It is too early in the process to accurately assess what’s going on behind the scenes at the Maine Arts Commission, but big changes are in the works.

Donna McNeil, who has directed the state agency since 2008 and worked there since 2003, is no longer executive director. She now has the title of arts policy and program director, which means she is spending more time in the field meeting directly with artists and community leaders. A national search for her replacement will begin soon.

In the meantime, the agency’s spokesman and communications guru, Darrell Bulmer, will serve as interim director.

John Rohman is out as chairman of the commission, to be replaced by Charles V. Stanhope of Southwest Harbor. He is expected to be sworn in as chairman in the next week or so.

Three new commissioners will join, as well, all of whom come from a strong performing arts background: Monica Kelly, executive director of Bay Chamber Concerts in Rockport; Paul Benjamin, who directs the North Atlantic Blues Festival in Rockland; and Tim Lo, a key organizer of the Kah-Bang Festival in Bangor.

The changes were announced last week. Moving McNeil out of the top spot addresses two concerns. It will enable the next executive director to focus almost solely on the management of the agency, which operates with an annual budget of about $1 million of state and federal money and doles out most of that as grants for artists and local arts agencies.

And second, it will allow McNeil to do more hands-on work in the communities served by the arts commission.

In a phone interview, McNeil characterized the developments as both positive and progressive. As executive director, she had been involved in a search for an assistant director for many months. The vacant position was advertised nationally, and the agency received strong applications.

During the search process, she and others on her staff began to recognize that the agency’s needs had shifted, and perhaps a reorganization might better serve the changing political and economic climate.

“We looked at a lot of other state arts agencies, and we realized that most of them have an executive director and an artistic director. Those are two different qualities that are not often found in the same person,” she said.

“It’s hard to do both, and it’s hard to do both to the fullest. It was a big balancing act for me, and I kept finding myself disengaged from my passions more than I wanted to be. So I am happy with this reorganization.”

The job shuffle comes at a difficult time for the Maine Arts Commission. Along with all of state government, the arts commission took a budget whack last year, and likely will again.

The philosophy behind the change lies in the belief that the agency will be stronger if the executive director is fully immersed in the legislative and advocacy process, both in Augusta and in Washington.

McNeil is no fool. She watched what MPBN went through in last year’s budget battle, and knows that anything and everything is on the table. The tea party agenda is strong and forceful at both the state and federal levels, and there seems little doubt that the arts are in the budget crosshairs.

That’s not new. As McNeil noted, “That is our battle, and it has been our battle since the culture wars of the 1990s.”

But the effort to further reduce funding for the arts is as strong now as it has been in a long time. That means arts advocates must be more vigilant and more committed.

In her new position, McNeil will spend more time on the road meeting with artists and communities served by the Maine Arts Commission. She will explain the commission’s programs and grants, and help artists and communities navigate the grant-making process. She sees her job as a liaison between the commission and the artists and communities it serves.

“I believe strongly in individual artists. That is where the rubber hits the road. That is our base, and that is what needs to be fed and watered,” she said.

Meanwhile, Stanhope prepares to take over as chairman. As chair, he will oversee the search for a new director.

Stanhope is a Portland native and University of Maine graduate with a strong background in the library sciences. As a young man, he stacked books at the Portland Public Library when the library was in the old Baxter Building. He followed his interest all the way to the Library of Congress in Washington, D.C., where he enjoyed a 35-year career.

He retired home to Maine last year.

Because he has not yet been sworn in, Stanhope declined to talk in too much detail about his long-range goals. Those will be formed as he settles into his new role and learns more about the day-to-day operation of the commission, he said.

“I do not want to do anything that will take away from what has been accomplished,” he said. “We will continue to respond to the challenges that arts face and continue to celebrate all the good work that goes on in the arts in Maine.”

For his part, Rohman is happy to hand over the reins. He served on the commission for many years. Former Gov. Angus King appointed him to the commission in 1996, and Gov. John Baldacci named him chairman. He served eight years as chairman under Baldacci and one year under Gov. Paul LePage.

In that time, Rohman oversaw more than $10 million in grants and 150 public art projects. He and former commission director Alden Wilson together led the effort to educate people about the creative economy and the role of the creative work force in Maine’s economic development strategies.

More than anything, the commission’s work on the creative economy likely will be Rohman’s legacy.

“We have included arts and culture in the dialogue of economic development people, selectmen and city councilors across the state. The Maine Arts Commission can take a lot of credit for that,” he said. “There seems to be a real appreciation of how the arts fit into everybody’s everyday life and certainly their economic development life.”

Given the budget battles that lie ahead, those lessons couldn’t be more timely.

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

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Twitter: pphbkeyes