DEER ISLE — Certainly, these last two years have been difficult for the arts economy in Maine.

It’s been difficult for everybody, and the arts and cultural segment has faced the downturn and recession head-on.

There’s a common perception that the bad economy has devastated the arts. In this instance, perception is not reality. The arts seem to be doing fine, thank you very much.

At least, that was the consensus last week at a gathering of artists and arts leaders at the Haystack Mountain School of Crafts.

These folks may be dazed, confused and even a little shell-shocked from what they’ve been through, but the casualty list is virtually nonexistent, said Donna McNeil, director of the Maine Arts Commission.

“We haven’t lost a single cultural institution in this recession, at least not one that I am aware of,” McNeil said. “And we’ve only heard about one organization that had a downturn this summer.”

“Cultural Summit 2010: A Gathering of Maine’s Arts Leaders” brought together about 75 artists, arts administrators, educators and observers. The idea, said Haystack director Stu Kestenbaum, was to bring everyone together to find out what and how people are doing.

The gathering included big institutions — most of the major museums in Maine were represented, along with the Maine College of Art — community arts groups, regional arts presenters and individual artists, including many writers, musicians and visual artists.

The 24-hour summit had a formal agenda, but the gathering was mostly about calling together the clans and sharing information.

Dick Barringer, research professor at the Muskie School of Public Service at the University of Southern Maine, set the tone early with a keynote address that focused on the evolution of the creative economy in Maine, and why it’s important.

Fact is, he said, the problems facing Maine today are the same as those we faced 25 years ago: the cost of energy and health care, our tax structure and an aging population. While we may pick away at those problems, they are likely to linger.

The bigger issue, Barringer suggested, is people.

Last year, more people moved out of Maine than in, and Maine has fewer young people as a percentage of population than any other state. The key to economic growth, he said, is attracting and retaining people.

That’s where the creative economy comes into play.

Creative businesses help foster quality of place, and quality of place is an essential factor in recruiting and retaining people.

He said Maine would do well to look north — or east, more accurately — to Saint John, New Brunswick.

In a matter of 15 years, Saint John has remade itself from an unappealing place to one that is vibrant and active, and done so while attracting huge waves of new residents.

Saint John’s success was predicated on goal-oriented planning at the local and regional level. Maine can do the same thing with sharper-focused policies at the local, regional and state levels, Barringer said.

“If you want to translate the arts and culture into jobs, you can do it one cultural place at a time, or you can do it with a community-wide strategy,” Barringer said, leaving the obvious unsaid: a community approach is smarter and more efficient.

Maine has a creative, resourceful population. It has a solid educational system at the K-12 level, as well as at the post-secondary level. It has bountiful cultural and natural amenities, and is building partnerships with local and regional businesses. “The support of businesses that are not part of the creative sector is vital,” Barringer said.

It comes down to leadership. All creative communities have strong leaders who are able to articulate vision and ideas, he said.

One of those leaders is Mark Bessire, director of the Portland Museum of Art.

During a talk Monday night, he implored his peers to lead by focusing on their primary role and mission in their communities. Too many organizations try to do too much, he said, suggesting they will find more success if they focus, focus, focus.

A lack of focus suggests a lack of vision, which tends to diminish support, he said. It spreads groups too thin, and leads to disjointed programming, which can lessen enthusiasm and community support. That happens because arts groups have a bad habit of chasing audiences in hopes of tapping new resources.

Instead, he said, arts groups should identify their strengths and concentrate on them.

“When you start chasing audiences, you follow them, you do not lead them. We have to lead them, because that’s what we’re paid to do,” Bessire said.

Almost universally, Bessire praised summit participants for surviving the economic storm. He credited their survival to smart decision-making and good leadership.

“You got through the bad economy because you were focused on what you should be doing. You focused on what you do well — minding the store and taking care of business,” he said.

It’s been said before, and it’s true. Maine tends to survive these economic dips better than many states because Mainers are accustomed to doing more with less.

Kerstin Gilg, a media arts and performing arts associate with the Maine Arts Commission, said Maine arts groups should be in a good position going forward. He agreed with something that Barringer said about Maine finding itself at a historical moment. It’s a moment of opportunity, he said.

How well the arts leadership in Maine responds to that opportunity will determine the health of the arts economy going forward. 

Staff Writer Bob Keyes can be contacted at 791-6457 or at:

[email protected]