Mark Bessire knew the Portland Museum of Art would have a pretty good summer when he opened the Wall Street Journal the morning of July 15 and found a package of stories about the Maine Art Museum Trail, a partnership of eight museums statewide. The newspaper highlighted art in Maine and called attention to the “Directors’ Cut” exhibition at the PMA, which tells the story of Maine art by including paintings, photography, prints and sculpture from museums across the state. The Wall Street Journal story followed by a day a similar spread in the Boston Globe.

Bessire and his Maine museum colleagues could not have bought better regional and national exposure.

“It was a nice surprise,” the museum director said. “When the Wall Street Journal does a full page on your show, that helps out a great deal.”

How much remains to be seen, but evidence suggests museums and other arts organizations in Maine are benefiting from a renewed partnership with the state Office of Tourism to better promote cultural tourism. Attendance revenue is up at the Portland museum over last year, bolstered by a strong summer, and the Maine Crafts Association reported its best month of sales in August at the Center for Maine Craft at the West Gardiner Travel Plaza along the Maine Turnpike. Other museum directors say they have seen more visitors, and, perhaps most encouraging, more first-time visitors.

Whether those numbers indicate effective promotion or simply a surge in tourism this summer is hard to tell. But one thing is certain: Maine arts groups are working hard to improve attendance by attracting tourists who are drawn to the state by is “Vacationland” status. The Maine Arts Commission is making cultural tourism a key part of its strategic plan going forward, and it is working with the Office of Tourism to promote Maine as a great place to view art, see a show or experience a cultural activity – along with an outdoor adventure or great meal.

Arts groups have long complained that the arts are under-promoted in Maine. The tone of that conversation changed this summer. “Directors’ Cut,” which closes Sept. 20, represents a new level of coordination among Maine museums, which traditionally compete with one another for visitors, and the Office of Tourism. For this show, museums on the Maine Art Museum Trail sent work to Portland, and other museum directors and curators led gallery talks and panel discussions about art in Maine.

FROM OGUNQUIT TO BANGOR

In addition to the Portland Museum of Art, The Maine Art Museum Trail includes the Farnsworth Art Museum in Rockland, Ogunquit Museum of American Art, the Monhegan Museum and the academic museums at Colby, Bates, Bowdoin and the University of Maine. The effort involves a website and brochure, and coordination among the institutions.

Boston resident Luisa Granitto goes up on her tip-toes next to husband Wendell Smith while admiring “October Mist” by Alfred Bricher in “Directors’ Cut.” Ben McCanna/Staff Photographer

Boston resident Luisa Granitto goes up on her tip-toes next to husband Wendell Smith while admiring “October Mist” by Alfred Bricher in “Directors’ Cut.” Ben McCanna/Staff Photographer

“Directors’ Cut” explores Maine’s role in the larger conversation about art in America and directs visitors to other museums in the state. The exhibition also provided Office of Tourism talking points in its summer promotion campaign, by encouraging visitors to begin their arts experience in Portland and take in other museums statewide. The Office of Tourism website includes a link to the Maine Art Museum Trail, as well as a pitch from Bessire about the exhibition, the trail and Maine’s artistic legacy.

The state office has included information about “Directors’ Cut” in email blasts, social media posts and newsletters, and it talked it up among national travel writers and editors. Their target was out-of-state visitors, or people who are less familiar with the Maine art story.

Bessire said tourists and first-time visitors are key to reaching more people. “All of the institutions that are part of the Maine Art Museum Trail are well aware that if we are looking to expand our audiences, that expansion will be found in visitors to our state,” he said.

George Kinghorn, director of the University of Maine Museum of Art, said he’s been too busy to analyze attendance figures, and admission to the museum is free so it’s harder to track accurately. But he has anecdotal evidence to suggest the promotional effort worked. Based on conversations at the reception desk and in the galleries, his staff tracked visitors from 24 U.S. states and 11 other countries. Both numbers are larger than expected, and many visitors said they had never been to the Bangor museum, Kinghorn said.

“We’re telling people, ‘Go to the Portland museum and see the wonderful Alex Katz’ (paintings) and the Marins and Winslow Homers, and then come see us where we have works in our collection by a lot of those same artists with major ties to Maine,” he said. “We’ve definitely seen people come in with the museum trail map in their hand. They’ve made the route.”

At the Portland Museum of Art, attendance through August was approximately 90,000, or 3 percent higher than the same period last year. Of those 90,000 visitors, 21,000 came to the museum since “Directors’ Cut” opened in mid-May. That is roughly the same number of people who visited the Richard Estes “Realism” show in summer 2014.

Through August, revenue from admissions was up 6 percent over last year, suggesting to Bessire there have been more non-member visits. In addition, the museum has noted a large increase in visitors from its top five out-of-state target markets: Massachusetts, New York, New Hampshire, Florida and Connecticut.

