Mark H.C. Bessire
Judy & Leonard Lauder Director
Portland Museum of Art
The PMA is Maine’s leading arts organization and, at 140 years old, is among the oldest art museums in the country. Founded in 1882 by a group of artists, the museum now welcomes nearly 180,000 visitors annually, serving as the epicenter for culture, conversation, and community of northern New England.
Mark H.C. Bessire was named Judy and Leonard Lauder Director of the Portland Museum of Art in 2009. In the years since, Bessire has led the PMA through a period of unprecedented growth, evolution, and innovation across collections, exhibitions, audience engagement, community collaboration, and critically, diversity, equity, inclusivity, access, and sustainability.
Immediately upon arriving at the PMA, Bessire successfully navigated the museum through the tumultuous aftermath of the great recession of 2008. Through a focus on the museum’s endowment, Bessire ensured the PMA emerged from the economic crisis in a stable position and prepared to leverage upcoming opportunities in Portland, Maine, one of the nation’s most beloved and rapidly changing regions.
Simultaneously, Bessire preserved and expanded the museum’s collection of architecturally significant buildings, completing a $12.5 million campaign to purchase and restore the Winslow Homer Studio in Prouts Neck, Maine. Combined with the development of 94 Spring St., a property adjacent to the PMA’s downtown Portland campus, Bessire enabled the museum to preserve a substantial physical footprint for the arts in the heart of Maine’s largest city.
In 2013, Bessire initiated an ambitious $3 million multiyear project, Your Museum, Reimagined, which included a wide array of collections based components, including: The Collection Online, making the PMA one of only 13 museums nationwide to have their entire collection accessible online, in June 2015; the Peggy L. Osher Art Study and Collections Committee Room in January 2016; The Workshop, a multi-generational, participatory space for visitors to engage with themes, perspectives, and ideas through interactive exploration, in January 2016; The Collection: Highlights of the Portland Museum of Art, the PMA’s first-ever collection catalogue, in January 2016; and the cornerstone of the project, a museum-wide collection reinstallation with new in-gallery interpretation, in February 2017.
Following the successful launch of Your Museum, Reimagined, Bessire addressed other financial and physical barriers of access to the museum, opening the David E. Shaw Family Sculpture Park as a free space to the public, and launching the Susie Konkel Pass, which provides free admission to all visitors 21 years old and younger. The Susie Konkel Pass continues to be a benchmark for museums across the country.
The changes led by Bessire around accessibility immediately began attracting more visitors, with annual attendance jumping 10% year over year from 2016 through 2020. At the same time, and during this period of record growth, he remained committed to building upon a solid foundation supported by diversity, equity, accessibility, and inclusivity (DEAI).
In 2016, Bessire began collaborating with staff around a more comprehensive and transparent approach toward strategic goals, PMA culture, and identity for the museum. Through staff retreats, workshops, advisory groups, surveys, and more, Bessire worked in partnership with staff across every role at the PMA to develop and update the museum’s mission, vision, values, and strategic plan. The resulting mission, Art for All, centers the PMA’s future endeavors around the values of courage, equity, service, sustainability, and trust, and envisions the museum as a central gathering place where a strong artistic vision and the collection drive conversation, creativity, cultural vitality, and economic impact.
Bessire’s dedication to museum staff, transparency, partnership, and dialogue proved critical in 2020 as the world faced seismic cultural, political, social, and environmental shifts spurred by the COVID-19 pandemic, Black Lives Matter movement, 2020 election, and worsening climate crisis. Whereas many cultural institutions found themselves ill-equipped to adjust to rapidly evolving outside forces, the PMA Bessire had nurtured was able to retain high levels of staffing throughout the pandemic, develop impactful programming that platformed artists and leaders from the museum’s BIPOC communities, champion social justice, and launch the country’s first youth art prize aimed exclusively at climate solutions, The Tidal Shift Award.
In February 2022, Bessire announced The PMA Blueprint: Building A Landmark For The Future, an $85 million dollar project based on community, collection, and campus. At the heart of The PMA Blueprint is a call for a paradigm shift for museums, in order to deliver on the promise of Art for All. This shift will be embodied by a new, architecturally significant, and innovative building at 142 Free St, a property adjacent to the PMA’s iconic Charles Shipman Payson Building that the museum purchased in 2019. The PMA Blueprint envisions the museum as a keystone for Maine’s communities, a catalyst for its economy, and a backbone of its identity.
Throughout Bessire’s tenure, the PMA has been defined as an institution that strives to create space for community and serve as a place of belonging. Outside the museum, Bessire champions those same values across various civic roles and encourages greater collaboration among community stakeholders in order to draw attention to the importance of arts and cultural tourism to the state economy. He played a significant role in the revitalization of Congress Square and similar initiatives to make the downtown Portland Arts District more pedestrian friendly, aesthetically pleasing, and ultimately a place that will attract more visitors and greater revenue for the city. Bessire is a board member of the Association of Art Museum Directors, on the Board of Advisors at SPACE Gallery, an advisory group member at Indigo Arts Alliance, and has served as a member of the Maine Arts Commission. He is a founding board member of the non-profit organization Africa Schoolhouse, which is dedicated to building schools in rural Africa. Bessire resides with his family in Portland, Maine.
Prior to serving as Director of the PMA, Bessire was the Director of the Bates College Museum of Art in Lewiston, Maine, where he initiated a Collections Project Series, worked with departments to create cross-disciplinary exhibitions through a Synergy Fund, exhibited Chinese art to support Bates’ strong Asian Studies program, and strengthened the Friends of the Museum program. From 1998 to 2003, he served as Director of the Institute of Contemporary Art at the Maine College of Art in Portland, Maine, where he organized many exhibitions, including The Photography of Ike Ude and Eracism: William Pope.L, which traveled nationally and was accompanied by an MIT Press Publication.
Bessire holds an M.B.A. from Columbia University, an M.A. in Art History from Hunter College, and a B.A. from New York University. He was a Helena Rubinstein Fellow at the Whitney Museum of Art and a Fulbright Fellow in Tanzania. He has published widely, including three books with MIT Press, has organized numerous traveling exhibitions, and has participated on national art juries.