Picture this: Art collectors keep Maine artists and dealers busy during pandemic



Retired teachers John McIlvain and his wife, Elizabeth Sky-McIlvain, acquired their first sculpture about 20 years ago – an abstract stone and wood creation called “Little Buddha” by Herb Ferris which they placed in their Georgetown garden.

Currently covered in snow, it sits in a circular raised garden on grounds that they normally open to visitors each spring when there is no pandemic.

“We like the idea that people can see these things, and hopefully they could go and buy some too. [for themselves] because it’s good to support artists who do wonderful things, many of whom are from Maine, ”says McIlvain.

The couple learned about Herb Ferris and his work through Pownal’s merchant and consultant June LaCombe, and have been purchasing sculptures ever since. They now have around 30 pieces, including a number of works by Maine artists.

Photo / Tim Greenway

June LaCombe, a Pownal-based arts consultant specializing in sculpture, says she sold over 100 pieces in 2020. She stands next to “Venere,” a granite sculpture by Gary Haven Smith.

Despite a difficult time for art galleries around the world during the pandemic, dedicated collectors like the McIlvains are keeping Maine merchants – and artists – busy. It’s creating excitement in the art world about a pivotal moment in Maine, akin to New York City in the 1950s or California in the 1970s and 1980s.

“The people who bought California art back then are millionaires now, but you have to be brave and committed,” says Susan Larsen, executive director of the Dorothea and Leo Rabkin Foundation, a charitable foundation with ‘Portland-based artists. “Those who spend the time and put in the effort will be rewarded both financially and aesthetically.” She adds that “downtown Portland has a very fertile art scene right now, and it doesn’t take a big budget to fill your apartment or house with top notch stuff.”

Dinah Minot, Executive Director of Creative Portland, makes a similar observation from a collector’s perspective: “My investment in art is always for personal reasons, whether it’s someone I know or of the impact of art. But many of those investments have turned into collectable artists. “

World market, local gallery scene

The global art market achieved $ 64.1 billion in sales in 2019, down 5% from a year earlier, according to a March 2020 report from Art Basel and UBS.

Since then, a mid-year report from the same groups shows that while galleries saw their sales drop 36% in the first half of 2020, and the majority expect sales to continue to decline in the second half, purchases of art – especially online – have remained. strong, as is the interest of wealthy collectors.

This is also true in Maine, where collectors have long been spoiled for choice when it comes to quality works by artists with ties to Maine. The state has long attracted artists from Winslow Homer to Edward Hopper and the Wyeth, and more recently Alex Katz (born 1927) and Dhalov Ipcar (1917-2017), best known for his colorful paintings of animals.

There are also a growing number of contemporary artists and a vibrant Portland gallery scene, which is also home to the Maine College of Art, to coastal communities like Boothbay Harbor and Rockland.

Like other businesses during the pandemic, many galleries, auction houses and merchants in Maine have adapted during COVID, through virtual exhibits, online sales and more social media marketing. They have also unexpectedly benefited from an increase in home and decor purchases as people unable to travel spend money on art.

At the Portland Art Gallery, for example, “2020 was by far our best year,” says director Emma Wilson. Prices vary widely, ranging from $ 200 to around $ 90,000 per work.

“Before COVID, a good opening would attract 100 to 150 people. When we switched to virtual openings in the spring, we suddenly found that we could reach 10x the virtual audience. It has become a great connection for our collectors and artists.

Located at 154 Middle St. in the Old Port of Portland, the Portland Art Gallery represents 55 established and emerging artists. One of them, Waterville landscaper Matthew Russ, says 2020 was his best year in terms of number of works sold and revenue, thanks in part to virtual events.

A longtime fan of in-person show openings, Russ was surprised to find that the virtual versions were “really, really inspiring and in some ways a little more intimate.”

This helped attract new customers during the pandemic. It all started on a note of hope last April when a woman bought one of his paintings for her daughter’s birthday and to support an artist who may face an uncertain future.

“It was a bright spot at the start of everything and made me believe that even though things are going to be quite difficult in the months to come, works of art could still be on people’s minds,” says Russ. Glad that turned out to be true, he says, “People spend a lot more time online, so browsing art and looking at pictures that bring joy, peace and comfort was part of it. “

Art and money matter

Regardless of what motivates people to invest in art, it can pay off over time and is of great interest to advisors in determining client wealth.

“As financial planners, we always look at the overall picture of the client, so that any type of substantial collectibles affects someone’s net worth,” says Susan John, Managing Director based in Wolfeboro, NH. and Private Client Advisor at FLPutnam Investment Management Co. “When determining someone’s tax and cash flow needs, you need to know that this product is available. “

John works with clients all over New England, many of whom have collectibles ranging from fine art to antique pianos, manuscripts or stamps, which sparked his interest in the field early in his career.

She has found that client collectors don’t always think about talking to her about it early in the relationship.

“Sometimes they don’t tell you right away,” she says. “The perception is that you want to know their financial assets, but not necessarily something else. Sometimes it takes a few years before you find out that they have a passion for cars, or that they have a Monet hanging in their living room.

But not everyone collects – or can afford to buy – French Impressionist works, and John points out that it’s not a given that every piece of art will gain in value.

“They’re going to go in and out of fashion,” she said. “What’s good today may not be good tomorrow, and financial times are changing, too.” In other words, people are more interested in buying art when they have the cash on hand and the economy is strong, even if it’s not something they can control. she says.

His advice to collectors: “You can always buy something you like from one of your local artists. It is probably the best thing to do.

Brian Bernatchez, founder and CEO of Golden Pond Wealth Management in Waterville, also counts avid collectors among his clients, but avoids recommending art or other collectibles as an investment.

“I am in liquidity, I am in investments,” he says. “On the other hand, when people reach a certain level of net worth, they really think about other ways to store value. I get a lot of people saying, “I’m not going to travel this year, I’m going to buy a piece of art.”

File photo / Amber Waterman

Brian Bernatchez, founder and CEO of Golden Pond Wealth Management in Waterville

Another factor he cites: “The stock market has worked so well, everyone feels richer and they don’t spend that much, which means a lot of discretionary money, which is reflected in the prices you see. now in art and any collector’s item. These markets are quite healthy at the moment. “

Sculpture dealer LaCombe can attest to this as well, having sold over 100 pieces last year. She and her husband are also collectors.

“We have been collecting sculpture for years, and I asked my husband if he saw our art as an investment, but he said we have invested in artists (their careers) who need to sell works for continue to create, ”she said. “And we like to live with our collection.

Foresee the future

Back in Georgetown on the coast, the McIlvains eagerly await a time when they can safely share their outdoor sculptures with others. Sky-McIlvain adds that they are drawn to the three-dimensional visual and tactile qualities of sculpture and have mainly collected modern pieces with an abstract and naturalistic bent, saying, “We buy sculptures to make us think.”

Her husband offers a more practical reason, saying, “We collect sculpture because it gives you something to look at… We never thought of it as an investment.

As they get older, they also begin to think about what will become of their collection when they are no longer there.

They have some in mind for the family, others for the grounds of a local school they support, and remain grateful for LaCombe’s expertise and dedication.

“She’s done a wonderful thing for Maine, and she’s unique because of the way she does it,” McIlvain said.



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