Radio Maine Episode 31 

Fred Williams: Collecting Art & Supporting the Community

Fred Williams traces his love for art back to his childhood, when he accompanied his parents on a visit to an artist’s studio located on Hancock Point in Downeast Maine. From a longstanding Maine family, his parents met at the University of Maine in Orono, and bought their first piece of art from one of their professors. Fred says that connecting with artists is something that he treasures to this day, as he continues to surround himself with art at his home in Portland, Maine. The founder of the well-respected investment management firm, Old Port Advisors in Portland, Fred has been in the financial services business for four decades. He has supported non-profit organizations--many of them with an art focus--equally as long. Joining Radio Maine from his Munjoy Hill home, Fred shares his deep respect for and admiration of artists William Crosby, Joyce Grasso, Fred Lynch, Missy Asen and many more. Listen in to learn more about Fred’s art collecting, philanthropy and professional transition, this week on Radio Maine with Dr. Lisa Belisle.


Dr. Lisa Belisle:

Hello, this is Dr. Lisa Belisle and you are listening to, or watching Radio Maine. Today I have with me art appreciator and collector, Fred Williams. Fred it's so nice to be talking to you today, we're kind of across the water from you in Portland where you're located. 

Fred Williams:

Yes. Correct. Up on Munjoy Hill.

Dr. Lisa Belisle:

Now you've been collecting art for quite a while. It's a passion of yours I understand. 

Fred Williams:

Yes. I mean, it came to me from my parents early on in life. It's not just about the stuff that's on the wall,  I like to be connected to the artists behind it. So there's a bunch of stories about that. 

Dr. Lisa Belisle:

Oh, well, good. Because you're in the right place to tell those stories. Do you want to start with the art that's behind you on the wall right now? 

Fred Williams:

Yes, actually that's quite funny. So that's a Fred Lynch that I was fortunate enough to get at a CMCA auction a few years before he unfortunately passed. But it's a piece that went through the entire auction process and was never purchased by anyone. So all I had seen was an electronic image of it. So I went to the desk and said, I'd pay X for it. And I thought I was getting something that was probably 12 by 20. And as you can see, it's a little bit bigger than that. But I enjoy it. It is the figurehead piece that's in the dining room right now.

Dr. Lisa Belisle:

So the CMCA, tell me what that is for those who are listening and aren't aware. 

Fred Williams:

So the Center for Maine Contemporary Artists,  we have been supporters professionally for that organization for a number of years.  They used to, pre COVID, have an annual art auction. That was just spectacular. I mean, it really does showcase many of the Maine contemporary artists, which is kind of where my passion is in terms of type of art.

Dr. Lisa Belisle:

Why contemporary artists? 

Fred Williams:

I think that was instilled in me by my parents.  My mom and dad were University of Maine graduates and the first piece of art that they bought when they were married was this guy Harken, who was an art professor at the University of Maine that both my mom and dad took classes from. And then probably, you know, maybe when I was 10, 11, 12, something like that, we were back in Maine visiting. And they took us to see an artist who lived near the top of Hancock Point. And I was able to walk into this guy's studio. And the part that kind of got me hooked was it, as I said, a couple of minutes ago, it's not just about the art that's on the wall, but there's a process behind it that the artists go through. And when I walked into this guy’s studio, his name was Bill Moyes, he had art in various, stages of being produced. He had started one thing. He didn't like it. He threw it over in the corner, he'd started something else. And then he dropped that for a little while. And what I got to see was the continuum of all of these things that he was doing. And that was what hooked me, because he kind of explained what he was up to. My mom and dad subsequently bought a couple of his pieces and they hang in our home up the coast right now. And it's contemporary, which is what I enjoy. 

Dr. Lisa Belisle:

And is there something about the artist in general being still someone that you can connect with on a personal basis? So I know obviously the artist that did the piece behind you is no longer with us, but having that personal connection with the individual for you, seems important. 

Fred Williams:

It is. I mean, some of the artists, obviously I can't know or meet. I mean there's a stairway in my house that has got a number of Haitian artists and that's really a connection to the school that I went to in New York.  They have the Vassar Haiti project and what they do is acquire art from artists in Haiti, bring it back to the states, sell it, and then send those dollars back to a number of humanitarian projects that they have going in north Haiti right now. Now I'm never going to meet those guys, but, you know, Monica Kelly, who is the executive director of Bay Chambers, which I'm on the board of, she's got a couple of pieces here, a couple of pieces in an  Ohio project that we're involved in right now.  George Mason was a neighbor of my brothers, Missy Asen and her husband are friends. So yes, I relate to the art because of the connection to the artist. I'm not such a purist that I just look at it and piece by itself and think, oh, that's great. I think I want that on my wall, but I have a human connection with most of the artists. 