“Our ratio on the paid-admission side is much higher,” he said. “That indicates that the folks who don’t know the Maine art story are coming to see the show, which is exactly what we wanted.”

Chicagoans Angel Wuang and Chris Lam walk past “Woman Flying,” a painting by Katherine Bradford, as they acsend from the lower level of the Portland Museum of Art. The museum’s “Directors’ Cut,” a collaborative summer exhibition of works from institutions across the state, continues through Sept. 20. Ben McCanna/Staff Photographer

Chicagoans Angel Wuang and Chris Lam walk past “Woman Flying,” a painting by Katherine Bradford, as they acsend from the lower level of the Portland Museum of Art. The museum’s “Directors’ Cut,” a collaborative summer exhibition of works from institutions across the state, continues through Sept. 20. Ben McCanna/Staff Photographer

He expects a surge in attendance this week, as the exhibition winds down and the traditional fall tourism season is ushered in by cruise ships in Portland Harbor.

At the Center for Maine Craft, August revenue from the sale of craft items was $83,000, its best month ever. The previous high was $80,000, set in August 2014. Of that revenue, $47,000 went directly to artists, said Sadie Bliss, executive director of the Maine Crafts Association, which operates the shop.

Part of the increase is because of improved tourism and part is because the Center for Maine Craft has a better idea of what people want to buy and what they are willing to pay. The center has been in operation seven years.

“I do think the Maine Office of Tourism has embraced (arts-related tourism), and that is showing through their website and other efforts they make,” Bliss said. “It’s fair to say the cultural community as a collective group is not always everyone working together, but there are small partnerships and big partnerships happening now, and those help all organizations build on the strength of others.”

She cited the Maine Art Museum Trail as one example, and there are others. The Maine Crafts Association is teaming with the Maine Brewers Guild for Maine Craft Weekend, Oct. 3-4. The partnership may seem unlikely, but it’s not, Bliss said.

“People don’t segment everything out, as far as making a big distinction between going to a brewery or going to a glass-blowing shop. There’s not a lot of difference there,” she said. “People like to find out what real people in Maine are up. They don’t just go to the beach and stay there the whole time they’re in Maine. They like to mix it up.”

‘ARTS AND TOURISM SYNERGY’

The Maine Arts Commission is in the final stages of drafting a new statewide cultural plan that will include more emphasis on what director Julie Richard characterizes as “arts and tourism synergy.” Historically, the link between the Maine Arts Commission and the Office of Tourism hasn’t been strong. That is changing, Richard said, noting that the Office of Tourism has a cultural liaison to help with its promotion.

Regina Tremblay of Naples explores one of the galleries at the Portland Museum of Art, where attendance is up over last year thanks in part to a strong summer. Ben McCanna/Staff Photographer

Regina Tremblay of Naples explores one of the galleries at the Portland Museum of Art, where attendance is up over last year thanks in part to a strong summer. Ben McCanna/Staff Photographer

The commission wants to give arts groups what they need to reach tourists. That means better training in digital media, particularly social networking sites that target tourists and travel, and ways to create partnerships with like-minded organizations.

Maine is full of cultural opportunities that visitors would participate in if they knew about them, Richard said. It’s a matter of equipping arts groups with the resources and training to reach their intended audience.

Carolann Ouellette, director of the Office of Tourism, said the arts are one of four pillars of tourism promotion in Maine, along with the outdoors, touring and sightseeing and Maine’s growing food scene.

The Office of Tourism regularly promotes arts in Maine, and has for many years, she said. With improved communication with the Maine Arts Commission and the work of the cultural liaison, the office has better targeted specific audiences with information about activities available in Maine. It’s easier to be effective with things like the Maine Art Museum Trail, which allows people to tailor their own tour at their own pace, she said, noting that other similar, self-directed tours and trails are popping up around Maine.

Maine Fiberarts has done something similar for years, guiding people interested in fiber art to galleries, farms and other fiber-related enterprises across the state. More recently, the estate of late Maine sculptor Bernard Langlais has distributed his art across institutions in Maine, and there’s now a Langlais Art Trail that visitors can use to plan their travels to see his art. The Schoodic International Sculpture Symposium publishes a map of its collection of public art in Downeast Maine and coordinates efforts with the New Brunswick (Canada) Sculpture Symposium. The two groups co-promote their collections of public art and encourage visits on both sides of the border.

In addition to promoting those tours on its website, the Office of Tourism also makes grants available to groups to conduct tourism-related work. The tourism office has funded the Maine Photo Project, the Maine Indian Basketmakers Association and numerous other arts-related enterprises, Ouellette said.

Arts tourism is important to Maine for another reason: It’s not seasonal. “Art is a big part of our discussion of growing off-season visitation, because it’s one of those components that is a year-round activity,” she said.