Collector: Bruce Brown
by Carl Little
Photography Irvin Serrano
For this Portland native, collecting is a happy obsession
Bruce Brown remembers his first acquisition. On a visit to Frost Gully Gallery in Portland sometime in the mid-1970s, he purchased a painting by Stephen Etnier, a well-known Maine artist. “It was a totally irrational decision,” Brown says, but it was one that changed his life. “For the first time, I felt directly connected to art.”
Since that fateful day, Brown cannot look at a work of art without asking himself, “Would I like to live with this image every day?” Each object in his collection is carefully selected, often following years of exploration and research. “The fun is in the hunt,” he states.
When he first started collecting, Brown intended his holdings to comprise Maine contemporary artists exclusively. He thought it would be a way to honor his native state. Over time, the scope of his collecting has expanded to include contemporary American prints and Maine photography, with ceramics and sculpture now part of the mix.
Collecting, Brown claims, led to his twenty-year career as a curator at the Center for Maine Contemporary Art in Rockport (when he first took the job there in 1987, it was called Maine Coast Artists). He felt he could support Maine artists more productively by organizing exhibitions of their work than by collecting a few pieces here and there every year.
Collecting is sometimes equated with “neuroses, compulsions, or other personality disorders, including the need for recognition,” Brown explains, but his “happy obsession” is driven by a simple desire: to be surrounded by images that have personal meaning for him. Over the years, his artistic tastes have shifted from “difficult, turbulent, even disaster-like images” to works of utter simplicity. Just as his personal life has become simpler as he has grown older, so have his preferences. “The minimalists,” Brown reports, “have taken over my dining room.”
In the March 2007 issue of Arts and Antiques, Brown was recognized as one of the one hundred top collectors in America based on his willingness to share his collection with the public. In addition to shows at the Portland Museum of Art (PMA) and the Colby College Museum of Art, Brown’s collection has been exhibited at the University of Maine at Presque Isle on two occasions, and will be a third time in the upcoming exhibition, Next to Nothing Is Everything (April 27–May 23). The Bruce Brown Collection at the PMA features prints the collector has been giving to the museum on an annual basis. Among the artists represented are Alison Hildreth, Brett Bigbee, Neil Welliver, Karl Schrag, and Anne Harris.