust of wind. Lucy, the little black-and-white dog asleep in Marty’s lap, rouses for a moment, only to drift quickly back to sleep. The Gleasons’ son, Andrew, a young man in his mid-twenties, helps manage the gallery and is busy fielding phone calls and emails.

The Gleasons opened their Portland location—which feels quintessentially urban with its high ceilings and windows—just a year ago within blocks of the Maine College of Art, the Portland Museum of Art, and several popular culinary destinations, including Five Fifty-Five and Emilitsa, the city’s new Greek eatery.

gleason2_w3While some entrepreneurs nearing their third decade in business might allow themselves to coast a bit, Dennis and Marty Gleason appear continually able to summon the youthful excitement that originally inspired them to enter the art world. “Every artist’s opening reception still feels a little like putting on a wedding,” says Marty with a laugh.

It is this unflagging exuberance and passion that has led the Gleasons to place work by artists such as George Bellows, Robert Henri, Rockwell Kent, and Fairfield Porter in several prominent collections and museums, including the Farnsworth Art Museum and Portland Museum of Art. But when the couple opened their first gallery in Boothbay Harbor in 1985, it was quite a departure from the career path they’d been on.

After meeting at Clark University in Massachusetts, the Gleasons worked for years as freelance book editors, specializing primarily in medical texts. As the publishing industry took a downturn in the 1980s, the casual remark of a friend who owned a Boston gallery struck the two longtime art lovers. “Our friend on Newbury Street just said, ‘Give it a try,’” remembers Dennis.

The Gleasons were soon selling art. As they do today, the couple focused their attention on acquiring and placing late nineteenth- and early twentieth-century Maine art, especially work connected to Monhegan and Mount Desert islands. After moving four times into successively larger spaces, the couple’s Boothbay Harbor gallery currently resides in a restored farmhouse on busy Townsend Avenue.

Before they began showing the work of contemporary artists, the Gleasons quickly earned reputations as estate-art experts. The couple currently represents the estates of several artists, such as Emil Holzhauer, who is often associated with the art colony on Monhegan Island led by Robert Henri, and Clarence Chatterton, a close friend to both Edward Hopper and Rockwell Kent and a prominent figure in the heyday of Ogunquit’s art colony.

“With estate art,” explains Marty, “there is a solid track record of auction-house sales, so it is becomes real investment-grade art.”

“Art by contemporary artists, on the other hand, is often about connection,” Dennis says. “We’re frequently asked, ‘Is this a local artist?’ Buyers want that relationship to place.” The Gleasons’ stable of contemporary artists is ever evolving and currently features twenty painters, including Kevin Beers and Scott Kelley, and five sculptors, including Don Justin Meserve and Carole Hanson.

In many parts of Maine, the “arts community” is synonymous with the culture of the local community itself. For their part, the Gleasons have been particularly active volunteers in their hometown over the years. Dennis has been involved with the Boothbay Region Land Trust, and Marty is past president of the Boothbay Harbor Memorial Library. In 2005, they even turned their gallery’s twentieth-anniversary celebration into a community fundraiser by exhibiting stone sculpture in the gardens of their West Boothbay Harbor home and hosting a benefit reception to raise money for the Opera House at Boothbay Harbor. Today, both Dennis and Marty are active with the capital campaign for the Coastal Maine Botanical Gardens.gleasons_w

Though their commitment to community has not changed, the Gleasons have witnessed innumerable changes during their decades of handling fine art. For instance, the couple has always sought to display work with a fairly classic vein, and, though it may be hard to believe, there were times when such work was shunned.

“Our own ‘look’ has definitely tended mostly toward realism,” says Marty, glancing around the gallery as if to confirm her assertion.

“But perhaps a bit looser realism,” Dennis adds, his eyes set on a bold, snowy landscape by Andrea J. Peters.

“But if you didn’t show abstract art in the 1980s, when we opened, you were considered…,” Marty pauses as he searches for a phrase evocative of the era, “well, people thought you were ‘out of it.’”

“There was a real bias against realism during that period,” concedes Dennis.

When asked about the biggest change they have seen since opening in 1985, the Gleasons grow reflective. “The art world in Maine has certainly grown in general,” they agree, before dropping back into thoughtful silence.

“I think,” Dennis continues after a pause, “that there is more awareness now than ever before outside of Maine of just how good Maine art is.”

“That is the biggest change!” Marty says, lighting up in agreement. “Maine art really has its own cachet now.”

As the afternoon wears on, and the dog shifts in Marty’s lap, the gallery door continues to whish open and deliver art lovers. The Gleasons seem optimistic—and not just about Portland’s Arts District weathering this precarious patch in economic history, but about Maine and the nation, too.

It was, after all, just one month after “Black Monday,” the October 1987 stock-market crash, that Vincent Van Gogh’s Irises was plucked from the Joan Whitney Payson Gallery of Art at Maine’s Westbrook College and sold at Sotheby’s auction house in New York for $53.9 million, the highest price ever paid for a work of art at the time.

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