Monhegan museum receives gift of $1 million from Wyeth Foundation

Monhegan museum receives gift of $1 million from Wyeth Foundation

The challenge grant from one of the art haven's most celebrated painters and his wife will be used to fund an endowment and is part of a larger fundraising campaign.

Portland Press Herald (ME), March 28, 2018

Bob Keyes, Staff Writer

Image:  Courtesy Portland Press Herald

For going on two centuries, Monhegan Island off midcoast Maine has attracted artists who are drawn by the steep cliffs, the fog in the pines and the island’s time-stopping character. Jamie Wyeth, one of Monhegan’s most famous painters, wants to ensure the island’s museum remains up to the task of showing and caring for the art produced by island artists past and present.

Through the Wyeth Foundation, Jamie and Phyllis Wyeth have donated $1 million toward the Monhegan Museum of Art & History’s $4 million fundraising campaign. The Wyeths are making the donation as a challenge grant. The museum has three years to match it.

Situated atop Monhegan’s Lighthouse Hill, the museum is one of the smallest art museums in Maine with an annual operating budget of $267,000. It’s open just a few months each year beginning in July, enticing visitors to climb the steep hill with the promise of seeing art made by island artists and others who have enjoyed the island’s inspiration. Last season, 4,262 people made the trek, although that number is expected to climb to 7,000 this year because of a marketing campaign tied to the museum’s 50th anniversary.

“I’ve watched the museum over the many years that I have lived on Monhegan, and it’s gone from a little museum about the island and its history to a major art museum that has become a destination and the reason that many people come to Monhegan to visit,” Jamie Wyeth said in a phone interview Tuesday. “This will help make sure the museum has a good future.”

HOPING TO TRIPLE ENDOWMENT

Wyeth also said he intends to leave his collection of Rockwell Kent paintings to the museum “if things work out for the museum. I’m still enjoying them, but (giving them to the museum) is my intention.” In addition to owning many paintings by Kent, Wyeth also owns one of the homes that Kent built when he lived on Monhegan. The museum operates Kent’s other island home and studio, in tandem with the James Fitzgerald Legacy.

Wyeth is the son of the late Andrew Wyeth, one of America’s foremost representational painters, who made Maine the subject of many of his most famous paintings, and the grandson of illustrator N.C. Wyeth, who brought the family to Maine from Pennsylvania in the early 1900s. Over the past century, the Wyeth family of painters has created an image of Maine with their art.

Edward L. Deci, the museum’s director, said the Wyeth gift will help bolster an endowment to support ongoing operations and capital improvements to the museum’s buildings. The endowment currently is valued at about $1 million. With the Wyeth money and its match, the museum hopes to raise the endowment value to at least $3 million within the next three years.

“Jamie and Phyllis Wyeth specified that the money go into the endowment so that the annual interest and dividends would help pay the museum’s operating expenses over the long term,” Deci wrote in an email. “The Wyeths have had a home on Monhegan for almost 50 years, so they are very committed to the island, and many of Jamie’s best-known paintings are of Monhegan, so the Wyeths’ connection to the island makes us particularly thankful for their great generosity.”

PRESERVING ROCKWELL KENT’S WORK

Deci has operated the museum as a volunteer director for 35 years. Robert Stahl has been his volunteer assistant for the past 15 years.

“The realization is that, in the future, we are not going to be able to run the museum with volunteer directors and will need sufficient endowment funds to generate interest income that will help to subsidize staffing positions, including a director and perhaps additional curatorial staff,” Stahl said.

The museum began as a way to showcase art and artifacts of the island. The lighthouse keeper’s house includes exhibitions about the island’s history. The assistant keeper’s house displays the museum’s art collection. The museum also operates the Rockwell Kent/James Fitzgerald home and studio on Horn’s Hill. The Kent/Fitzgerald properties recently were accepted into the Historic Artists’ Homes and Studios program of the National Trust for Historic Preservation.

Kent’s personal history is closely entwined with the history of art on the island. With the $1 million donation to the museum, Jamie Wyeth has played an integral role in preserving both.

Kent came to Monhegan in 1905 at the suggestion of his teacher and mentor, Robert Henri. He returned many times over the years, and some years stayed through the winter.

Kent is Wyeth’s favorite artist and “the only real painter who has ever worked on Monhegan,” he said. He began collecting Kent’s art when he was teenager and eventually bought one of the homes that Kent built on Monhegan.

“I spend as much time there as I can, but usually not in the summer,” Wyeth said. “I am there late in the fall and early spring, though I have not been there yet this year.”

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