Tammy Ackerman is leaving Engine, the Biddeford arts organization she founded 10 years ago. Shawn Patrick Ouellette/Staff Photographer

The Biddeford arts organization that was formed on the premise that it could help revitalize the city – and did – is losing the only executive director it’s ever had, and it might take a team to replace her.

After 10 years of building Engine into an arts group that caters to an entire community, with exhibits and programs for children and adults, co-founding director Tammy Ackerman will leave the organization this summer. “It’s a difficult time to make a decision like this, but I also think the timing is good,” she said. “Taking it all into consideration, this presents an opportunity for someone to step into an organization that has laid a great foundation and move it forward.”

In addition to searching for a new director, Engine also faces a major change in its long-term plans with its recent decision to attempt to sell the Marble Block Building on Main Street instead of continuing with a massive and costly renovation and revitalization project on its own. Engine still hopes to occupy the building and make it its long-term home, as well as the center of Biddeford’s arts activity, said Engine board president Karin Gregory, but is seeking a development partner to complete the project.

Engine purchased the building from Reny’s department store for $1 in 2011 and has raised and invested about $400,000 to remove lead and asbestos, install a sprinkler system and upgrade power. Given the uncertainties surrounding the philanthropic community coming out of a pandemic, it makes sense now to try to sell the building and work with a new owner, Gregory said.

“The building is an asset, but it also needs a lot of work to bring it to commercial viability. We are on a good path for that, but with Tammy leaving, we are going to look to the outside and try to find what I call a development partner who can bring capital” to the project and help Engine realize its goals of still occupying the building, but as tenant instead of owner.

Of the decision to sell the building, Ackerman said, “It’s sad for me to come to that realization. It was a difficult project before, and COVID has amplified that difficulty. … My job between now and August is not only to get everything in shape, but to try to capitalize the organization as much as I can to get it in a strong position so the next person coming in has breathing room going forward.”

Engine operates with an annual budget of between $200,000 and $250,000 a year, and relies on contributions and grants for most of its income. Ackerman earned $47,404 in 2017, according to the organization’s 990 tax form filed for that year.

Gregory declined to discuss the salary of the new position, which she hopes to fill by the end of August. A transition committee has been formed to help the organization plot its future, and from that process, a search committee will come together to draft a new job description. Replacing Ackerman will be difficult, Gregory said, because she has been integral to all aspects of the arts group since its formation in 2010.

“Any founder like Tammy wears a lot of hats and takes on a lot of different tasks – the fundraiser, the program person and all of that. We want to find somebody who can bring in a few other people to complement them and create a senior team” to help the organization sustain and grow.

Ackerman said she would stay in the job longer, if needed. She has no specific plans, but expects to work in the nonprofit sector somewhere in the region. She and her fiance, Joshua Bodwell, are contemplating a move from Biddeford closer to Boston, where Bodwell works in book publishing. The coronavirus has complicated their personal plans, she said, but hasn’t altered her decision to step away from Engine.

Ackerman, 55, grew up in South Dakota and ran a small design business in Reno, Nevada, before moving to Biddeford in 2006. She formed Engine with Bodwell and their mutual friend Stephen Abbott in 2010 on the principle that art and creativity are central to cultural, social and economic revitalization.

It has occupied three locations in Biddeford in 10 years, including its current home at 165 Main St. Prior to having its own physical space, Engine existed as a virtual space. As its first art exhibition, Engine hosted conceptual artist Amy Stacey Curtis’ solo biennial project “Time” in the North Dam Mill. As part of her final work at Engine, Ackerman said she would work with Curtis again to mount an exhibition in Engine’s current space or in the Marble Block Building down the street.

Gregory, who joined the Engine board a year ago, credited the arts group with infusing energy and creativity into downtown activities, and said the group’s strong presence over the past decade has helped the community grow and prosper. “It’s been a wonderful organization that has grown in the community, and the community has grown around it,” she said.

Ackerman estimates that Engine has hosted about 150 exhibitions in 10 years, as well as numerous programs for kids and adults, which have included art workshops, the city’s monthly art walk and PechaKucha nights. In addition to a gallery, it also has retail space and rents studios to artists. Ackerman described the character of Engine as “resourceful,” and said she was most proud of its welcoming attitude.

“People come to me with all kinds of questions, because they know I am connected to the community. We’re like the Yellow Pages of Biddeford and southern Maine for that matter. People come in and ask, ‘Who do I go see about this?’ ‘Where can I go to find that?’ I have always strove to make Engine feel like a place people can walk into. I am proud how inclusive Engine has been. Our doors are open to everyone and all ideas. We haven’t created an exclusive enclave that is only available to a few.”


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