February 8, 2013

Maine Voices: Any new rules for artists should honor, keep vitality of First Fridays

Care must be taken not to squelch the creative energy that has advanced Portland's economy.


Portland has created a task force to address the "problems" presented by street artists to the "image" the city projects to visitors, the livelihoods of established retailers and the integrity of First Friday Art Walk.

Let's begin by looking back. As the '80s recession lingered into the '90s, Portland hired consultants to suggest strategies for revitalizing the Downtown District. Retail spaces were vacant, office occupancy was down and shoppers were not in evidence.

The consultants held public meetings, conducted surveys and crunched numbers. Their conclusion? Build on what IS working, the arts.

They pointed to the institutions -- Portland Museum of Art, Maine College of Art (MECA), Portland Stage; they pointed to artists' studio spaces; they said to revitalize downtown, support artists and the arts.

Jump forward to the early aughts. More galleries were open, along with other retail shops. Artists still filled buildings with studios. The State Theatre was operating again. The Arts District had been formed. MECA filled the old Porteous building.

Of course, rents were climbing, so some artists, theater companies and other "less desirable" tenants were left searching for cheaper rents elsewhere (including out of Portland) as landlords cashed in -- but that's the price of progress, right?

The Arts District concept was proving itself but, as always, improvements could be made. Andres Verzosa, owner of Aucosisco Gallery, coordinated a grassroots effort to bring attention to Portland's downtown arts scene, and First Friday Art Walk was born.

At first, First Fridays had modest impact. Art enthusiasts came by the dozens to view art in galleries and studios. But the number of visitors steadily climbed.

Not so coincidentally -- quite on purpose, in fact -- restaurants and clubs saw an uptick in patronage during First Fridays.

This further reinforced the consultants' findings -- to advance Portland's economic well-being, support artists and the arts.

Let's leap ahead again. The first decade of the millennium is over. We're struggling in the aftermath of the Great Recession. Once again Portland is attempting to recover from an economic storm. How should we proceed if we are to succeed?

What about First Friday Art Walk; has it withered on the vine like so many other fruits of the boom years?

Quite the contrary, even in midwinter or inclement weather Portland comes alive on First Friday every month. Thousands wander the peninsula, looking at art.

Much of that art is found in the museum, galleries and studios, but there are also artists on the sidewalks showing their art as well. Some "street artists" are break-dancing, juggling fire or offering original designs silk-screened on T-shirts instead of paintings.

If so, is it all art? Who really cares? Isn't it enough Portland attracts thousands each month to enjoy art (by whatever definition) and spend their dollars?

Apparently not, apparently "street artists" are too much like "street people," and dollars spent at Otto's or the Empire aren't the same as dollars spent at established galleries for fine art. And dollars spent on "street artists" are, it seems, even worse.

"Street artists" are more difficult because they don't limit themselves to First Fridays, but also flock to the farmers markets and set up near where cruise ships disembark.

Some argue that dollars spent for a street artist's photo are dollars taken from the pocket of Old Port merchants who might have sold said tourist a lobster ashtray (made in China) emblazoned "PORTLAND, MAINE."

Those who ignore the lessons of history are doomed to repeat them. Remember, it has been the scrappy, grassroots, ad hoc activities of, by and for artists and galleries that provided key support to keeping Portland viable in past economic downturns. The Old Port itself began from that same dynamic.

First Fridays helped put Portland on the national, even international, map as a vibrant, art-rich city and continue to do so.

Perhaps the city does need some guidelines for "street artists" to avoid potential liability issues.

My suggestion, two simple rules: (1) anything sold must be made by the seller; (2) a certain amount of sidewalk (5 feet?) must be kept clear for pedestrians.

Whatever the task force recommends, let's be very careful the city doesn't punish those creating our next boom in an effort to protect established interests from their own complacency.

Don't write new regulations mainly to protect well-connected merchants and landlords who sometimes seem to think all tourism cash should flow through their hands.

Christopher White is a partner in Arts Resource Service in Windham.


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