Donna McNeil is a fabulous woman with vibrant energy, a throaty laugh, and the kind of flexible self-confidence that allows her to approach life with clarity and head-on enthusiasm.
For the past 27 years, Donna has applied her extraordinary talents to the arts in Maine. First as the director of several galleries, then as the Executive Director of the Maine Arts Commission. Currently she is the Executive Director of the Ellis Beauregard Foundation. Her career in arts administration is grounded in her training and work as a visual artist.
Stepping into Donna’s home offers lessons in beauty, simplicity, and the power of personal choices. Take a peek inside.
"I think everyone should live with beauty."
Three words to describe yourself:
Fearless, curious and playful
Corey Daniels Gallery
Favorite decade for design/fashion:
Biggest fashion regret:
All perms. And the 1980s, except for Norma Kamali.
Secret to her extraordinary hair:
"There's no secret. It's completely natural." (Dammit)
Recently traveled to:
THE MAINERS: You have great style and a strong aesthetic. Is that influenced by your training as an artist?
DONNA MCNEIL: I think artists are really tuned in to their world in a very unique way because they're sourcing it all the time for inspiration. And you just understand how things talk to each other, how one object should be placed near another object or across the room. And you understand sight lines, like viewing something from every angle and how it has to be pleasing and harmonious from every approach.
These are tenets that you can overlay onto your life philosophy, too. It's not just the visual arts. Harmony, things working from every angle—these are great philosophical tenets no matter what you're talking about.
THE MAINERS: Your home certainly fits the tenet of harmony.
DONNA: Sometimes people will say to me, "Your house is highly curated." But I don't look at it that way. I mean, maybe? But it's just considered in a certain way. I don't want to look at stuff that's ugly.
THE MAINERS: I think that design, and beauty, can often be associated with expense, and the whole thing becomes intimidating.
DONNA: You can make beautiful things that are inexpensive. I think everybody should live with beauty. And it really frustrates me that we aren't teaching people that, that we aren’t training a kind of national aesthetic. We're not lifting it up because we produce so much crap.
THE MAINERS: What do you think should influence our national aesthetic?
DONNA: I think it's important to go to museums and galleries and antique shops. Places that train your eye and help you to understand the history of design, the history of objects, and the history of making. Just soak it in and let that build.
THE MAINERS: Where else do you look for interior design inspiration, or creative inspiration in general?
DONNA: I hound antique and junk shops. I look at magazines. I imagine.
THE MAINERS: Who are your style icons?
DONNA: Georgia O’Keefe and Tilda Swinton.
THE MAINERS: From what I can gather, you are always impeccably dressed. What’s your ideal outfit?
DONNA: Comfortable and architectural.
THE MAINERS: Do you have a favorite fashion designer?
DONNA: Rei Kawakubo [founder of Comme des Garcons].
THE MAINERS: As an artist and curator, do you always trust your creative instincts?
DONNA: Absolutely. You just know. And you let the knowing happen, you don't second guess your knowing.
THE MAINERS: Does that same knowing apply to your personal life?
DONNA: Absolutely. Although I think it can be scary to manage money and health and your life alone, when you don’t have anyone to bounce things off of.
And there’s always the question of how much do you indulge yourself, and how much is practical? How much is impractical? Sometimes the impracticalities of life are the very best things you ever do. When do you allow that to happen? And when do you deny yourself?
I’m not so much a proponent of denying yourself anything. But ultimately, I’m a very practical person. So I thrive in hedonism based on prudence.
"I trust myself, I trust my capabilities. I am really fearless, I'm very strong. And it's not weighty either. I'm just standing on my own two feet."
THE MAINERS: Being in the same space as you, I get the sense that you trust yourself completely.
DONNA: I do. I trust myself, I trust my capabilities. I am really fearless, I'm very strong. And it's not weighty either. I'm just standing on my own two feet.
THE MAINERS: This may be too personal. But part of your strength seems to stem from your independence. You live alone and you’ve never been married. Did you deliberately sidestep marriage, or do you have interest in it?
DONNA: I have interest in marriage. I think marriage can be wonderful. I look at people who have genuine love—a caring, shared responsibility for each other. Tenderness, kindness. I think it's lovely. What I don't like are dependencies and abusive relationships. Even though on the smallest level, like, "Oh, what a jerk." You know? I think I'm super idealistic about it, which is probably why I never got there.
THE MAINERS: What would get you there?
DONNA: I think I'd want to wake up and have somebody really happy to see me there. And express that, just for a moment. Then you can go and do all the myriad things you have to do, but just slight acknowledgements when you encounter each other, that this is it, you're the special one.
THE MAINERS: That’s a lovely way to look at marriage.
DONNA: If I found the right person I would get married now, at 70.
THE MAINERS: You would need to find your ideal.
DONNA: It would have to be extraordinary.
"I ground through nature.
I ground through yoga. Nature truly gives me solace and it heals me. If I'm ever in a bad place, I go outside. It's really my best friend."
THE MAINERS: Where did you grow up?
DONNA: I was born in Wurtzburg, Germany. My father was stationed there right after World War II. My mother was a nurse in the military, my father was a pilot, and they met through flying the wounded out during the war.
We moved around the whole United States and also spent three years in England. I didn’t have a home town.
THE MAINERS: That’s a very distinct way to grow up.
DONNA: I think that the palette was rich and nothing became ordinary. Nothing became wallpaper. With familiarity, you can start taking things for granted.
THE MAINERS: How do you prevent things from becoming ordinary here?
DONNA: Well, in my house I move the furniture and the paintings around all the time. This used to be the living room, for example. Now it's the dining room. And in my garden, I move the plants around.
THE MAINERS: I was going to ask if you had any daily routines, but I’m guessing I know the answer.
DONNA: I used to say to myself that I never did anything twice in the same order. I just really feel freer if I don't have routine, which is odd because some people hold on to routine as a way to feel grounded. But I just don't want to bore myself.
THE MAINERS: How do you stay grounded?
DONNA: I ground through nature. I ground through yoga. Nature truly gives me solace and it heals me. If I'm ever in a bad place, I go outside. It's really my best friend.
"...[Maine's] beauty, its unpretentiousness.
I like how it brings you back to the things that matter in life."
THE MAINERS: What about Maine inspires you?
DONNA: Its beauty, its unpretentiousness. I like how it brings you back to the things that matter in life.
If you can engage in a creative work and live your life, that's a huge success, even though it isn't measured by any of our typical standards. The money and the house and the car.
THE MAINERS: Do you feel that Maine is a good place to work creatively?
DONNA: I do. I think Maine is a place where lots of people put together a life with lots of jobs. There is less of a corporate mentality here. There’s some flexibility and some self-determination. You live here because you want to live here. And you figure the rest out.
THE MAINERS: And finally, are there any young Maine artists you’re keeping an eye on?
DONNA: I’m always watching Anna Hepler.