The Western Maine Art Group, in its 46th year, is enjoying resurgence in the art scene of the Western Maine area and beyond. Under the leadership of a new and energetic board of directors, many new and exciting things are happening during this revitalization of the group and its gallery, the Lajos Matolcsy Art Center at 480 Main Street in Norway.
The Western Maine Art Group(WMAG) was founded in 1962 by the Hungarian Fine Artists Professor Lajos Matolcsy (1905-1982) and two of his students, Lee Bean and Ellie Viles (1915-2003). After Lajos and his Maine-born wife Claire (1926-1989) moved to their farm on Ryerson Hill in South Paris, he became a teacher, mentor, and leader in the arts culture of Western Maine.
With 100 students and the lack of a good facility for art shows or an organization to support the arts, the Western Maine Art Group was born.
In 1965 the WMAG held its first local members show on Main Street in Norway in the one-room Upper Primary school house it rented for the summer. Lajos and his students continued to exhibit in many other locations in Maine and realized the pressing need for a permanent facility for exhibits and teaching.
In the spring of 1968, a Norway Town Meeting approved the WMAG’s purchase of the old school house, funded by a $5000 mortgage. The building was painted and refurbished with a gallery downstairs and a studio for teaching art on the second floor. The renovations were carefully planned to preserve the exterior of the historic building. The new Arts Center became a busy place with exhibits as well as art and dance classes.
A wide variety of exhibits over the years included art loaned by the Portland Museum of Art and the Farnsworth Museum; exhibits from private collections; exhibits featuring local artists such as Vivian Akers and Minnie Libby; work by local artists including paintings, quilts, stained glass, furniture, sculpture, and metals; work by young artists from the high school and other schools; and historical exhibits including photographs and artifacts from the Norway Historical Society
The Sidewalk Art Show
In 1967, the WMAG created an art show that started the trend of open-air public exhibit and sale: The Annual Norway Sidewalk Art Show – now the second longest running sidewalk art show in Maine. The event was a partnership with local organizations which held a dance the night before the show and presented a concert the next night. The show held very high esteem for 30 years, drawing exhibitors and visitors from all over New England and beyond.
By 2002 however, dwindling WMAG membership caused the group to hand over the Sidewalk Art Show to Norway Downtown, a organization formed as part of the Main Street Maine program, that built an entire arts festival around the sidewalk art show. In 2007, the daughter of the founder, Aranka Matolcsy, was hired to coordinate the Norway Summer Festival which featured the 40th Annual Norway Sidewalk Art Show.
In early 2007, the WMAG forged a partnership with Norway Downtown to co-sponsor the festival which, at the same time, was renamed the Norway Arts Festival. Now in 2008, the WMAG is again administering the Norway Sidewalk Art Show.
After Professor Matolcsy’s death in 1982, leadership passed to a board of trustees led by some of its founding members. Fine artist and WMAG Co-founder Lee Bean, Matolcsy’s protege, led the group for 20 years and took over the professor’s ambitious teaching schedule. Bean, who is a beloved art teacher in Western Maine, has stayed active on the board including exhibiting in 2007-2008 shows. Bean’s dedication to the mission and vision of the founders kept the group a very active part of the art scene in Western Maine.
Taking the helm after Bean, Barbara Traficonte, a talented artist, teacher and local business owner led the group for many years as president, keeping the group active as general membership and infusing new ideas and energy. The WMAG, to show its appreciation to Lee Bean and Barbara Traficonte for their many years of dedicated service, voted in 2008 to honor each Bean and Traficonte with the honorary title of President Emeritus and a life-time membership in the WMAG for their priceless contributions to the organization. A ceremony was held in their honor at the First Fridays opening reception on June 6, 2008.
The Downturn and the Revitalization
Dwindling membership and resources and a 150-year-old building in need of major renovations finally forced the board of directors to close of the Matolcsy Art Center in 2006 to focus on revitalizing the group and renovating the building. Traficonte and the other board members persevered and eventually joined forces with Aranka Matolcsy in late 2006 to revitalize the membership, rebuild the board of directors and work toward preservation of the historic schoolhouse gallery.
Now in its 46th year, the Western Maine Art Group has revitalized itself and its relationship with the community. Connections with local non-profits such as McLaughlin Foundation and Norway Memorial Library and also with local businesses, art galleries, and institutions have created a tremendous public awareness of WMAG and increasing recognition which is spreading far and wide.
A big boost to the group’s efforts came when prolific art collector and WMAG member Richard Durnin left a bequest of his significant art collection to the WMAG – a collection over over 200 pieces of art spanning a range from 19th Century folk art to contemporary and post-modern Western Maine artists. Durnin, a professor who was a summer resident of Norway, collected the art of Maine artists for decades. He was patron of the WMAG, regularly attending shows and functions and purchasing art from its members.
Durin’s collection was featured in several special exhibits at the Matolcsy Arts Center during the 1970s. Durnin fully realized the challenges of sustaining a nonprofit organization and bequeathed this tremendous gift allowing the group to use its discretion to sell off work to raise money if needed. This gift was vital in hiring the first-ever full-time executive director and will be vital in achieving future goals.
Grants and Sponsorships
Raising money and grant writing are on-going processes. In 2007, the WMAG was awarded a Maine Community Foundation grant to build the group’s first-ever website. This grant was one of the first awarded in the History of the Maine Community Foundation to fund a technology project. A second grant was awarded by the Maine Arts Commission for the preservation and conservation of the Durnin collection.
The Norway Savings Bank, setting the bar to exemplify what it means to support the arts, stepped up in 2007 to become the WMAG corporate sponsor and generously provided support for a much-needed administraive office in the Fare Share building. In addition, the Norway Savings Bank and WMAG embarked on exciting collaboration in 2008 to display original art in the Main Street window displays of the new Norway Savings Bank Operations Center.
Today and the Future
The local cultural environment is alive and well and overwhelmingly supportive as the WMAG strives to carry out the mission and vision of its original founders to provide opportunities for artists and artisans and to provide broad community access to original arts while partnering with other to build a prosperous cultural community in Western Maine.
The 2008 exhibit season was kicked off with a fabulous start: the first SAD #17 Student Art Show to be exhibited at the Matolcsy Arts Center since 2002 opened on May 23. With an ever increasing membership, an exciting line up of exhibits and new relationships with six other galleries which hold simultaneous First Friday opening receptions, the 2008 season will be a benchmark in the history of the WMAG.