June Fitzpatrick glances around her Congress Street art gallery and calls out the names of the artists she’s worked with and admired for decades: Tom Hall, Alison Hildreth, Richard Wilson, Noriko Sakanishi and a dozen more. Their work is hanging throughout the gallery, and everything looks clean and uncluttered. Fitzpatrick is pleased –– and surprised.
“It all somehow came together, as it always does,” she said. “It just seems to do it on its own. You put one piece up, and the others just make a request.”
That’s typical humility from Fitzpatrick, who announced last month she was retiring from the gallery business after nearly 25 years. She is one of the city’s long-standing gallery operators, and a fixture on Congress Street, where her friendly constitution and proper English accent have endeared her to artists, collectors and the Congress Street crowd.
At age 78, she is looking forward to a slower space and spending more time in her West End home. She moved from England in the early 1960s, and opened her first gallery on High Street in the early 1990s. She has operated in her current space at 522 Congress St. for 15 years, and was among the first to participate in the First Friday Art Walk. This exhibition, appropriately titled “Finale,” is a group exhibition featuring some of the artists who have shown with Fitzpatrick the longest. Sakanishi, who was scheduled for a solo show, has several assemblages in the front of the gallery, facing Congress Street.
The June Fitzpatrick Gallery will close Aug. 27, and Maine College of Art, which owns the space, will take it over. MECA, which has not yet said how it intends to use the space, is honoring Fitzpatrick with a reception from 5-7 p.m. Thursday. It will be a chance for people to recognize her long support of Maine art and artists, said Ian Anderson, MECA’s dean.
Fitzpatrick, 78, is an old-school gallerist who sees her primary job as being in service to the artist. She treats her artists as her children, always supporting and encouraging them. Their art work, she said, is the most important thing they create, and her goal has always been to match the art with an appropriate buyer –– and not just any buyer. With Fitzpatrick, it’s almost like placing a pet in somebody’s home. She wants to make sure the art will be well cared for and properly displayed.
“I always say, I don’t sell art as much I allow people to purchase it,” she said, laughing. “I always tell the artist that they are the most important thing, and I simply have the privilege of choosing work that I love and want to put up on the walls.”
As much as she would like “Finale” to be about the art and the artists, this final exhibition is really about Fitzpatrick, said Tanja Hollander, a photographer and close friend of Fitzpatrick. Hollander doesn’t show her work at the gallery, because Fitzpatrick doesn’t show photography. But Fitzpatrick includes a photo of Hollander’s in this final show, as an appreciation of their friendship. They became friends when Hollander operated Dead Space, a mid-’90s Portland gallery. During times when Fitzpatrick couldn’t sit at the gallery, Hollander often covered for her. It was during that time, when she was sitting in the gallery and greeting people who wandered in, that she came to appreciated the depth of Fitzpatrick’s quiet influence on Congress Street.
“She was so supportive of what we were doing at Dead Space that she just became someone I respected and looked up to. She was definitely my art mom, as I liked to call her,” Hollander said. “And not only was she an art mom to all of us artists, but also to all of the homeless people and characters on Congress Street. They would all stop and pick flowers for her. She is a kind, kind, kind person to everyone, no matter what.”
Hildreth said Fitzpatrick’s greatest gifts were her hand-holding and encouragement. The risk of public failure is agonizing for artists, and Fitzpatrick helped ease those fears with her wisdom, loyalty and unwavering support, Hildreth said. She also has a sharp eye, and her feedback was essential in Hildreth’s growth as an artist.
“I will always, always be grateful for the opportunity to work with her and learn from her studio visits and show work in her gallery,” she said. “It really has been incredibly wonderful to have been a part of June’s gallery. She is amazing.”
Sakanishi said she was almost embarrassed to be part of “Finale.” When she heard Fitzpatrick was retiring and that August would be the gallery’s final month, she assumed Fitzpatrick would cancel her show and use the entire gallery for the group show. She was shocked, but not surprised, that Fitzpatrick insisted on showing her work along with her other longtime artists. Sakanishi has shown with Fitzpatrick for 24 years.
“That says a lot about her loyalty,” Sakanishi said. “I wouldn’t be the artist I am without her. She made me free to focus on my vision without worrying if the gallery will like my new direction, if she thinks she can sell my new work. I am sure she worried about it all the time. I am sure it was in her head all the time. But she never showed any concern. She always said, ‘Just do your work.’ ”
Fitzpatrick misses the old days, when the pace was slower and the connections more personal. She misses handwriting and addressing 300 cards, which she sent out for every opening.
“Each card sent felt like a personal connection, almost a handshake or a hug,” she wrote in a farewell message to her friends.
WHERE: June Fitzpatrick Gallery, 522 Congress St., Portland
WHEN: Reception from 5-7 p.m. Thursday; gallery closes Aug. 27
INFO: 699-5083 and on Facebook