In her first year of college as a prelaw major, Suzette McAvoy was required to take a survey course, and she chose art history. Her teacher became her mentor, and helped her to see art history as multidimensional, not just a story of setting, but of politics, fashion, religion, science and culture, the whole gamut of human emotion and endeavors. She was “hooked” and it became her major. She saw historical objects from the point of view of the maker, the wearer and the culture it came from. She became aware that art could speak across time, and that art can be a universal language that binds us all.

McAvoy, now executive director and chief curator of CMCA, shared her story in a presentation given by McAvoy, Donna McNeil and Susan Danly, three women who have had major roles in the Maine arts community. The event was held on January 14 at CMCA, presented by MidCoast Women in their “Collective Voices” series, in collaboration with CMCA and the Farnsworth Museum.

In McAvoy’s first year as the Farnsworth Museum’s curator, having been hired by Chris Crossman, another mentor in her career, she had the opportunity to curate a show of artist Lois Dodd’s work spanning the previous 25 years. Dodd’s work and vision inspired McAvoy; she describes Dodd as a “keen observer of life” and quoted Dodd as saying, “not everyone seems to see the world that they’re living in, and it’s such a kick – really seeing things.” McAvoy pointed out that after one sees Dodd’s paintings, and then looks upon the moon, a summer field with spider webs, or clothes on a line, they’ll not see them the same way again.

She considers her role as curator to help people learn to look, to see the world around them in new ways. She has always enjoyed the “soup to nuts” of developing an exhibition, like the studio visits, talks with the artists, hanging the work, invitations and publicity.

There have been many mentors at key points in McAvoy’s career, like when she was at a crossroads in choosing a speciality and one conveyed to her that not everyone needs to be a specialist. She sees her role as showing what art is, what it can be made from, what form it takes and what it can be about. “It’s not a job, it’s a way of life.”

While attending college in the Midwest, Susan Danly took a summer job on Monhegan Island, off the coast of Maine, and the experience became a catalyst for expanding her horizons, and later on in her career for returning to Maine. When she went back to school after that summer, she began to take an interest in art history, taking whatever class was available, and her interest grew from there. Her mentors have appeared at pivotal points in her career, from entering the museum program at Brown University, to being hired to add American art to the collection of the Huntington Library in Los Angeles. Settling on American art, she has developed a special interest in the history of American photography. Her mentors have been both men and women who have offered invaluable help at various points in her 30-year career. She has had the opportunity to curate at museums across the country, and has written numerous books and catalogues about American art.

While living in London as a child of an Air Force family, Donna McNeil found a meaningful mentor in her fifth grade teacher, who took the class to the many museums there, offering free rein for the kids to explore. She felt the teacher instilled a self determination that has sustained her throughout her career. Her undergraduate degree was in painting, but she chose to go on to get a master’s degree in art history from Harvard. She worked in a frame shop and eventually bought the business. She rearranged the layout to create a gallery space, and her curatorial work began. After that, she became director of a dance company, learning arts administration on the job. Her appreciation for performing grew after seeing the immediacy of these performances: “there is no erasing.”

Her interest in arts advocacy grew with another mentor, the director of Maine Arts Commission, who hired her as an associate, then an assistant. When he retired, she took on the directorship. She has felt particularly proud that her emphasis on direct support to individual artists changed the focus of the organization’s funding. Once retired from that position, she became the director of a nonprofit foundation that offers individual artists studio space and assistance. Her confidence that “I alone am enough” has sustained her, and she has felt her background as an art maker has made her a better curator. She ended her presentation with a quote from another mentor, Fred Rogers: “I talked you into talking, I sang you into singing, I laughed you into laughing, I loved you into loving.”

Vas Prabhu orchestrated the question-and-answer period that followed the talks. One question was, how even is the distribution of positions in museums between men and women? The group all seemed to agree that things are changing as more women rise in the ranks, but equality is still not there yet in the top positions. Also, curating and art history are not traditionally very high-paying fields, but they can be satisfying and rewarding; of course, it can be a big help to find those mentors who inspire you.

For more information about Midcoast Women, visit midcoastwomen.org or Facebook. The next event in the “Collective Voices” series is coming up in February: “Stepping up to the Plate.” Tuesday, February 11, 6:30 to 7:45 p.m. at the Rockland Public Library.