The Maine Arts Commission is preparing to distribute more than $750,000 in federal stimulus money to arts and other organizations across Maine, on the condition they will use that money to employ artists to improve their communities.

“If you have always wanted a mural painted on the wall of your local YMCA, as long as you hire an artist to do it, this money could be used for that kind of project,” said David Greenham, executive director of the Maine Arts Commission, which is drawing up guidelines and grant-making processes for distributing the money later this year.

The money – the precise amount is $758,600 – comes from the National Endowment for the Arts, which received $135 million from the American Rescue Plan, approved by Congress to lessen the COVID-19 pandemic’s economic toll. The NEA sent another $1,026,000 to Maine last week as part of its annual funding, with $821,000 going to the Maine Arts Commission to pay for ongoing grant programs and general support.

Greenham said the arts commission is in the process of establishing guidelines for disbursing the American Rescue Plan money. Projects eligible for funding must employ artists, he said.

“The focus of this effort is on economic recovery and job creation,” Greenham said.

That mandate comes from the NEA. In conversations about this program with his peers at the federal agency, Greenham has heard references to the Works Progress Administration, a New Deal-era program that used federal money to employ people for public works projects, including artists who painted murals and created public art to beautify communities. Hundreds of artists were involved, including Jackson Pollock, Jacob Lawrence and many artists with Maine ties, like Berenice Abbott and Dahlov Ipcar. There are several examples of WPA murals in Maine, including the Alzira Peirce mural titled “Shipwreck at Night” at the South Portland post office.

In addition to arts organizations, cultural and community organizations are encouraged to apply, as long as they propose a project involving the employment of artists, Greenham said. Guidelines and grant amounts should be available in June. The Maine Arts Commission expects to receive its federal allocation in July, and Greenham said grants could be awarded in late summer or early fall.

In 2020, the Maine Arts Commission received $426,800 in CARES Act funding, also related to the pandemic. It was designed to address immediate concerns, and there was a sense of urgency to get that money out as quickly as possible. This money will go fast as well, Greenham said, but he hopes it supports projects with long-term impact in their communities, as opposed to stopgap measures to help organizations survive.

“We want to be thoughtful about how the money can be creatively used in more entrepreneurial ways,” he said.

In a statement, Gov. Janet Mills said the arts in Maine are important for the state’s economy, “but more important than dollars and cents are its contributions to the culture of our people. … I am pleased that the Maine Arts Commission will now have the flexibility to help art organizations in Maine who have struggled during the coronavirus pandemic.”

The NEA distributed about 40 percent of its American Rescue Plan money to state-based arts agencies. The remaining 60 percent will be awarded directly to nonprofit organizations across the country.

“The release of these American Rescue Plan funds marks an important step in the economic recovery of the creative sector,” NEA Acting Chair Ann Eilers said in a statement. “The knowledge of the Maine Arts Commission about the arts and culture landscape in Maine makes it an ideal steward of federal dollars.”


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