OGUNQUIT — The Ogunquit Museum of American Art was a delightful surprise. Housed in a rather unremarkable, low-slung building, it's off the main tourist drag on the other side of the water from popular Perkins Cove. But when we stepped into the lobby we instantly realized why, six decades ago, Maine painter Henry Strater picked this location for his growing collection of American art, and why hundreds of other American artists were drawn to this very spot. The view, straight ahead through the lobby's glass windows, was captivating: Pretty pocket gardens perched on a promontory overlooking the cove; the rocky coastline and open ocean stretched beyond.
This year, the intimate, nationally-recognized museum will celebrate its 60th anniversary with special exhibits and events, and a renewed focus to showcase the very best American Modernists. Although the museum officially opened in 1953, its roots are some 60 years older.
"During the 1890s, Ogunquit became a retreat for artists, many of them from New York and beyond, who came here to relax and to paint," says Ron Crusan, executive director and curator of the museum.
A returning core of artists, including Strater (1896-1987), the museum's founder, were drawn to the sleepy fishing village, seeking refuge from the city heat, the fellowship of other artists, and the inspiration of the scenic oceanfront setting. The result: Ogunquit became a thriving artist colony and a focal point for American modernism.
Strater first came to Ogunquit in 1919 to study at Hamilton Easter Field's Summer School of Graphic Arts, one of two art schools that had been established in Ogunquit at the time. He spent subsequent years in Paris as a successful painter, but returned to Ogunquit in 1925 to settle down. He continued to paint and collect art from fellow artists and friends that later formed the genesis of the museum's permanent collection.
"He was a visionary," Crusan says. "He was buying from artists like Marsden Hartley [the Modernist who became known for his paintings of coastal Maine and portraits of seamen] when other people weren't even thinking of it.
"But Strater worked with some of these artists, too; he knew them personally," Crusan says. "And, in some cases he was supporting them. He'd buy works from them so they could eat. Others would gift work to him because he had a personal relationship with them."
In 1953, Strater designed the building overlooking the often-painted Perkins Cove to house the growing collection. Today the museum, devoted exclusively to showcasing American art, is about 7,500 square feet, with nearly 2,000 works of art in its permanent collection, including paintings, sculptures, photography, and graphics. It houses one of the largest collections of ceramic sculpture by Carl Walters, watercolors by Eliot O'Hara, oils by Strater, and drawings and sculpture by Isabella Howland. Other highlights include a complete set of all the graphic works of Jack Levine, eight Reginald Marsh tempera and watercolor depictions of the Bowery and Coney Island, and seven fine works by Hartley.
"It really is a deep collection," says Crusan, who was director at the Lyman Allyn Art Museum in New London, Conn., before coming to Ogunquit four years ago. "I knew the collection was good, but I didn't know it was this good."
The collection includes a variety of works by artists associated with the famed Ogunquit arts colony, including Edward Betts, Charles Woodbury, Field, and Robert Laurent, and several other Maine artists. But, Crusan says, the museum is also remarkable for the wide diversity of artists represented, including George Bellows, Rockwell Kent, Walt Kuhn, Gaston Lachaise, Augustus Saint-Gaudens, Childe Hassam, Edward Hopper, Yasuo Kuniyoshi, and others.
The best of the collection will be highlighted this year in the special "Sixty Works — 60 Years" anniversary exhibition, which runs May 8 through October.
"The exhibition will feature 60 of the most important works from the collection," says Crusan. "It may end up to be more than 60 pieces. We have so many good ones, it'll be hard to pick."
The exhibition will include works from the early days of the collection through the most recently-acquired works, and spread throughout four of the museum's recently spruced-up galleries.
The other anniversary year exhibition, "Andy Warhol: American Icon," will run July 12-Sept. 1. It will feature the photographs of Pat Hackett, Warhol's longtime friend and writing collaborator. Every morning beginning in 1976, Warhol would phone Hackett to relate the events of his past 24 hours — and what he thought about it all. Hackett would also frequently accompany Warhol, photographing his daily routines, along with his meetings with fellow artists and celebrities like Mick Jagger and Jacqueline Kennedy. The exhibition will feature 50 to 60 of Hackett's photographs, never before shown in public, along with original works of art by Warhol.
"Charles & Marcia: The Woodburys in Holland" will run Sept. 5 through October. Charles Woodbury was an influential member of the Ogunquit art colony, and founder of the Ogunquit Summer School of Drawing and Painting. Woodbury and his wife, Marcia, also an artist, first visited Holland on their honeymoon and returned several times to paint the Dutch landscape. This exhibition will showcase their work during their travels.
"Emerging Artists: 2013," will also run Sept. 5 through October. It features the work of three up-and-coming New England artists (they've not yet been selected), working in traditional to experimental media. "We're trying to make the museum more open to contemporary art and living artists," says Crusan.
We browsed the six galleries, freshly painted, with new floors and lighting, as workers prepared for the museum's grand 60th-year opening. Outside, we meandered the pocket gardens, landscaped lawns, and rocky ledge that spread across three acres. The gardens' strategically-placed sculptures were still wrapped in protective canvas, but spring flowers were beginning to pop. We sat on a bench overlooking the cove, and it was easy to imagine a budding artist, brush in hand, painting the inspired scene.
The Ogunquit Museum of American Art 543 Shore Road, 207-646-4909, www.ogunquitmuseum.org
. Daily 10 a.m.-5 p.m., May 8-Oct. 31. Admission $10, seniors and students $9.
Diane Bair and Pamela Wright can be reached at bairwright@