PORTLAND, Maine - Fine art museums can be heavy and intimidating or, like the Portland Museum of Art, they can be light, airy places of inspiration and discovery. While not designed specifically for children, it says a lot about the place that youngsters and teens appear to be as immersed in its exhibits as the adults are.
"Our goal is to get kids, and all our visitors, to slow down," said Stacy Rodenberger, coordinator of school programs. "We want people to see what's happening in a work of art and talk about it."
Maine's largest and oldest public art museum, founded in 1882, owns more than 18,000 works of fine and decorative art from the 18th century to the present, including pieces by Degas, Monet, Picasso, and Renoir. Not surprisingly, there is a special emphasis on artists with ties to Maine like Rockwell Kent, Fitz Henry (Hugh) Lane, Marsden Hartley, Louise Nevelson, and the Wyeths, N.C., Andrew, and Jamie. There is also an impressive collection of watercolors and drawings by Winslow Homer, whose studio at nearby Prouts Neck was acquired in 2006 by the museum. It hopes to open the space to the public in 2010 after a restoration.
The museum buildings themselves have historical and architectural significance. "This may be the only museum in the country where you can see exhibits in three buildings designed in three architecturally significant periods," said Kristen Levesque, a museum spokeswoman.
Margaret Jane Mussey Sweat, a 19th-century writer and literary critic, deeded McLellan House, a three-story Federal mansion, to the Portland Society of Art upon her death in 1908. The McLellan House today offers insights into architecture and daily life circa 1801.
Sweat also donated money in memory of her husband, Lorenzo de Medici Sweat, for a gallery building, which was designed by John Calvin Stevens, a well-known Portland architect. That building was recently restored to its original Beaux Arts grandeur. A modern addition, designed by I.M. Pei & Partners in 1981, represents the core of the museum and its front entrance.
Through May 11, the museum is featuring the exhibition "New Natural History," which presents 25 works by contemporary Maine artists inspired by old forms of scientific inquiry. Graphic arts will be showcased April 10-June 1 in "The Powerful Hand of George Bellows: Drawings from the Boston Public Library," featuring 57 drawings and prints not been seen publicly since the 1950s.
"Georgia O'Keeffe and the Camera: The Art of Identity" is a collaboration of the museum and the Georgia O'Keeffe Museum in Santa Fe, where it will be exhibited after its June 12-Sept. 7 showing here. Twelve paintings by O'Keeffe, among the 20th century's most widely recognized artists, will be paired with 60 portraits of her by such celebrated photographers as Ansel Adams, Yousef Karsh, Irving Penn, and Alfred Stieglitz.
While the museum offers much for adults, it tries hard to offer something for art lovers of all ages. The museum has a free Kid Cards educational program. Available at the information desk, the six-piece set serves as an introduction to how to look at art. One card features the oil painting "Mount Katahdin from Millinocket Camp" by Frederic Edwin Church. Rodenberger says the cards help foster conversation about art.
"Imagine traveling into the painting, being at Mount Katahdin," she said. "The card asks: What do you see? How does it make you feel?" Youngsters can draw and write on the cards, then combine them in a book to take home.
"On a daily basis, kids are bombarded with visual imagery," says Rodenberger. "We're giving them, and adults, a chance to look at art together and talk about what's important to them, what the other person thinks, how it's different."
Janet Mendelsohn, a freelance writer in Somerville, can be reached at email@example.com.