Dr. Lisa Belisle:

So walking around the place where you live is like walking around, hanging out with your friends on a regular basis. 

Fred Williams:

Yes. I mean, you know, in the kitchen, I've got a couple of origami butterflies and that goes back to my college roommate in New York.  Tolo is this incredibly gifted origami artist. He had a show in the Bronx,  probably maybe three or four years ago when he started this particular motif. And I mean, they're just spectacular. I look at them. And obviously it reminds me of Tolo everyday when I walk into my kitchen.  But yes, it's the human connection.

Dr. Lisa Belisle:

Professionally you chose a different path. You're not an artist in the strictest sense of the word yourself. 

Fred Williams:

Far from it. You know, I mean there are the visual arts, there are the performing arts, there are the literary arts, and I guess I'd say0 for 3 in that batting category, because that's not something that I'm involved in.  We're in the kind of family management I'd like to say, or family counseling businesses with regard to money, but it's very different from this that’s here. 

Dr. Lisa Belisle:

At the same time, you've had a strong interest in philanthropy, in connecting with nonprofits, and really  having a strong relationship with the community and with good works being done.  Not only in your community, but also in the state of Maine. 

Fred Williams:

Yes. I mean, I think that as business people, we have an obligation to give back to the community in some way. I mean, part of it is volunteering.  But if you think about all of the arts, they really contribute significantly to the fabric of our community. I mean, if we didn't have them to just think how barren it would be. So I encourage our employees, our colleagues, or associates to get involved. It's volunteering time, which is a precious commodity.  But we also like to provide, you know, monetary support where we can. We want to see the arts flourish because it makes our community just a better place to be. 

Dr. Lisa Belisle:

You're the founder and principal shareholder of Old Port Advisors, which you established as an investment management consulting group in 1994. What's it been like to really be responsible for your own business, your own group, and kind of the day-to-day operations that the risk of which falls squarely on your shoulders? 

Fred Williams:

I'd like to say that I did it all myself, but I did not. I was fortunate enough and continue to be fortunate enough to have some great colleagues that are around me that help shoulder the burden.  When I started the business, I was the youngster in the firm and now I'm the old dude. And the youngsters are doing a great job, running a great business for a lot of really good people that we serve. So yes, it's not without its ups and downs. It's not without its stresses, but you know, that's like any business. 

Dr. Lisa Belisle:

You've been in the financial services industry in the Northeast for more than 40 years. So I'm going to assume that you've seen some changes take place. What are some of the biggest things that you've noticed? 

Fred Williams:

Well, until you said that Lisa, I didn't realize it was 40 years, so that's just a symptom of my age at this point in time.  Yes, it's changed tremendously. I mean, I think that technology has had a huge impact on what goes on in the industry.  I also think that it's evolved from, I mean, when I started in the business, I worked for a company called EF Hutton and we were stockbrokers. You know, it was all about a transaction. If you look at the evolution of the industry now, you know, what we are is we are family counselors, you know, we're dealing with multiple generations, we're dealing with concerns, we're dealing with insecurities and it's a very different relationship. I mean, I'm proud to say that, you know, we have clients in our firm who have been with me for almost 40 years where we're dealing with the children and the children of the children.  And that's a testament to the colleagues and employees that we have, they do a great job.

Dr. Lisa Belisle:

When you mentioned the youngsters and you use that word, not me, so in your firm, what is it that they bring to the table that you find particularly interesting and valuable? 

Fred Williams:

 They bring a different and more updated perspective.  I have to admit, that as time has gone by, I'm no longer on the leading edge, I've kind of migrated to the lagging edge. And, so I have to take their lead in terms of how things are evolving in the industry, as far as the business goes. So that's been great. I mean, they bring perspectives that I don't necessarily have. I don't want to necessarily say that I'm old and set in my ways, but on a relative basis, apparently I'm old and set in my ways.  But they do a tremendous job enhancing the growth of the business and the direction of the business. So I love it. I think it's great.

Dr. Lisa Belisle:

At the same time having been in this field for a number of years, you've seen several financial downturns on the worldwide market. So that being the case, you have some historical perspective that it would be impossible for people just new to the game to have. 

