Theater-goers get ready to see a matinee of “Almost, Maine” at Portland Stage on Thursday. Derek Davis/Staff Photographer Buy this Photo

Three of every four adults in the Portland area attends a play, concert or some other performing arts event at least once a year, giving the city one of the highest rates of arts engagement in the country, according to a national survey that reflects a noticeable surge in activity in the city’s arts scene in recent years.

The results of the survey, released by National Endowment for the Arts in January, showed that Portland’s rate of participation in the performing arts was 73.5 percent, compared with 48.5 percent nationally and, among the sampling of 35 metro areas measured, second only to Denver at 76.8 percent. Portland also ranked high in the percentage of adults attending visual art exhibitions, reading literature and consuming art electronically, putting it squarely on par with cities like Minneapolis and Seattle.

The report was based on data from the U.S. Census Bureau from 2017, meaning it doesn’t capture the latest crop of venues and events that have emerged since then, from the Maine Savings Pavilion at Rock Row, which started hosting outdoor concerts last spring, to Hear Here, the showcase of local talent held at Merrill Auditorium last month for the second year.

Portland’s strong showing in the national survey doesn’t surprise John Edwards of Falmouth, who moved to Maine from Washington, D.C., 12 years ago. He’s a season subscriber to Good Theater and attends dozens of plays and musicals at theaters across the city each year. “There is so much going on that I tell people sometimes, ‘I can’t do it all.’ That is a significant contrast for me,” said Edwards, 59. “Washington, D.C., certainly has a lot of artistic institutions, but’s it’s always so difficult to get into the city do anything many times.”

From his home in Falmouth, Edwards can drive to Portland, park and be in his seat in about 15 minutes, he said.

The NEA survey is the largest gauge of adult participation in the arts in the country. The Survey of Public Participation in the Arts measures how Americans 18 and older engage in the arts, where they engage and why. The report also tracks demographic characteristics of the participants and their perceptions of the availability of the arts in their communities. The report includes national and state data, as well as data from the sampling urban areas that included Portland.

Overall, Maine as a state ranked consistently in the middle of the pack across all survey categories, and the data suggest both New Hampshire and Vermont may have more going on in the arts than Maine – at least statistically.

The survey’s total sample size was 27,969 adults, with a response rate of 67 percent, said Sunil Iyengar, director of research and analysis for the NEA. He did not know how many Mainers were included in the survey. The NEA has worked with the U.S. Census Bureau on the Survey of Public Participation in the Arts since 1982.

A GOOD EXAMPLE

The data from the latest report was collected the same year that Good Theater faced a crisis. Prior to 2017, the Portland theater company had survived two seasons of budget deficits, and artistic director and theater co-founder Brian Allen knew it could not survive a third.

He had two options: Cut back on performances and reduce costs, or go big. He went big, adding a Second Stage series with 30 more shows in the Good Theater performance season, helping to boost his annual ticket sales from 8,616 in the 2016-17 performance season to an estimated 15,000 this season. Three seasons removed from the crisis, Good Theater is selling more tickets than ever, with more than 170 performances a season and a 90 percent seat-occupancy rate. The theater hasn’t had a deficit since the series began.

“I saw that other people who had financial difficulties cut back, and I didn’t feel that was working for them, from observation. I thought we would go in the opposite direction,” Allen said. “I decided, we’re going to do more, and we are going to do shows with bigger casts, and if we go bust, we go bust. But if we don’t, maybe we will succeed where others have failed.”

Good Theater, which presents its plays at the St. Lawrence Arts Center on Munjoy Hill, began the Second Stage series as a way to offer edgier shows and experiment with start times in hopes of selling tickets to new customers and more tickets to returning customers. Good Theater often produces two different shows simultaneously, running a mainstage show for six performances Wednesday to Sunday, and a smaller Second Stage show on Saturday afternoons, Sunday and Tuesday evenings. During the times when two shows are up at once, Good Theater presents three shows on Saturdays – a 12:30 p.m. performance of the Second Stage show, a 3 p.m. matinee and 7:30 p.m. performance of the mainstage show.

Not all of Good Theater’s growth relates to the Second Stage series, but Allen thinks Second Stage is the root of it. It has exposed people to theater, and many have become regulars. According to audience surveys during the December run of the “Who’s Holiday!” show, more than half the audience had never attended a Good Theater performance, Allen said. “We’ve created a situation where we are not only expanding our audience, but tapping into something untapped. We’ve had this great resurgence,” he said. “We gave people alternatives to the kinds of shows and the times they can see them,” he said.

A patron enters the St. Lawrence Arts Center before a Good Theater production of “Popcorn Falls” on Feb. 1. Derek Davis/Staff Photographer Buy this Photo

Good Theater is one example of a Portland arts organization that has adapted how it presents its art to meet audience demands. The city is full of other examples. Space Gallery has added more classical music, dance and theater into its live-performance mix and, beginning Feb. 15, will collaborate with Mad Horse Theater to present the Maine premiere of the play “Appropriate” by MacArthur genius fellow Branden Jacobs-Jenkins. Last winter, Space sold out a run of Sam Shepard’s “True West.”

