Born on the backs of volunteers and built inside a former Wendy’s, SPACE Gallery’s opening night on First Friday, August 2nd, 2002, brought 500 people to Maine’s new home for art, artists, and ideas. In the less than ten years since the group art show opened that night, SPACE has gone on to host thousands more happenings, concerts, exhibitions, screenings, people, and performances. Jon Courtney and Todd Bernard founded SPACE Gallery in 2002 alongside an active group of community members and backed by the visionary support of SPACE’s original landlord, architect Christopher Campbell. SPACE quickly became Portland’s preeminent alternative contemporary arts venue and paved the way for a more diverse and revitalized Congress Street Arts district alongside the city’s anchor institutions. Jon Courtney currently programs films at the Portland Museum of Art and Todd Bernard is now involved with Empire, just up the street.
Nat May, our first Executive Director, became involved with the founders after a half of year of programming. May and SPACE were founding partners of the national Common Field network, and SPACE helped oversee Common Field’s financial operations before it gained its own nonprofit status in 2018. May continues to serve on the board of Common Field and is the Executive Director of Hewnoaks Artist Colony.
SPACE continues to be grateful for the help of the many community volunteers, initial supporters, and early staff members who quickly made important efforts to build the organization into what it is today and became a formal 501(c)3 in 2003. No one who built SPACE, or worked there within the first two years, received a paycheck. The mission quickly crystalized into identifying the things that weren’t happening—whether that meant electronic music, hip-hop or experimental immersive art installations—and commit to bringing them to Portland.
The early days of SPACE are the stuff of Portland lore: memorable bands played to intimate audiences, other shows drew packed sweaty crowds for bands that have since come and gone. British author Zadie Smith came to read from her prize-winning novel White Teeth, and turned over a 5-gallon paint bucket to sit down and prepare herself in our basement which has since become the a formal green room. By 2003, galvanized by a strong community of collaborators, regular audiences, volunteers, and constant newcomers, it was time for SPACE to turn an experiment into an organization. The Maine Arts Commission gave SPACE it’s first grant to bring the Human Rights Watch Film Festival to Portland, which diversified the entertainment spectrum to include social justice and ideas. By the end of that summer, SPACE was granted tax-exemption from the IRS, which allowed the organization to seek further funding, including an invaluable early $40,000 gift from the Engelhard Foundation.
What was originally called The Annex (and is now our dedicated gallery space) opened on July 1, 2011, right next door at 534 Congress after a major first-floor building rennovation. In 2015, SPACE launched a capital campaign Claiming SPACE, which allowed the organization to buy the entire building, also home to 30 affordable below-market artist studios and Pickwick Independent Press. SPACE has since grown to host an artist-in-residence program generously supported by the National Endowment of the Arts in a repurposed studio upstairs. We also proudly administer the Kindling Fund, part of the Andy Warhol Foundation for the Visual Arts re-granting network, making over $65,000 in direct grants to artist-led projects throughout the state of Maine annually.
The landmark Congress Street building, the Durant Block, has historical designation and has existed in many forms, namely as a corset store, a pizza shop, and a Wendy’s. The building was originally an early 20th-century hotel with a stringed musical instrument maker housed inside. Now it currently houses SPACE’s main multi-disciplinary venue, the dedicated gallery space, the window gallery, our offices, Pickwick Independent Press, the artist residency studio, and SPACE Studios. SPACE is not formally involved with the independent entities run out of the studios upstairs or Pickwick Independent Press, but we identify as an active artist community and seek opportunities to collaborate between the floors of our building.