Fred Williams:

Yes, we affectionately refer to them as black and blue marks in the office. If you think about the amount of time that I've been in the business, starting in the late seventies, you know, we had the crash in 1987, we had various crises during the late nineties, the internet bubble popped in 2001, we had the Great Recession. And then obviously last year we saw, you know, the COVID impact. Those are things that are the realities of what a global economy is and what we have to be able to be prepared to do is accept that that's what the world really is. You know, there's a lot of investment geniuses when the markets are going straight up and then all of a sudden they're not so smart. I think a real test of time is perspective because, you know, you have to recognize that there are going to be times when things get really difficult. And I think that tests the metal of all of us in the industry. 

Dr. Lisa Belisle:

How has this been helpful for you over the last, let's just say two years, because we're now in a place where we’re much further into COVID than I think a lot of people hoped that we would be, there's still a lot of uncertainty. Certainly we aren't at a place where everybody is locked down and behind closed doors, but we're going back into the autumn with different variants popping up. And the fear has never really completely left, but we're kind of in it for the long haul now. How has this past perspective on the economy in different eras changed the way you look at things in the last two years? 

Fred Williams:

Well, one of the things that we'd like to focus on in our business is behavioral finance, because, you know, you can talk about economics and you can talk about the markets, but it's really how people react to those things. That is what our industry is. And if you think back to early 2020, everybody thought that the world was going to end and even as bad as that was, the perspective was, you know, we've gone through things similar, perhaps not the same. You know, Mark Twain says that history doesn't repeat itself, but oftentimes it rhymes.  I think that part of what we've recognized is that our job is to make sure that we manage the emotions of the people we work with. And the perspective I think is that you get these extremes in terms of how reactions are, I think it was an extreme reaction in 2020, when the markets crashed, I would suggest that perhaps the rebound has been maybe a little more enthusiastic than it should have been. We'll probably have, as you pointed out, some tough times as we go into the fall. And I think our job is to manage the expectations of our clients relative to what those realities are going to be. 

Dr. Lisa Belisle:

I think there are actually several parallels to the field that I'm in, in healthcare where, you know, we've had to do the same thing. I mean, obviously we're dealing with health issues, but people's emotions are strongly tied to their health. So the ability to have some realism, but also, you know, some hopeful framing around the situation, I think has been very helpful. And I know some of my younger colleagues,  early on in the pandemic that was hard for them to have, because they had never really been through themselves personally, as adults, such a big and scary event. 

Fred Williams:

Yes. I mean, there is an advantage for us being mature and seasoned because we then better understand what we can expect in the world. So yes, you're right. Absolutely spot on. 

Dr. Lisa Belisle:

I think I'm going to use that term “seasoned''. I continue to search for the right term. Some people call it “vintage”, as I think I've said before on the show, I say, “walk the planet”. So, I like “seasoned”. I'm going to go with that one in the future. When we've talked to other people on this show before, one of the things that continues to crop up is the idea that art itself enables us to maintain hope, that we've had people we've talked to on the show that not only continued to acquire art during the pandemic, but actually stepped up their acquisition of art, because that was an important way of maintaining a frame that enabled them to move forward. Did you find that to be true yourself or are you? 

Fred Williams:

Yes. We're involved in a real estate project in Ohio.  This particular footprint here is something we're trying to replicate out there. We've already talked about the fact that art is oftentimes a relationship with the artist, but if you think about what the artist is doing, the artist is trying to portray, most of the time, you know, unless it's dark art, but most of the time there's something positive and uplifting that the artist is trying to express through the work that they do. And although art can be regional, so one of the themes here is art of the Northeast,  there's other artists that are here as well. And we're finding in the Midwest that there's similar, different regional pieces, but they're all based on some sort of positive outlook about what's happening. 

Fred Williams:

You know, Missy Asen’s Koi Fish over there. There's nothing sad about those Koi fish swimming around. I mean, every day that I look at it, it's kind of a positive experience. So yes, I mean, I think that looking at the art obviously appreciating, which is what I'm more of than anything else, there is a positive impact to that, but I do think that one of the things that we did experience over the course of the last year is that people were really in fact stepping up and acquiring more art because they wanted, I mean, part of the argument was if you're closed in, then you might as well look at walls that have something nice hanging on them. Maybe that's part of the story. But I do think that there was a commitment by many people to kind of add to their contribution to what their community was. Buying art is actually putting other assets back into the hands of artists to produce more good stuff. That's a good cycle to be in, I think. A very good cycle to be in, particularly during COVID. 

Dr. Lisa Belisle:

Absolutely. I think when we buy art, what we're doing is we're telling people who create that art, we value their contribution to the world. And, it's a much bigger statement than simply I'm going to go get some cereal off the shelf, which, you know, we can, obviously it costs less, but also, you know, that's kind of an anonymous contribution to the economy, not a bad one, but it's something we need art is a very specific statement that we're making. 

