The Richard Blanco literary event that is happening in Portland on Feb. 26 is a Maine success story from every angle.
It’s an example of a community coming together to celebrate the success of an individual, and it started because one individual believed strongly it had to happen and was willing to work hard to make it so.
Blanco is the 44-year-old poet who read at President Obama’s second inaugural in January. He was little known outside of poetry circles before the inauguration, and even less known across his adopted home state.
He had some recognition in Bethel, where he has lived for a few years, but not because of his poetry: Blanco is a member of the Bethel planning board.
All that changed with his presence at the inauguration. Standing at the podium in front of a sea of people who attended the event and millions more who watched on TV, Blanco read a poem he wrote for the occasion, a piece he calls “One Today.”
When it was announced two weeks ago that Blanco would give a reading at Merrill Auditorium on Feb. 26, there was much more than a ripple of excitement. It was big news. And when free tickets became available last Monday, all 1,800 were claimed within four hours.
Think about that for a moment: On a cold Tuesday night in late February, 1,800 people will fill Merrill Auditorium to hear poetry.
Longfellow would be proud.
None of this would have happened if not for the support of the Quimby Family Foundation, which covered the cost of the event so tickets could be distributed free.
Daniel O’Leary, a former director of the Portland Museum of Art who now works as executive director of the Quimby foundation, said the Blanco reading was precisely the kind of event that philanthropist Roxanne Quimby likes to support.
“A lot of people in Maine are certainly interested in learning more about Richard Blanco,” O’Leary said. “This seemed like the perfect event for us to get behind.”
The funding for the Blanco reading occurred outside the normal Quimby grant cycle — the foundation is accepting grant requests now for funding this summer. But that didn’t stop Quimby from cutting a check for about $10,000 to underwrite the reading.
Quimby’s story is well known. She made a fortune on Burt’s Bees personal care products, and lately has turned toward philanthropy as a way to ensure the quality of life in Maine that she treasures continues.
She appreciates a clean environment and a vibrant cultural scene, and recognizes the important marriage of arts and culture with the state’s natural resources, O’Leary said.
In the past seven years, the foundation has given away about $8 million in grants, including about $1.5 million to arts groups. The Center for Maine Contemporary Art in Rockport has received $135,000 over the past three years. Mayo Street Arts in Portland got $24,000 last year; the Maine Jewish Museum in Portland received a check for $50,000.
O’Leary said the Quimby foundation is committed to the arts in Maine just as firmly as the foundation is committed to environmental and land conservation efforts. Quimby and her grown children — son Lucas St. Clair and daughter Hannah Quimby — make the funding decisions, along with four or five other trusted advisers.
It’s a personal process.
Last year, about 300 organizations applied for funding. Of those, 86 were selected as finalists for foundation grants. O’Leary said he visited every one to learn more so he could relate their stories to the grant-making board.
Of those 86 finalists, 65 were chosen for funding. All were invited to a lunch in Freeport, where they received their checks.
“We want to build real relationships, partnerships and friendships all over Maine,” O’Leary said. “This work is such a privilege. It’s so gratifying.”
The Blanco project started with a phone call.
Portland gallery owner Andy Verzosa was moved by Blanco’s poem as he watched on TV. Verzosa felt as if Blanco had written the poem with him in mind.
He wanted the poet to read in Portland, so he called O’Leary and asked for money. Pretty simple, really.
“Andy is so positive about Portland and culture and the community,” O’Leary said. “When he called me up, I think he thought the Quimby Family Foundation would help. I thought it was such a beautiful idea that we should partner with him to make it happen.”
Verzosa proposed a reading in a small venue, with maybe 300 or so seats.
O’Leary had bigger ideas.
“I said, ‘Andy, we are going to disappoint 1,000 or 2,000 people if we do it in such a small space. Why don’t we do Merrill?’ “
Verzosa began working the phones. He called Merrill and asked about available dates. He reached out to Blanco, and through the writer’s agent learned that the poet was indeed interested — honored, in fact — about the prospect of reading in Maine’s largest city.
And as luck would have it, one of the dates Blanco had available was an open date on the Merrill calendar.
Verzosa then got the Creative Portland Corp. to sign on as a financial conduit for the Quimby money, and — voila — an event was created.
It took about a day to pull the moving parts together.
And to the surprise of few, it took only a few hours to distribute all the tickets.
Staff Writer Bob Keyes can be contacted at 791-6457 or: