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Portsmouth, N.H. established itself as a cultural hub

Marisa Kang, 21, a New Jersey-born visual artist and musician, leaves pieces of her art in downtown Portsmouth for people to find and keep.

Chelsey Philpot FOR THE BOSTON GLOBE

Marisa Kang, 21, a New Jersey-born visual artist and musician, leaves pieces of her art in downtown Portsmouth for people to find and keep.

PORTSMOUTH, N.H. — In summer, Market Square is filled with the sound of guitar players — their instrument cases open — strumming on brick sidewalks. Seascape paintings line gallery walls, boutiques sell handcrafted goods, and Strawberry Banke visitors drift among historic homes. The air smells of the ocean and restaurants. In many ways, Market Square is the artistic heart of this small city by the sea, but it doesn’t encompass the entirety of Portsmouth’s artistic soul.

The arts have exploded in Portsmouth in recent years. According to a survey conducted by Art-Speak (the City of Portsmouth Cultural Commission) and the Washington, D.C.-based Americans for the Arts, the arts and culture sector generated $41.4 million in the 2010 fiscal year for the greater Portsmouth area, an increase of $3.2 million from 2005.

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Settled in 1623, Portsmouth has transformed from a trading town to an arts-and-culture-centric city. This mini metropolis celebrates its history and established cultural institutions, but at the same time, looks to the future. Before the end of the year, a public art walking map will be unveiled, plans to strengthen the cultural community through the Piscataqua Arts & Cultural Alliance will come to fruition, and two nonprofits that showcase emerging artists and bold (perhaps unusual) works will open. Portsmouth — a place where paintings, sculptures, plays, and literature are spoken of with an almost religious reverence — is on its way to becoming an arts and culture mecca by the sea.

Though the city is just 15.64 square miles, trying to take in all Portsmouth has to offer can seem daunting. “You can spend a whole week here and you’d only scratch the surface,” said Nancy Pearson, president of Art-Speak.

The best way to begin an arts pilgrimage is by touring the many downtown art galleries. The first Friday of every month all year long, numerous galleries open their doors for the “Art ‘Round Town” gallery walk. Participating establishments include the Robert Lincoln Levy Gallery, the base of the New Hampshire Art Association; The Banks Gallery, which shows 19th through 20th century American paintings and sculptures; and the 14-year-old Nahcotta, home of the biannual “Enormous Tiny Art Show,” a collection of miniature pieces created by artists from around the world.

If the stunning glassware in NJM Gallery on Bow Street or the paintings and photographs in Jay Schadler Studio on Fleet Street inspire you to create your own art, you can sign up for a B.Y.O.B. “paint and sip” class at Art with a Splash, which is just a short stroll from Market Square on State Street.

Since 1974, the Prescott Park Arts Festival has been the center of Portsmouth summers. The 2014 line-up includes outdoor movie screenings and performances of “Shrek the Musical.” Grammy Award-winning singer-songwriter Patty Griffin launched the season with a concert on June 21. Mary Chapin Carpenter performs July 12.

In October, the four-day-long N.H. Film Festival brings cinephiles from all over to town.

And, of course, it would be wrong to venture to Portsmouth and not visit the theater. The Seacoast Repertory Theatre is featuring “The Pirates of Penzance.” The Player’s Ring, a small “black box” theater, focuses on performing original works. There’s also the Music Hall historic theater and the Music Hall Loft.

A massive renovation of the Historic Theater was completed in November 2013 with the hanging of a stunning chandelier in the 900-seat auditorium. Considering the award-winning design of the Beaux-Arts lobby and the magnificent opulence of the stage proscenium arch, it is easy to see how the Historic Theater is able to line up celebrities such as soprano Renée Fleming, comedian Lewis Black, and author Ann Rice for the 2014-2015 season.

Just around the corner from the Music Hall on Congress Street, the Music Hall Loft opened its doors in 2011. This summer, the 124-seat venue will be transformed into a cabaret, where acts like The Wondertwins dance stars and former American Idol judge Kara DioGuardi will perform. “You really need must-see programming,” said Patricia Lynch, the Music Hall’s executive director. “I’ve got to get you off the couch, leave ‘Game of Thrones,’ and come here.”

From the heart of the Portsmouth, it’s just a quick drive to Drift Gallery, a contemporary art gallery located on the grounds of the historic Wentworth-Coolidge Mansion. Or you can take a short walk down Maplewood Avenue to 3S Artspace, a multidisciplinary venue that (once renovations are complete) will house a performance space, gallery, restaurant, and artists’ studios. Having raised $2.35 million of the $3.3 million the nonprofit needs, 3S executive director Chris Greiner says they plan on opening in fall 2014. “There’s a real need or desire for a more forward-thinking institution,” said Greiner. “Something that maybe appeals to people who are looking for something that’s more affordable, more risk-taking.”

Islington Street (a.k.a. “The Arts Corridor”) is home to numerous cultural institutions, including the West End Studio Theatre (which hosts both the N.H. Theater Project and the Pontine Theater), and the Button Factory Artists’ Studios, where there are open studios annually the weekend after Thanksgiving weekend.

Marisa Kang, 21, a New Jersey-born visual artist and musician, has a studio in the popular Button Factory. She is also the woman behind the “Guerilla Gallery,” a project in which she leaves pieces of her art in downtown Portsmouth for strangers to find and keep. It is her way of getting less traditional works into the Market Square area as well as an expression of her art philosophy.

“I just like that it kind of breaks down the boundaries of what people think art is,” Kang said about her campaign.

The spacious future home of the Portsmouth Museum of Art, a two-minute walk from the Button Factory, is hugely different from the museum’s old location near the downtown waterfront. Museum director Cathy Sununu said it plans to open before the end of the year, and when it does, it won’t have a permanent collection. Instead, it will have several exhibitions each year that showcase emerging 21st-century artists from around the world.

Sununu believes the Portsmouth Museum of Art will draw in members of the under-40 crowd because of its emphasis on new art and suggested-donation admission fee. “If young people are not engaging with museums, then we will lose a generation of collectors and then artists may not exist at all,” she said. “You’ve got to cultivate that next generation.”

Given all that the present and the future hold for the Portsmouth arts and culture community, photographer Raya Al-Hashmi, a 2013 University of New Hampshire graduate, is grateful to be working, creating, and living in the area. After being inspired by similar undertakings in other cities, Al-Hashmi created her “People of Portsmouth” project. She takes candid portraits of Seacoast community members and shares them online. “Since starting this project in January, I have been much more exposed to the creative scene in Portsmouth. I always knew that there was a big presence, but didn’t know how much talent, drive, and creative energy this city has,” she said. “I feel lucky.”

Chelsey Philpot can be reached at chphilpot@gmail.com. Follow her on Twitter@chelseyphilpot.

Correction: An earlier version of this story incorrectly referred to Drift Gallery as a museum, and Art with a Splash.

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