Fred Williams:

Yes, absolutely. I think that as I've looked over the course of the last year,  I'm fortunate enough to be starting to run out of wall space here. So I have to target what it is that we're requiring.  But,  the idea of continuing to find great art is like an adventure. You travel around and all of a sudden you go, wow, I love that. So of course then the problem B is you buy the art and then you have to find the wall. But that's a good problem to have. 

Dr. Lisa Belisle:

Yes, I agree. Behind me on the wall, we have a Joyce Grasso and my understanding is that you actually have some Joyce Graso in your home as well. 

Fred Williams:

Yes. Joyce lives next to Fred and next to a Billy boy,  Bill Crosby. 

Dr. Lisa Belisle:

You mean like on your wall, her pieces live next to one another. 


Fred Williams:

Yes, exactly. 


Dr. Lisa Belisle:

So what is it about Joyce Grasso and Bill Crosby, both of whom are Portland Art Gallery artists, that appeal to you? 

Fred Williams:

Well, I mean, first of all, they're contemporary impressionists, which, you know, if you look at the guy behind me, that's the ultimate. And if you look at their art, it's interpretive of stuff that we see regionally in the Northeast. I mean the one to my left is of a portion of the Prouts Neck area. Bill, he'll put a label on it and then I'll decide what it is that I'm looking at. I enjoy that art because it's interpretive. I mean, there's great things like John Neville's piece of a fishing dock in Canada. It’s great, I know exactly what it is that I'm looking at, but when I look at these, it could be different every day. And that's part of the enjoyment. 

Dr. Lisa Belisle:

It's true. The piece that I have behind me, the Joyce Graso, I mean, there's a lot of different ways that people could look at this and come away with something different, which, you know, their experience versus my experience. And it's nice that you can actually personalize it that way as well. 

Fred Williams:

Yes. I actually looked at a piece of Joyce's last night that I think we're going to acquire. Because it's very different than one than the one I have on the wall. That was just to continue the process. 

Dr. Lisa Belisle:

Well, you're talking about something that I've been thinking about somewhat more lately because Jane Dahmen has a show right now with several artists at the art gallery that just opened last night. And her pieces now are very different from the ones that she first came to the gallery with several years ago. I mean, I was actually talking to my father, who's a doctor, he's not an artist. And he was talking to me about the different ways that she does trees. And when I went back and I looked at what she did a long time ago, the trees that she once did, the piece that we have on our wall from even before we knew her to the pieces that are in the show right now,  to the pieces that she did during COVID and not that long after her husband passed away. I mean, it's fascinating to see this evolution of her craft and you know, it's a wonderful thing to kind of be part of that. 

Fred Williams:

Yes. I mean, obviously artists and art are not stagnant. They're not static. They're human beings who are going through a process, so you're going to see that process of life in their art, you know?  And I think that's wonderful because it's a different experience each time you look at it. 

Dr. Lisa Belisle:

How did you end up in New York, if both of your parents went to the University of Maine? What was that trajectory like? And now you've boomeranged back. Thank goodness for us. And you've been here for quite a while now. 

Fred Williams:

Yes, so my family is all from Maine.  My mom and dad grew up in Bangor and Orono. They met as freshmen at the University of Maine. They got married their junior year and my dad was something back then called an electrical engineer, which really is code for a computer scientist. So, he was hired by IBM (International Business Machines Corporation), affectionately known as “I've been moved.” And we moved to the Hudson Valley of New York three months before I was born. And so my brother and I grew up in the Hudson Valley, but we always came back to Maine because Maine is where all of our family for the most part has been. Then when I came back to graduate school, I was in Portland. I was convinced I was going to go back to New York, but I've been hooked since 1978. So I'm very glad that I'm here. I love it. 

Dr. Lisa Belisle:

Well, you and I have several commonalities there because my parents also met both of them at the University of Maine. I think it was not their freshman year, but then they ended up getting married. They also moved to a different state where I was born and we ended up back in Maine again. And ever since then, I have not been allowed to actually call myself a Mainer because my parents left long enough to give birth to a few people in our family. 

Fred Williams:

Yes.  And if you actually think of a little story about my brother, I was born in New York, but my brother was born prematurely in Bangor when my mother was visiting her parents for Easter. So in my family, I'm the only person not born in the state of Maine. Now with my grandchildren, we're starting to see them spread out around the country. But yes, I'm never going to be from Maine. Never. 

