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The Maine event

The opening of a sleek contemporary art centre confirms that the seaside town of Rockland – population 7,000 – is the perfect combination of Down East charm and dynamic culture

The Center for Maine Contemporary Art in Rocklane, Maine. (Jonathan Laurence)

Artists come to Maine for the light. I came for the lobster – and for the art. The town of Rockland promised a bounty of both, which is why I wound my way through the Appalachians to Maine’s rocky Midcoast.

It paid off. Within a day of arriving, I’d walked its quaint red-brick Main Street, sampled salty-fresh boiled crustacean with an icy verdejo, and watched yachts and lobster boats cut across iridescent Penobscot Bay. My two sons had ritually dunked each other in the Atlantic.

On my second day in town, I attended the ribbon-cutting for the Center for Maine Contemporary Art (CMCA). Me and a stack of steel men in bright colours standing on each other’s shoulders – a sculpture by Jonathan Borofsky, which provided a marker that something was happening here.

The Rockland Breakwater, an almost mile-long man-made granite jetty, is one of the many sights to see in Rockland, Me. (Beth J. Harpaz / The Associated Press)

The centre, founded in a nearby town in the 1950s, was inaugurating its sleek new building, designed by architect Toshiko Mori. It joins the Farnsworth Art Museum, a strong regional institution just across the street, and 23 private galleries, a theatre and a very strong restaurant scene. On this lovely edge of America, a cultural hub is being born.

In the crowd, a volunteer and local gallery owner, Roberta Baumann, was beaming. “Here in town, we’re in a renaissance, and the energy is huge,” she told me.

She has been coming to Rockland for almost 30 years, and has seen the place shift its character. “It was an industrial working town, so there was a lot of resistance when the Farnsworth expanded” – in the 1990s – “and galleries started coming in. But now, we’re filling up all the vacant storefronts, and we’re working together.”

“We” means natives of the town and those, like Baumann, who have chosen to settle. “Like many of us ‘from away’ people, I started spending summers here,” she says. “Some of us have settled here permanently. And it makes this a really vibrant community, especially in the arts.

“Once you come, you keep coming back.”

A view of the Rockland Breakwater Lighthouse seen from the breakwater on Jameson Point in Rockland, Me. (Derek Burke / iStockphoto)

And why do they come back? To be in a place like no other. Maine isn’t far from America’s densely populated Northeast Corridor, but it’s got space: Just 1.3 million people occupy the whole, vast state. For another, the topography: The land is hilly until it gets rocky, and then it crashes into the ocean in a spectacular coastline of bays and inlets. Rockland is about 90 minutes from the nearest major airport, in Portland – not that far, but far enough. Even in 2016, you need to work to get here.

And this town of just 7,000 makes it worth the voyage. For one thing, there are, as Baumann told me with a grin, “so many rockin’ restaurants.” Primo is run by James Beard Award-winning chef Melissa Kelly; my family and I had one of our best meals of the year at In Good Company, a former bank whose mismatched furniture belied the quality of the charcuterie, fresh seafood and blueberry-infused cocktails. Down the street, you can pick up a New Yorker or an Apartamento at Hello Hello Books, and an epic Danish at Atlantic Baking.

Folks from away have asserted their presence.

Nothing new there; it has been more than a century since this place became a tourist destination. And artists have been steady visitors – most famously Andrew Wyeth, one of the best-loved American painters of the past century. The Farnsworth Art Museum is an ideal place to discover how the landscapes and people of this region became part of America’s cultural canon: A rotating show of Wyeth’s work is constantly on display. His paintings are often touched by this area’s summer sunlight, which imbues the real-life scenery with a pale, rich varnish.

Inside the Center for Maine Contemporary Art. (Jonathan Laurence)

But the CMCA is interested in the here and now. The gallery is a rare thing in North America: a non-collecting institution focused on contemporary art. Mori, a well-known architect based in New York, spends her summers on a nearby island; she has given the area an 11,500-square-foot gallery that is beautifully proportioned and tightly detailed.

The inaugural show includes Borofsky and Rollin Leonard, both residents of the state whose work doesn’t relate to it in any obvious way; and New York-based painter Alex Katz, long associated with the Skowhegan School of Painting and Sculpture, who has spent summers in Maine for 60 years. His Small Paintings show is full of his flat forms and slightly uncanny colour sense, but these works are uncharacteristically warm and intimate – glimpses, through the artist’s eyes, at his life in this place.

Which is the idea of the institution, Suzette McAvoy, the centre’s director, told me. “If you travel from far afield to come here, you’ll see work that has a connection to Maine,” she said. “I think that’s an important part of what we can offer as an institution – not just to replicate what you can see elsewhere, but showing the real diversity and breadth of this place.”

Inside the Center for Maine Contemporary Art. (Jonathan Laurence)

The relationship between art and life animates 250 Main, the brand-new “art hotel” in town where I and my family stayed.

It overlooks the bay, and its maritime connections run deep: Owner Cabot Lyman also owns Lyman-Morse Boatbuilding, a prestigious local custom boat maker. Lyman put some of his craftspeople to work on the hotel, a 26-room, five-level boutique on the edge of downtown Rockland. Designed by Portland-based architects Scattergood Design, the hotel is exceptionally sophisticated: The interiors blend grey-and-gold Scandinavian modernism, lush fabrics and wallpaper that evokes the waves outside the windows. (Thank the boat builders – the place is built with extraordinary care.)

Inside the Center for Maine Contemporary Art. (Jonathan Laurence)

The art program is, likewise, a pleasant surprise: The paintings and sculpture on display through the hotel’s halls and lobby reflect well on Maine contemporary art. At the same time, I could tell that we weren’t in a big-city boutique hotel by the attitude: The staff were way too nice.

On our last evening there, my family headed down to the harbour for a final splash. Our sons dipped into the cold water again, fully clothed – because why not? – and I thought of a particular Alex Katz painting I had seen, a panel that verged on abstraction but remained, clearly, ocean. As the sun set behind us and the Atlantic took on a magic shimmering cast, life came blissfully close to art.

The writer’s accommodations were provided by 250 Main. It did not review or approve this article.

Rockland Harbor Breakwater Lighthouse at high tide. (shakzu / iStockphoto)

-------------

If you go

Where to stay

250 Main: This boutique hotel overlooks the Rockland harbour. 250 Main St., 250mainhotel.com; from $185 (U.S.)

Where to eat

In Good Company: This cozy spot is the perfect place to stop for some afternoon nibbles and indulge in the extensive wine list. 415 Main St.; ingoodcompanymaine.com

Primo: Come here for farm-to-table dining: Produce and meat featured on the menu comes from the four-acre property’s sustainable farm. 2 Main St.; primorestaurant.com

Archer’s On the Pier: You’ll find all your East Coast favourites here, including fried clams, crab cakes, oysters and, of course, lobster. 58 Ocean St.; archersonthepier.com

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