Emily Isaacson, a local musician and conductor, envisions a large-scale music festival for the area. Ben McCanna/Staff Photographer

The artistic director of a small Portland classical music festival hopes to turn a $45,000 grant from the Bernard Osher Foundation into a large-scale performing arts festival that takes advantage of Portland’s status as a food-friendly and arts-savvy city.

In Emily Isaacson’s grand vision, Portland would create something akin to Spoleto in Charleston, South Carolina, a sprawling, multi-week festival with music, dance and theater that generates about $42 million in economic activity over a couple of weeks each spring.

Portland is a long way from realizing that vision, and there are many people in the arts community who aren’t sure if it would be a good fit for the city, but Isaacson wants to explore using the fledgling Portland Bach Experience festival, which she founded in 2017 after splitting from another Bach festival, as a proving ground for something much larger.

“I want it to be the Spoleto of the North. I want to expand and become the festival that draws all different kinds of art and performance from around the country to Portland,” she said. “Spoleto has been around a long time and contributes tens of millions of dollars to the local economy of Charleston each year. I want to see that kind of financial influx for Portland. When people think of Portland, I want them to think not only about the incredible food and natural beauty, but incredible art as well. Spoleto is the perfect model for that.”

Spoleto began in Charleston in 1977 as a companion to an arts festival in Spoleto, Italy. In 2016, the festival generated $42 million in economic activity for Charleston, a city with a population of about 110,000 people, and sold more than 61,000 tickets to 160 performances over 17 days, according to the College of Charleston School of Business. It operates with an annual budget of about $7 million.

Right now, there’s no comparison with Isaacson’s modest Portland Bach Experience. She operates her festival on about $150,000, and offers about two dozen events, many of them free, throughout Portland (this year, June 13-24). Her audience is about 1,500 people right now. “But in five to seven years, I think we can be closer to Spoleto,” she said. “We’re doing something, and it’s working. Let’s take this small scale and make it bigger.”

Isaacson, 36, wants to build on the momentum of being named the first-ever Maine Artist of the Year by the Maine Arts Commission last fall to begin a community discussion about the arts in Portland and the role of a festival in branding Portland’s image as a destination for arts tourism. In addition to her work with the Portland Bach Experience, she also is artistic director of the Oratorio Chorale. A conductor, she grew up in Brunswick and lives in Portland.

Isaacson’s challenges are immense. Peter Plumb, a longtime and avid supporter of the arts in Maine who has served on and advised the boards of many nonprofit arts organizations, said the topic of a large-scale arts festival has been discussed for more than two decades, and a consensus about what’s best for Portland has been elusive. The talks always bog down around size, scope and funding and an underlying question about whether a festival should be local in nature or national or international, in terms of the performers and the audience.

If it’s local in nature, the components for a successful festival already are in place. The calendar is full of events that could be brought under the umbrella and branding of a multidisciplinary arts festival that builds on Portland’s reputation as a food destination, he said.

“It’s astounding what we have here now and what we did not have 20 years ago, and how the variety and quality have both gone up dramatically,” he said. “The issue that drives the whole conversation is making the decision whether you rely on local forces or do you put together an organization that brings in outside talent? The latter becomes a much more expensive proposition.”

It’s also an issue of territory. Arts funding is scarce, and arts organizations often draw from the same pool of donors and ticket buyers. While they may share common visions and goals, they don’t always buy into common strategies for achieving them, he said.

Caroline Koelker, executive director of Opera Maine, likes the idea of an arts festival because it would highlight what makes Portland distinct.

“Food, tourism and the arts,” she said. “For Opera Maine, every chance we get to be a part of something like that and find ways to collaborate with other organizations around the city and state, that’s wonderful. When we are looking to do larger projects, we want to align ourselves with other organizations and groups with high artistic standards and organizations with the capacity to take on the support, planning, execution and cross-marketing to make it successful.”

Dinah Minot, executive director of Creative Portland for the past 2.5 years, called the festival topic “sensitive and very volatile. I remember having a meeting during my first year in office about this with different stakeholders, and I felt a lot of resistance from a lot of people,” she said. “People are territorial, especially in the classical music world.”

The resistance surprised her at first, but as she listened she heard many people talk about the organizations and events they have built over time and their fear of seeing them harmed by a large festival that may not succeed long term or have local interests at the center of its mission, she said.

“I love the concept and I love the idea of community engagement, and the more festivals the better. The more music we present, the more people we attract to the region. I am all in favor of all those things conceptually. We just have to work together,” she said.

Creative Portland is convening an arts and cultural summit on June 18 at Ocean Gateway, and one of the topics is the importance of private investment in the arts and the impact of the arts on the local economy. Minot hopes Creative Portland can help cultivate arts patronage among newcomers to Portland and young professionals. That topic is central to the growth of Isaacson’s Portland Bach Experience and her hopes for a larger festival.

The Portland Bach Experience includes events geared toward families and young Portland professionals in unconventional spaces, as well as traditional concerts. One will involve musicians performing six of Bach’s Cello Suites, all for free, in public locations around town, so audiences can experience the music by chance or follow the performances like a processional. Other concerts will pair pieces of music with local beers and coffee.

Isaacson sees the Osher grant as key to realizing her vision. The grant is relatively small – $45,000 over three years – but Isaacson can use it however she wants, and is treating it as an investment in the festival and endorsement from a respected foundation with a history of supporting arts and education on a national scale, as well as in Maine. Bernard Osher is a Biddeford native and Bowdoin College graduate, who made a fortune as founding director of World Savings Bank in California.

Isaacson met with Osher and his wife, Barbro, last year in San Francisco, and they urged her to be bold with the money and use it to shape her organization’s future. “The fact that he is saying, ‘We believe in you, go do what it takes,’ is enormous. That is what it takes to get us to the next level,” Isaacson said.

Neither Osher nor his wife, who serves on the foundation board, would talk on the record about the grant. Mary Bitterman, the foundation”s president, said in a statement the foundation decided to support the Portland Bach Experience because it has “become a cultural phenomenon capturing the interest and attention of ever larger and more diverse audiences in Portland and across the state of Maine,” and said Isaacson’s combination of musical skills, entrepreneurial spirit and executive acumen “augurs well for PBE’s promising future.”

Isaacson plans to put the money toward the salary of someone who shares her ideas about the potential of something big, and preferably someone with private-sector business experience. The Portland Bach Experience is a nonprofit arts group, but Isaacson wants to run it like a business.

“I don’t like fundraising,” she said. “That whole conversation about development and donor relations, that’s not a cycle I want to be in for the entirety of my career. We’re a nonprofit, but let’s pretend we’re a for-profit. How do we do that?”


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