Dr. Lisa Belisle:

All right. Well, you and I can go stand in the corner and be sad together the next time we're at an art opening because everybody around us could say that they're true Mainers, but we know we're Mainers at heart. So that's actually okay. So what have you seen in the work that you're doing in the nonprofit world? What have you seen happening that is maybe a good result of the last two years? Something that you think maybe we can carry forward as we try to help people in our community? 

Fred Williams:

So I'm most directly right now involved with the music school and the concert association with Bay Chamber up in Rockport.  So I kind of can speak through that lens a little bit.  But as any non-profit had to last year,  it was all about staying alive. And part of that was how do you develop a fundraising strategy in the midst of not being able to do anything? I mean, it's almost like the antithesis of a nonprofit because they had the nonprofit normally says here, give us money and we'll do this. And during the last year, everybody was dead in the water. So I guess I can speak to the generosity of the Maine community in regard to Bay Chamber. We had an unbelievably great year of donations. People stepped up to sustain that. Now that's just a, you know, that's a musical organization, it's a performing art. But one of the things that we tried to do, for example, in our quarterly newsletter at work is that we try to identify on a regular basis those nonprofits that are out there that need help. And we try to ask that we obviously do, and we ask our employees and suggest to our clients that, you know, these are great organizations that could use your support. Particularly last year. Now, one of the things I think it did do is it created an opportunity for many nonprofits to pivot in terms of how they operated and what it was that they did rather than just doing the same thing over and over and over again, because that's what they've done in the past. We were forced to modify what it was that we were doing, and that has had a great impact. I think that it's an experience that has made the organizations better, perhaps. 


Dr. Lisa Belisle:

I agree. And I've seen this in healthcare. I've seen this in education. I've seen this in business. There are some people who early on said, well, we're just going to kind of hunker down and shut our doors and wait for it all to be over and go back to normal. And the people who didn't do that, the people who said, well, we really don't know how long this is going to last, but obviously we need to do something different so that we can survive and come through healthier than before on the other side. Those are the people who have done something more creative and new, and obviously it's been difficult, but to have things that you can use as a means of resilience. I think that's been maybe one of the positive aspects of this whole terrible time we've all gone through. 

Fred Williams:

I agree. I mean, we're not done yet. We're still in this and we're probably still in this until sometime next year, but it does force organizations to continually address how they're going to evolve. You know, it's like, okay, we survived 2020, well, let's just keep going. Let's continue that progression because hopefully when we're really done with this, we're going to be a better organization delivering our mission more effectively and more efficiently. 

Dr. Lisa Belisle:

Anything that you have,  as a goal for the next year, knowing that we still have some significant amount of uncertainty, but thinking, you know what, life's going to keep going forward so I'm going to keep going forward too– anything that you're interested in working on? 

Fred Williams:

Yes, probably not germane to this, but I've got to have a knee replacement so that I can go back to playing golf and pickleball. So that's my focus over the course of the next six months. 

Dr. Lisa Belisle:

Okay, like it. I mean, it's pretty real. It's not art, but I've had a fair number of people who I take care of his patients, who have had to put things like that off because of COVID and they will be very happy on the other side of things. So I hope that you get that taken care of and pickleball and golf. Those are certainly a source of joy, just like art. 


Fred Williams:

Exactly. 


Dr. Lisa Belisle:

It's really been a pleasure to talk to you today. I know you have just a wealth of interesting stories that you could continue to tell us. How can people find out more about the work that you do professionally or the nonprofit work that you do? 

Fred Williams:

Many of the organizations that I have been associated with still operate in the area. 75 State Street was an organization I spent a decade with. Wayfinder Schools is another organization that I spent another decade with, and then Bay Chamber, right at this point in time now. That's not them all, but the ones that I'm most actively involved with right now. I mean, I try to focus on two populations, the young and the old, because oftentimes they're overlooked. You know, the middle of the bell curve gets the most attention, but when it comes to the education of our young people and the care and maintenance of our older people, I just think we have to have a moral commitment as a community to support those. So those are the things that I'm doing right now, 

Dr. Lisa Belisle:

And they can also find you at Old Port Advisors in Portland. 

Fred Williams:

I can. That's right. Thank you very much for that. 

Dr. Lisa Belisle:

Fred, I hope that you and I have the opportunity to meet together at an upcoming opening at the Portland Art Gallery. And maybe we’ll look at a few Joyce Grasso's together. And I appreciate all the work you do for the nonprofit community, and I appreciate your taking the time to talk to me today and share your appreciation of art and the things that you've done with collecting art over the years. Thank you for being on Radio Maine. 

Fred Williams:

Thanks, Lisa. It's been great talking to you. Look forward to seeing you again.