Portland Ovations routinely programs series of related events, including performances and lectures, around the themes of its mainstage performances to reach audiences in different ways. New performance spaces like the Apohadion Theater on Hanover Street and the Fresnel Theater on Free Street are drawing people with bands, improv and other events, while established arts presenters, such as Mayo Street Arts, are expanding schedules and diversifying the kinds of performances it hosts.

Portland has two festivals dedicated to the music of Bach.

David Greenham, the Maine Arts Commission chairman, sees anecdotal evidence of the survey results in the growth of small arts organizations that target specific groups of artists and arts consumers. In Portland in particular, younger artists and new arts organizations are spurring that growth and taking a do-it-yourself approach to creating and presenting art, he said. “The same entrepreneurial spirit we are seeing in brew pubs and ag-related activity, it’s also happening in the performing and visual arts,” Greenham said.

Iyengar, the director of research for the NEA, said the survey only produced reliable data from 35 metropolitan statistical areas, a function of the Census Bureau’s surveying technique, but they ranged from large cities, like New York, Chicago and Los Angeles with more than 10 million people, to smaller urban areas like Nashville, Columbus, Ohio, and Portland. Generally, the rates of arts participation aligned with state rates, but Portland was among those cities with rates of arts participation much higher than the state average.

Patrons file into the theater at the St. Lawrence Arts before a Good Theater production of “Popcorn Falls” on Feb. 1. Derek Davis/Staff Photographer Buy this Photo

Dinah Minot, executive director of nonprofit arts agency Creative Portland, said the data in the NEA report about Portland reflect how the city’s arts and cultural options have increased in recent years, and cited the emergence of Portland Dance Month as an example of the city’s evolution. Each fall, various dance presenters coordinate their schedules to create a festival-like event over several weeks in some venues where dance isn’t usually found – at the Portland Museum of Art, for instance, and the U.S. Custom House. “It’s been fun to see how dance has picked up, and we’re also seeing more collaborations and partnerships among the dance presenters,” Minot said.

Creative Portland introduced Hear Here in 2019 as a new annual event to showcase local talent, because people routinely express surprise at how much Portland has to offer. By putting a variety of performers on stage, Creative Portland gives the community and artists a chance to interact and develop new relationships, she said.

The audience arrives at Portland Stage on Thursday for a matinee of “Almost, Maine.” Derek Davis/Staff Photographer Buy this Photo

BUILDING AN AUDIENCE

In Portland, the audience-building trend crosses all genres. The Portland Chamber Music Festival also has altered its performances and how it presents them to meet the changing desires of music fans. It has begun holding some of its concerts in non-traditional venues, including restaurants and bars, starting them a little earlier and hiring musicians who perform works that cut across genres.

It’s an attempt to expand the audience beyond the traditional classical music crowd, festival artistic director Melissa Reardon said.

“I have felt for a long time that classical music and chamber music have had a PR problem. The labeling of classical music is off-putting,” she said. “There is a stereotype that the experience is stuffy or uncomfortable and not real or connecting in a way that is meaningful or visceral. I really want people to have a visceral experience.”

Sarah Mills scans tickets for a matinee of “Almost, Maine” at Portland Stage on Thursday. Derek Davis/Staff Photographer Buy this Photo

An example of the experience Reardon hopes to create is an upcoming concert by the string ensemble Invoke. The festival is presenting the concert under the name Whiskey Chamber Valentine at 6 p.m. Friday at Maine Craft Distilling on Washington Avenue, with doors opening at 5:30. The musicians in the ensemble play instruments associated with string quartets, such as the violin and cello, and also the mandolin and banjo. They write a lot of the music they perform, and try to tell a larger story of American music, crossing into genres of classical, folk and bluegrass.

They also are passionate about whiskey, so presenting a concert like this in a venue that typically hosts a variety of bands makes for a fun evening for the performers and audiences, Reardon said. And with the concert starting at 6 p.m. without an intermission, people can plan to be on their way within 90 minutes or so.

Her instincts have proven good. Invoke sold out two weeks in advance – 65 seats that ranged in price from $60 to $90. It’s the second year in a row the Portland Chamber Music Festival has tried something different and risky and succeeded. Last February, it sold out a Valentine-themed concert and dinner at the Old Port restaurant and wine bar Sur Lie.

The success of these concerts, Reardon said, affirms that “Portland audiences love experiences and they love trying something new.”

Sally Bancroft fits that profile. She bought tickets for Whiskey Chamber Valentine as well as a performance by the family-friendly dance troupe Momix at Merrill Auditorium, presented Friday by Portland Ovations. Both are out of the norm for her and her husband, Ron, who have lived in Portland for 36 years and are far more apt to buy tickets to the Portland Symphony Orchestra.

Part of her motivation in buying tickets for Invoke and Momix was to take advantage of what Portland has to offer. “We might be trying to branch out a little bit, for our own edification, and because there is so much out there,” said Bancroft, 76.

Whiskey Chamber Valentine was especially enticing, “because it sounded like something a lot of young people would find appealing. I thought, ‘This sounds like something we wouldn’t necessarily choose to do,’ but it sounded funky. It sounded like fun,” she said. “I said to my husband, ‘Let’s do something out of the box for Valentine’s Day.’ “

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