In one of her final acts, outgoing Maine Arts Commission executive director Julie Richard celebrated a new round of fellowship grants for individual artists – and promised she’d hire as many Maine artists as she could in her new role as director an arts center in Arizona.

The commission’s 2021 Fellowship Awards represent the best in artistic excellence in Maine and recognize seven artists across a range of fields and disciplines, including a marlinspike maker in Stonington, a photographer in Portland and a basketmaker from Sipayik. Each award comes with a $5,000 prize, the largest grant available to artists in Maine through the commission.

This year’s winners are Dianne Ballon, a sound artist who won in the multimedia category; basketmaker Gabriel Frey, traditional arts; textile artist Sarah Haskell, fine craft; photographer Jocelyn Lee, visual arts; writer Alex Marzano-Lesnevich, literary arts; singer, songwriter and producer Michael O., performing arts; and Tim Whitten, who won the Belvedere Craft award for the range of skills necessary for crafting marlinspikes, a handheld tool used in marine ropework.

Julie Richard

Julie Richard Photo courtesy of Maine Arts Commission

“I think this year more than ever, this class of fellows represents the diversity of our state as well as the diversity of art forms that exist here,” Richard wrote in an interview conducted by email. “These artists truly represent all of what Maine has to offer. These artists prove that world-class art really does exist in every corner of our state.”

Richard has directed the Maine Arts Commission since 2012. She announced her departure earlier this month, and is leaving to direct the Sedona Art Center in Arizona. Like Maine, Arizona has a deep cultural well, with a blend of traditional and contemporary art across generations and disciplines.

“Since I will be running an arts center, I really hope to draw on some of the artists I’ve met here and provide them opportunities in Sedona. Sedona has a rich history of attracting artists, not unlike Maine, and I see synergies between Maine, New England and Arizona in the future. Stay tuned,” she wrote.

A highlight of her job in Maine was distributing grants to artists and arts organizations. Beyond the money, these individual artist fellowships lift up artists by promoting their work and telling their stories, she said.

In her farewell message, she asked Mainers to recognize the importance of arts and entertainment, and Maine culture more broadly, as vital to the state’s economy, because of the jobs associated with the arts, and also to the state’s identity, because of the communities that are created where artists gather. The pandemic has devastated the arts, and Richard warned what’s at stake if leaders don’t act.

“Thousands of Maine people make their living creating art, as individual artists as well as through the many arts organizations that create the vibrancy in our communities that we sometimes take for granted. Our industry needs help, especially now,” she wrote. “At the height of the pandemic, the unemployment rate for the arts sector was over 60 percent. Some of that has been gained back but current unemployment benefits provided by the CARES Act will run out on Dec. 26. Those additional benefits have kept our artists and PPP loans and other grants have kept organizations afloat. Additional relief needs to be passed now or we could see a wholesale depletion of the cultural sector in the coming year.”

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