Carla Pugliese is the director of the newly formed Cultural Alliance of Maine. The entity was formed so the state’s arts, cultural and historic organizations have a unified voice. Ben McCanna/Staff Photographer

Last spring, after the pandemic hit and representatives of Maine’s various economic sectors began meeting with state officials about their economic plight, consistently absent from those conversations were the state’s cultural leaders. That’s because there was no umbrella organization to advance their views and make their case for funding and support.

“Money was being handed out, and we weren’t at the table,” said Linda Nelson, deputy director of Portland Ovations. “Hospitals were banging down the doors, the hospitality industry was banging down the doors – everybody was meeting with economic recovery committee, but there were no members from the cultural sector there. We had no voice.”

They do now. The state’s cultural leaders banded together to form the Cultural Alliance of Maine as a year-long pilot project in hopes of unifying the state’s cultural communities around a single voice. The goal, said the group’s newly hired project director, Carla Pugliese, is to create a “unified ecosystem” to help increase the cultural sector’s visibility, impact and, ultimately, resources.

She compared the group to the Sportsman’s Alliance of Maine or HospitalityMaine – trade groups that represent their members’ interests across the board. The cultural alliance will do the same, she said. “We are collectivizing the cultural voice so there is more power at the State House, at the federal level and at the local level for the cultural sector,” Pugliese said, who lives in Waterford in Oxford County.

And while the pandemic highlighted the need for such an organization, the Cultural Alliance of Maine “is not a pandemic response,” she said. “It is about building something that is useful and valuable and rich for many, many years going forward.”

Pugliese also emphasized the Cultural Alliance of Maine is not an arts organization. Arts groups are a part of it, and so are historical societies, libraries, and both for-profit and nonprofit entities such as galleries, theaters and museums, as well as individual artists and makers. The attempt to bring together such an encompassing umbrella organization is a first, she said.

“As far as I can tell from talking to folks in this work for a long time in Maine and looking at the history, there hasn’t been this level of movement to bring together arts, history and libraries and individual makers, and the nonprofits and for-profits – the whole cultural landscape – together. There are a lot of different needs and perspectives brought into this one web,” she said.

Pugliese, who began working last week, will travel across the state this spring meeting people in person when she can, and on April 16, the alliance will host a virtual gathering of cultural organizations and employees to talk about their reopening plans and the upcoming tourist season. The alliance has asked Heather Johnson, the commissioner of the Department of Economic and Community Development, to join the meeting.

Several Maine foundations are funding the alliance, including the Onion Foundation, Morton-Kelly Charitable Trust, Virginia Hodgkins Somers Foundation and the Libra Foundation. The Maine Association of Nonprofits is providing administrative support. The annual salary for the pilot project director was advertised between $55,000 and $65,000.

Nat May, arts program officer for the Onion Foundation, said he was was hopeful the alliance would be able to provide more tools and points of connection and that the cultural sector will be lifted by a collective voice. “It’s easy to point to the economic value, but we also need to remember that arts and culture programs are playing and will play a huge role in our pandemic recovery, as we look for ways to process our experiences and reflect and learn,” he said.

That is especially true as organizations sort through “the total mess” of federal relief programs, he said. The alliance will support reopening efforts by helping organizations identify and navigate funding needs and options, as well as understand restrictions and safety protocols, May said.

According to data released this week by the National Assembly of State Arts Agencies, arts and cultural industries added $1.7 billion to Maine’s economy, or 2.6 percent of Maine’s total gross state product, and employed 17,324 Mainers in 2019. However, the data does not offer a complete picture, because the creative industries in the survey do not include historical societies or historical preservation organizations, “so the real impact is likely larger,” Pugliese said.

David Greenham, newly appointed interim executive director of the Maine Arts Commission, said the alliance has created “tremendous positivity” around the state, and the Maine Arts Commission fully supports it. “Hopefully when we get to the end of this – when we get to the point where audiences are comfortable being together in a space in larger numbers and when cultural organizations and individual artists are ready to step up and do the work – we will recognize that in pre-COVID times we were all a little too siloed and that camaraderie, communication and shared problem-solving are going to raise all the boats.”

The arts commission has a role to play in that effort, he said, but the Cultural Alliance of Maine “is a higher level than the arts commission” because it will include a much wider swath of interests.


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