A NEW LIFE For a long-serving landmark.
"This is the vestibule," Blainor McGough says, gesturing at the entryway as she welcomes me into the former St. Ansgar's church on Mayo Street. She then explains that the purpose of the vestibule was to heighten people's experience as they enter the church, preparing for worship. McGough, director of the new non-profit Mayo Street Arts, had just been researching church architecture. The nave, where exhibitions and performances will be held, is painted a periwinkle blue, and light streams through stained-glass windows. "We have huge walls here. Because we're a non-profit we're going to be able to have more alternative installations, things that aren't necessarily saleable in other galleries. We're looking for artists who want to do big stuff," she says.
McGough is an artist herself, and was initially looking for studio space when she came upon a listing for the Mayo Street church on Craigslist. "I thought, my god, I used to come here for performances and take part in the Casco Bay Cabaret. I always thought it was a really beautiful and inspiring place," she says. McGough did some legwork, during which she learned that the building, owned by Burt's Bees founder Roxanne Quimby, would need to be occupied by a non-profit because it is in a residential neighborhood. This, to McGough, was a benefit: "Looking around, I realized that this neighborhood could really use an art center, a fun and happening place where people could make art and try things, be a part of it."
St. Ansgar's was built in 1898, a Danish Lutheran Church serving an immigrant community in the Bayside and Munjoy Hill neighborhoods. Built in a Gothic Revival style, the narrow pointed-arch windows and tower have back-dropped the gatherings of many different communities since it's founders. "The Jehovah's Witnesses were here in the '30s, in the '60s it was a hippie school, then it was a day care, and then A Company of Girls theater . . . so we're bringing it back to life," McGough says, "as a gathering place for people to share something and be inspired. It's really about the building; the structure is inspiring and enlightening, and when you come here you feel like something special is about to happen. Being in a place like this helps people be creative."
McGough's own studio will be located on the ground floor of the church, alongside six other studios recently built by her partner Bryan Arlet. Photographers, painters, and community organizations have already scooped up the intimate studio spaces, painted a fresh white and each containing a tall window. The artists will be working in close quarters, but will have full access to the space and events: " I think artists want to be in a space that is a whole community, they want to come upstairs and see a show, meet other artists, and cross-pollinate." On top of gallery shows, Mayo Street Arts will hold theater, music, dance, and literary events, as well as classes. McGough is a puppeteer, and intends to hold puppet-building workshops for neighborhood kids. Bellydancing and tango classes will also be available.