University of Maine Museum of Art’s George Kinghorn is dedicated to putting The Burgeoning City of Bangor and its beloved museum on the map
In the heart of Bangor, down a stairwell dotted with colorful canvases, is a hallway lined with wallpaper by artist John Anthony Baldessari that reads, “I will not make any more boring art.” The line is replicated over and over again in floor-to-ceiling columns of angled script that recall an old-fashioned school room punishment—only in this instance the teacher would be encouraging a little creative misbehavior. As I enter the University of Maine Museum of Art, the line continues to repeat in my mind, and proves to be a fitting epigraph to what’s inside.
This afternoon, George Kinghorn, the museum’s director and curator, is giving me a tour of four new exhibitions that feature drawing, painting, sculpture, and photography from UMMA’s permanent collection, as well as works by artists Dan Dowd, Jon Davis, and Richard Whitten. Dowd, of Phippsburg, creates graphic, tactile pieces with scraps of materials like fabric and old tire rubber; Davis, of Miami, Florida, makes wall-based mixed- media assemblages that juxtapose famous images from art history with found photographs and objects such as antique books and monacles. For Kinghorn, these works show “the artist’s technical abilities and conceptual ideas working in harmony.” He is also drawn to pieces that let you “see the artist’s hand,” an idea that is most evident in his curation of work by Rhode Island-based Whitten, which includes preparatory sculptures and drawings as well as oil paintings. In this series of paintings, entitled Studiolo, Whitten depicts imagined machines housed in elaborate, architectural containers, and achieves an effect so three-dimensional I’m inclined to peer around the edges of the wooden panels to make sure they are flat.
Kinghorn’s curatorial aesthetic was informed, in part, by his experiences as a student of visual art in college and graduate school, where he gained an understanding of process, materials, and life in the studio. “I think that my visual art background has made me a better curator of contemporary art because I understand the demands that artists face,” he says. “I have a desire to work with artists whose work reflects that dedication and time spent in the studio.” As a boy in Florida, Kinghorn could usually be found drawing, and in high school he spent every spare moment in the art room. After completing his master of fine arts degree from Michigan State University, he taught visual art before accepting a position at Museum of Contemporary Art Jacksonville, where he served as director, deputy director, and chief curator from 1999 to 2008. “I’m an outgoing person, so museum work is a great fit for me,” he says. “It’s dynamic, and I love the opportunity to work with so many different types of people.”
In 2008 Kinghorn and his longtime partner, Chris Coplin, now a fiscal administrator at the University of Maine, decided they wanted to make a move into an academic setting. “I liked the idea of collaborating with a network of scholars and faculty and the people who take part in the university’s programming,” says Kinghorn. He was drawn to UMMA’s impressive contemporary art collection, which includes 3,800 works, with a concentration in original prints and photography, and ripe potential for growth. Bangor also turned out to be a big part of the equation. The couple liked the city’s walkable, downtown setting, its proximity to nature, and the close-knit community they found here. “My work hasn’t been confined within the walls of the museum,” says Kinghorn, who commutes on foot from the couple’s second-floor apartment, a few blocks from the museum. “Our move came at a nice time, because in recent years there’s been an incredible amount of growth in this city, and I’ve had the opportunity to get involved in a volunteer capacity, and to play a role in that development.”
Roles, plural, is more like it. Since moving to Maine, Kinghorn has served as chair of the City of Bangor Commission on Cultural Development and as president of the board of the Downtown Bangor Partnership. He co-headed the project Bangor Forward, which surveyed a cross-section of residents and developed recommendations to guide the city’s growth. He’s also committed to bringing more locals to UMMA with programming such as the public Art at Noon series that occurs several times during each exhibition cycle. And with the help of corporate sponsors, he is extending UMMA’s free admission policy through 2017. “We want to create an environment where people are comfortable, where they feel welcome, and where the space and art are accessible,” he says. His efforts have paid off: since he arrived in Bangor, museum visitation has increased 268 percent.
UMMA is also “becoming more of a destination for people who have an interest in contemporary art,” says Kinghorn. “Visitors are surprised to see exhibitions of this caliber here in Bangor. I take that as a compliment.” In addition to fostering connections with in-state artists, he regularly travels around the country to attend symposiums and art fairs and to visit artists’ studios in cities like New York and Miami. For Kinghorn, part of the privilege of curating is the opportunity to cultivate long-term relationships with artists, and to introduce them, and their work, to the community he cares so much about. “I think art transports viewers to new places, opens up new possibilities, and inspires new ways of thinking. I marvel at the limitlessness of creativity,” he says. I’m sold. Then, I remember that at UMMA all of this is offered to us for free.