All the city of Portland needs to do to have a thriving arts community and a robust creative economy is to make sure there is a plentiful supply of affordable artist studios.

Long before there was a Creative Portland and its predecessor (now subsidiary), the Portland Arts and Cultural Alliance, many artists worked in spaces all over downtown.

In the ’70s, the Old Port was the “in” place for artists to live and work. By the ’80s, that area was too “hip” for artists to afford, so they migrated to other affordable buildings downtown, most of which have now been demolished to make way for banks and parking garages.

J.B. Brown’s Danforth Building outlasted many as a place that welcomed artists. But even there, artists were eventually pushed out by rising rents, driven by the desire of businesses to locate in what had become another cool downtown location.

Before the Maine College of Art relocated to Congress Street, artists already had begun working in the very affordable and plentiful office spaces in the upper floors of buildings lining that street. There, as well, artists were displaced by condominium development and business office renovations. The notable exceptions on Congress Street were the State Theatre building and Christopher Campbell’s Artist Studio Building, which still retain artist studio spaces.

With MECA, the University of Southern Maine and Southern Maine Community College all yearly churning out new artists wanting to stay here, the shortage of available studio space has many looking outside of Portland.

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About 10 years ago, Westbrook’s Dana Warp Mill became a big draw for artists looking to rent affordable studios. With more than 246,000 square feet of space along the Presumpscot River and 12-foot ceilings, the building was only a short commute for artists living in Portland. But as the mill changed owners, and renovations made it a more desirable space for businesses, fewer small, affordable art studios were available.

Now Biddeford is undergoing a transformation, led by its lean, mean arts organization, Engine. Tammy Ackerman, the executive director and co-founder of Engine, is being very proactive in meeting the needs of artists wanting to relocate there.

Doug Sanford has been acquiring Biddeford’s brick mill buildings since 2004 and has been renovating and repurposing with an open mind toward artist studios. Downtown Biddeford has more than 1 million square feet of former mill space on the Saco River. This leaves Portland with an extreme disadvantage in encouraging young, talented artists to relocate and stay.

So what have our city leaders done to address both this diaspora of artists and the lack of affordable studio spaces in Portland? Since they held the Creative Economy Summit in 2006, they have formed committees, subcommittees and then Creative Portland. This quasi-municipal, nonprofit, run by Jennifer Hutchins, has become the official arts agency for the city of Portland and gets more than half of its $252,000 yearly budget from the city.

Creative Portland’s one, and so far only, attempt in 2010 at buying a suitable downtown building for studio spaces ended almost before it started. A year later, Creative Portland and S. Donald Sussman (majority owner of the Portland Press Herald/Maine Sunday Telegram) collaborated on bringing the nationally recognized nonprofit developer Artspace to Portland to look at possibilities.

The building that Artspace was most interested in was the city Public Services Department’s fleet facility, a former general store in a “challenging” area of the Bayside neighborhood.

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The Public Services Department is moving out of that space and several other buildings on Alder and Hanover streets. The city staff currently is looking to issue requests for proposals for the 13,000-square-foot Traffic Operations building and the salt shed site. The old general store and its 36,000-plus square feet of potential artist studio space will come up for sale later, though soon.

To Creative Portland’s credit, it had a concept plan that included artist studios and makerspace for the city-owned site, developed by former board member Tom Blackburn. Unfortunately, Creative Portland now seems to have given the whole idea the heave-ho, leaving Blackburn and his committee without the support of the art organization established by the city to grow our creative economy.

It seems that Creative Portland is more interested in organizing events like First Friday than in making sure artists and other creative thinkers and makers have the necessary space they need (and can afford) to keep Portland’s arts community, with its creative economy, thriving.

— Special to the Press Herald


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