June 10, 2012

Maine downtowns' creative zest to take a bow

The head of the largest arts funder will see how federal money fosters economic growth in the state.

By Bob Keyes bkeyes@pressherald.com
Staff Writer

The chairman of the National Endowment for the Arts will spend parts of two days in Maine this week, touring the arts-centric cities of Rockland and Portland for a first-hand look at how federal dollars spur economic development in the state through the arts and creative enterprise.

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Rocco Landesman, chairman of the National Endowment for the Arts, will visit Rockland and Portland this week.

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Rocco Landesman, who attended Colby College, will visit Rockland on Wednesday afternoon, then drive to Portland for a 5 p.m. forum at Portland Stage Company and a reception later that evening at Maine College of Art (MECA).

Thursday morning, he will tour the Portland Arts District on foot and, if time allows, stop at the Portland Museum of Art for a quick look at the new exhibition of French landscape paintings that opens Thursday. At MECA, he will get a preview of a national furniture-making conference that also opens Thursday.

"The NEA is the largest funder of the arts in Maine, so the fact that the chairman of this granting organization is visiting Maine to see what is going on, on the ground, is a great benefit to us," said Darrell Bulmer, acting director of the Maine Arts Commission. "The NEA has said that Maine is leading the way in the revitalization of downtowns through the creative economy. I am hoping he sees evidence of that here."

There's no doubt that he will.

Landesman will meet dozens of artists, arts leaders and others engaged in economic development while in Maine, including musicians, painters, furniture makers, actors, business leaders, bankers, policy wonks and administrators.

He will visit several art galleries in Rockland and attend a lunchtime forum at the Farnsworth Art Museum with representatives of the museum, the Center for Maine Contemporary Art, Maine Media Workshops, Bay Chamber Concerts, Camden International Film Festival, the Center for Furniture Craftsmanship and others.

In Portland, he will hear from Jennifer Hutchins of the Creative Portland Corp.; Tammy Ackerman of the Biddeford arts-economic development agency Engine; and Sharon Corwin, director of the Colby College Museum of Art.

Although he is a frequent visitor to Maine, this week marks Landesman's first official visit to Maine as NEA chairman. He has held the post since August 2009.

The NEA provides approximately $750,000 to the state and is responsible for about half of all arts-related grants given to artists and arts organizations in Maine.

Landesman will meet with many individuals and organizations that have benefited from NEA funding, including Marty Pottenger, founder and director of Art At Work, a national initiative piloted with the city of Portland, its unions and elected officials to improve municipal government through strategic arts projects. Pottenger's program received $100,000, the largest NEA grant in the state.

'WANTED HIM TO SEE MAINE'

Landesman is coming at the request of U.S. Rep. Chellie Pingree, D-Maine, who will host the visit. Pingree and Donna McNeil, Bulmer's predecessor, met with Landesman in Washington, D.C., soon after he took office to talk about Maine's work on the creative economy.

"I think he totally understands how the creative arts and the creative economy can work in rural states like ours," Pingree said. "I wanted him to see Maine, because it offers such a great example of what is going on on Main Street. It's happening in little communities like Biddeford and Waterville, and bigger cities like Portland."

Pingree is married to financier S. Donald Sussman, a contributor to Democratic and charitable causes and the majority share owner of MaineToday Media, which owns The Portland Press Herald/Maine Sunday Telegram, the Kennebec Journal in Augusta, the Morning Sentinel in Waterville and other media outlets in Maine.

CONNECTING IN BIDDEFORD

During the Portland forum, Ackerman plans to talk about the role of arts and creative enterprise in the ongoing transformation of Biddeford.

"We are shifting the paradigm from a company town to a more diverse design and manufacturing center, consisting of many small businesses instead of one big company," Ackerman said. "We're not talking about the visual arts and fine art, although that is part of the conversation. But we are talking mostly about design and teaching people to think creatively."

As an example, she cited the local company Hyperlite Mountain Gear, which makes high-end shelters, packs, tarps and accessories for the outdoors. "If they need to design a part, we could help them with that by facilitating a connection with local designers. We could support them with research and development and design. We are looking at the micro economy throughout Biddeford's highly walkable downtown."

Hutchins will talk to Landesman about the work of Creative Portland Corp. to advance public policy and private business practices to make Portland attractive to creative entrepreneurs. She said Portland is "an ideal example" of a city that has identified its arts and cultural assets and made broad commitments to them.

"I am hoping that he sees that we, across all sectors -- business, government and the nonprofit arts and cultural community -- promote all these values and ideals," Hutchins said.

It's important that people understand the creative economy does not simply mean supporting artists in their studio practices, Ackerman and Hutchins agreed. It means supporting an environment where those artists -- painters, musicians, actors, designers and anyone who uses creative talent to make a living -- can create meaningful lives for themselves while adding to the cultural environment of their community.

QUALITY-OF-LIFE ASSETS

At Creative Portland, the conversation has shifted from defining the creative economy to articulating its importance in policies and business practices so it is integral to the character and vibrancy of the city, Hutchins said.

"We want to support our arts and cultural community by providing the people who are going to be the patrons, buy the art and come downtown and appreciate the value of Congress Street and all the organizations and people that make this such a great place to live and work," Hutchins said. "We are attracting people who value and appreciate those assets. We want those assets to be a part of the whole set of assets that people attribute to quality of life in this city."

Landesman's visit coincides with the Furniture Society's 2012 national conference, opening at MECA on Thursday. In conjunction with the conference, several galleries are hosting furniture exhibitions, and MECA is using the conference to talk about art as business.

"Art means business," said Jessica Tomlinson, director of public relations and the new Artists at Work program at the college. "You go to art school to get the skills you need to be an artist. But more and more, we are teaching students how to apply those skills in the world professionally. We teach students how to find a personal and professional path to make an impact in the world, whether they want to be the next international art star or a production-line potter or a furniture maker."

RECOGNITION OF CULTURAL IMPACT

Mark Bessire, director of the Portland Museum of Art, said Landesman's visit affirms the good work in the arts already going on in Maine, and bodes well for future funding. The more Landesman is aware of what is happening, the more likely it is that Maine will be viewed as a model for other states and as an example of a state doing things the right way.

"We're a big state with a small population, but our cultural impact is bigger than it would appear," Bessire said. "His coming here recognizes that, which for us is fantastic. I think it says a lot that he is hitting main street, walking up and down and going to galleries, the museum and other art spots. This is a tough economic climate to be championing the arts. But no matter the climate, the arts are so crucial to our identity here in Maine."

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

bkeyes@pressherald.com

Twitter: pphbkeyes

 

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