Travel

The renaissance of Rockland

The Center for Maine Contemporary Art boasts large exhibit spaces and showcases the work of a variety of local artists.
Pamela Wright for The Boston Globe
The Center for Maine Contemporary Art boasts large exhibit spaces and showcases the work of a variety of local artists.

There was a time when you wouldn’t want to stick around Rockland, Maine. This seaside town on the west side of Penobscot Bay was the ugly sister of the Midcoast, tough, run-down, and rough-around-the-edges.

But things have changed, and the once-gritty commercial center is fast becoming an artsy enclave, with a swelling cluster of studios and galleries, and a vibrant, growing community of artists, chefs, boatbuilders, sculptors, architects, and more.

“Rockland was saved by art,” says John Hanson, publisher of Maine Boats Homes & Harbors. “We’ve had the pioneers and a couple of generations of artists. But now we have young artists everywhere, coming to be around like-minded souls, and bringing a real sense of community and creative energy. You can feel it.”

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We headed north to check it out. The buzzing 250 Main (it opened in May 2016) is a 26-room, chic boutique hotel, and the place to stay, especially if you appreciate modern art and design (207-594-5994; www.250mainhotel.com). The open lobby has sleek industrial decor, along with wooden beams and tables made from the wood of old, salvaged boats (a nod to Rockland’s boatbuilding past and present). Creamy hues are accented by the colorful, contemporary works of local artists. Rooms are all unique but carry the upscale, chic design; most have water views. We arrived during the complimentary happy hour, and while the lobby was a fine place to linger, we headed to the rooftop terrace, with a sweeping harbor vista.

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The next stop on our Rockland art visit was the Farnsworth Art Museum (207-596-6457; www.farnsworthmuseum.org), highly regarded and considered one of the finest small museums in the country. The collection includes more than 15,000 works, showcasing American artists from the 18th century to the present, with a focus on artists who have lived or worked in Maine. We were fascinated by the Andrew Wyeth at 100: Maine Drawings exhibition of the artist’s rarely-seen drawings (running through March 4, 2018).

A short block away is the stunning, new Center for Maine Contemporary Art (207-701-5005; www.cmcanow.org), designed by award-winning architect and part-time Maine resident Toshiko Mori. The 11,500-square-foot building, which opened in June 2016, features large, wide-open spaces; even the offices are visible and on display here. “We wanted to be completely open and transparent,” says executive director and chief curator Suzette McAvoy of the building’s design. “We wanted to take the intimidation and sense of aloofness out of contemporary art.” McAvoy calls the open outdoor courtyard “a living room for the community,” and talks excitedly about the museum’s close and connected relationship with local artists. The Center hosts eight to 10 shows a year, with changing exhibits every three or four months, featuring the works of contemporary Maine artists. Feeling artsy? Drop in the Open Studio, where you’re welcome to use the art supplies to create your own masterpiece. And on First Friday Art Walks, there’s food and live entertainment in the courtyard.

Rockland’s artsy movement has gone hand-in-hand with its flourishing culinary scene. There are mainstays, like the well-known Primo restaurant, helmed by two-time James Beard Foundation Award-winning chef, Melissa Kelly (207-596-0770; www.primorestaurant.com) which continues to draw diners from around New England. The small and always bustling Café Miranda (207-594-2034; www.cafemiranda.com) is a longstanding local fave, with a huge menu of seriously good comfort food (try the lobster mac ’n cheese). On this trip, we checked out In Good Company (207-593-9110; www.ingoodcompanymaine.com), an intimate bistro on Main Street with a smart wine list and expertly-prepared dishes like the hot cherry peppers stuffed with provolone and prosciutto, curried Maine shrimp and haddock chowder, and the walnut-and-fontina-crusted beef tenderloin. If you’re a raw fish aficionado, don’t miss Suzuki’s Sushi Bar (207-596-7447; www.suzukisushi.com); chef owner Keiko Suzuki was nominated for a James Beard Award in 2017 and 2016. For breakfast, try the Home Kitchen Café (207-596-2449; www.homekitchencafe.com), and while in Rockland, the self-proclaimed Lobster Capital of the World, stop by the come-as-you-are Claws restaurant for a crustacean fix (207-596-5600; www.clawsrocklandmaine.com).

Many restaurants are clustered in the walkable downtown area, as are the town’s top galleries. We visited the pretty little Elm Street brick courtyard where the Caldbeck Gallery (207-594-5935; www.caldbeck.com) is located, one of the largest and oldest galleries in Rockland representing known and emerging Maine artists. The Craft Gallery (207-594-0167; www.craftonelm.com), housed in a 19th century carriage house anchoring the courtyard, represents the works of well-established, contemporary Maine artists. Asymmetrick Arts (207-594-2020; www.asymmetrickarts.com) on Main Street is known for its edgy exhibitions of local and national contemporary artists, while the beautiful Harbor Square Gallery (207-594-8700; www.harborsquaregallery.com), in an elegant 1912 brick building, is considered one of the finest galleries on the East coast, featuring fine art jewelry, sculptures, paintings, furniture and ceramics.

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Art is everywhere in this town, along Main Street, in rooftop and courtyard sculpture gardens, in tucked-away artist studios and galleries.

“It’s a far stronger art scene here than, say, in Portland,” says Hanson. “The galleries seem to do better here. But it goes beyond the galleries. It goes to the spirit of creativity that’s going on.”

We didn’t mind sticking around and soaking up some of that vibe.

Diane Bair and Pamela Wright can be reached at bairwright@gmail.com.