AUGUSTA — The Maine Arts Commission, which distributes about $500,000 annually, is working to become more responsive to the arts community with a retooled grants program and the hiring of a new assistant director whose expertise involves running a small arts organization.

Changes to the grants stem from feedback Director Julie Richard received when starting the job two years ago.

“I was hearing the arts commission was a bit out of touch of the needs of the field,” Richard said. “We’ve been trying to fix that. There is a lot of work to be done. We need more funding to do that in the way I would like to see, but we’re making progress.”

In the 12 months ending last June, the Maine Arts Commission distributed $479,577 in grants, most between $1,000 and $5,000. That figure won’t change with alterations in the commission’s 10 grant programs, the most public aspect of the commission’s work. What is changing is how the grants are administered, accountability of those receiving grants and the kinds of grants available. Most notably, the commission is offering grants to arts organizations for unrestricted use. Arts groups complained that previous grant programs forced them to tailor projects to satisfy grant requirement instead of using money for existing operations.

The commission has launched a series of workshops to discuss program changes. The commission will host informational sessions at 5:30 p.m. Wednesday at Maine College of Art in Portland and Feb. 18 in Winter Harbor. Those will be followed by statewide meetings in March to discuss the commission’s new strategic plan, which will be unveiled later in the spring.

The commission has an annual budget of about $1.7 million, funded by the state and the federal government through the National Endowment for the Arts. It recently hired Linda Nelson, artistic director of Opera House Arts in Stonington, to serve as assistant director. Nelson, who has served as a commissioner in the past, has been critical of the arts commission, saying its grant programs were unresponsive to the changing needs of artists and arts presenters.

Nelson said she decided to take the job in Augusta because she sensed the commission is at “an important turning point” where the interests of artists, arts organizations, schools and communities intersect for the benefit of Maine as a whole. She believes she can help the commission become more nimble and cited the leadership of Richard and commission chairman Charles Stanhope of Southwest Harbor.

“I like and respect both of them very much and feel their direction is one that is beneficial to and will be effective in supporting and expanding the role of the arts throughout Maine, and is therefore one behind which I can put my energy to the wheel,” she wrote in an email.

Nelson begins her job May 1.

Richard hired Nelson because of her success at Opera House Arts. With a limited budget, that group routinely presents original programming in multiple disciplines, all designed for the betterment and enjoyment of the communities it serves, Richard said.

“Linda not only will help greatly with all of the nuances that we need as far as human resources, budgets and the administration side, but she will really help us in our efforts to respond to the needs of arts organizations,” she said. “We want to provide more professional development, and Linda will help with that.”

UNRESTRICTED FUNDS

The commission has been tweaking the grants program for about a year. Among the new grants available are partnership grants for organizations, ranging from $3,000 to $25,000. They’re intended for general operational support, meaning the money is unrestricted. Organizations can use it as they see fit and are required to enter a partnership with the commission, which will provide training in planning and budgeting to help grantees achieve higher professional standards.

Organizations must submit to an audit, depending on their budget size, and address questions about marketing, strategies and finances.

“We’ve got a lot of part-time people running organizations that are dong amazing amounts of work,” Richard said. “They do not have all the tools in the toolbox they need to do what they do. They are getting by on sheer intelligence and strength of will. I see our role as helping the field do its work better.”

The commission also has reworked individual grants. It provides grants up to $2,500 to help artists create new work and continue existing programs. Project grants also are available for organizations, up to $5,000.

NEW WEBSITE, STRATEGIC PLAN

In mid-March, the commission will unveil a new grant website to make it easier to apply, Richard said. The website is being tested now and is expected to be online in a few weeks. The application deadline for most grants is April 13. Other deadlines are early May.

Richard and her staff will present a draft of the commission’s new strategic plan for feedback in March with a series of meetings around the state, and they will follow that up with the formal presentation in late April. The meetings will be 9 a.m. to noon March 17 at the University of Southern Maine in Portland, 1 to 4 p.m. March 18 at the Collins Center for the Arts at the University of Maine in Orono, and 10 a.m. to noon March 19 at University of Maine at Presque Isle.