A tiny art museum spotlights big names like Picasso and Goya

When Sarah Jesse was an undergraduate majoring in art history at Oberlin College, she spruced up her dorm room with an original painting by Robert Rauschenberg. She remembers paying $5 to rent the artwork as part of her school’s unusual (and deeply trusting) practice of lending items from its collection to aesthetically oriented students.

The loan had a profound impact on Jesse, who recognized that her college placed more value on the notion that art should be accessible to everyone than on liability concerns. Today she is the director of the Academy Art Museum (AAM) in Easton, Md., which has a similar mission of accessibility. Established in 1958 by six locals, the tiny museum has a permanent collection that holds works from such figures as Francisco Goya, Mary Cassatt, Ansel Adams and Pablo Picasso, along with contemporary artists like Zanele Muholi, Graciela Iturbide and James Turrell. And it stages regular exhibitions of artists who are closer to home.

The museum — where admission is just $3 for adults — hosts workshops on subjects ranging from plein-air painting to printmaking. To attract a younger cohort, its Emerging Collectors Circle offers museum members 45 and younger one signed, limited-edition print by the museum’s artist-in-residence. “It’s always been our mission for the museum to act as a window, to provide a view that looks inward as well as outward,” Jesse told me.

All of this in a town formerly known for sea merchants and farmers tucked away on Maryland’s Eastern Shore. I count myself a bit of a museum junkie, and I had never even heard of AAM before a news release recently landed in my inbox announcing a major show: “Fickle Mirror: Dialogues in Self-Portraiture.” It included a Warhol from the National Gallery of Art. I decided to make the two-hour journey from DC across the Chesapeake Bay Bridge to Easton, population 17,000.

the town is quaint to the point that I mistook the three-story museum for a bed-and-breakfast; its Queen Anne facade matches those in the rest of the downtown. But once inside, the vibe is much more mini-MoMA.

What’s not in its permanent collection comes from major loans. “Fickle Mirror” included an early work by Amy Sherald, who painted the portrait of Michelle Obama that was commissioned by the National Portrait Gallery; the painting of hers at AAM, which came from a private collector, was a haunting self-portrait, part of her master of fine arts thesis. Also featured in the show was a soaring painting by Nigerian-born artist Njideka Akunyili Crosby titled “I Refuse to Be Invisible.” The work — one of the largest in the exhibit — came from the Crystal Bridges Museum of American Art, founded by Walmart heiress Alice Walton. With a shared vision of bringing great art to rural spaces, Crystal Bridges — in Bentonville, Ark. — funded the considerable cost to transport the work to Maryland.

“Fickle Mirror” closed in early October, but the museum plans to fill the space with an exhibit called “Mary Cassatt: Labor and Leisure.” The project will ask viewers to see Cassatt’s paintings and prints — images of the social and private lives of women as well as the intimate bonds between mothers and children — through the lens of the present day.

“I know, from firsthand experience, how transformative [art] can be,” says Jesse, 42, who grew up on a dirt road in rural Michigan with parents who both worked in the automotive industry. As a teen, she visited the Detroit Institute of Arts, where in the indoor courtyard she stumbled upon Diego Rivera’s murals, 27 panels depicting the evolution of the Ford Motor Co. In Rivera’s portraits of workers, she saw her parents. “The idea that a picture could have the power to spark strong reactions in people — including protests by some museumgoers — had a huge impact on me,” she recalls. “Since I was 16, I knew I wanted to work in museums. It’s been my goal to direct a museum for decades.”

She arrived at AAM in June 2021, after stints at the Philbrook Museum of Art in Tulsa and the Los Angeles County Museum of Art. The museum already had a core audience, but Jesse and curator Mehves Lelic are hoping to draw the nontraditional museumgoer through their doors. “Of course, we need to meet people where they are,” Jesse says, “but we also want to open them up to new ways of looking at contemporary art. What is beautiful? What is art? What is interesting?”

Lelic, who grew up in Istanbul and is an photographer, says it’s paramount to support area artists who serve their community — among them Baltimore-based Hoesy Corona, who created a commissioned piece that hangs in the museum’s light-filled atrium. Corona’s piece alludes to both climate change and immigration; for me, it recalled Jacob Lawrence’s “Migration” series, 60 paintings depicting the journeys of millions of Black Americans who left the Jim Crow South in search of better lives elsewhere.

Another factor helps AAM to draw visitors: Since 2015, developer Paul Prager has single-handedly been transforming the sleepy town. His company Bluepoint Hospitality, which owns and operates boutique restaurants and businesses in Easton, has also backed many local nonprofits and provided funding for AAM’s shows.

It was downtown, in fact, where I bumped into an acquaintance, Maire McArdle, a mixed-media artist who, along with her husband and fellow artist Steve Walker, now lives in Easton. The last time I saw her, she was living in Bethesda, Md., and working as a design director. After 25 years in Bethesda, the couple moved to Easton. “It picked us,” McArdle told me. “We knew we wanted to be in an art-centric community.” And yet, they discovered AAM only after moving here. Soon, Walker was teaching ceramics at the museum. The couple has also taught photography classes together at AAM.

While the museum has laid down strong roots in Easton, its director and its curator regularly visit studios and art shows in Philadelphia, New York City and elsewhere. “We are always looking at what’s been already made and what’s currently being made,” Lelic says. He adds Jesse: “The dialogue between the two” — the art of the past, the art of the present — “is what excites us.” That’s all to the benefit of their audience: art lovers on the Eastern Shore — and beyond — who are waiting to be thrilled.

Cathy Alter is a writer in Washington.

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