Arts and Community Building in Maine

Published in: GIA Reader, Vol 12, No 3 (Fall 2001)

Lissa Widoff

The cultural landscape of Maine is as rich and diverse as its natural landscape, although it is less well known. Recent initiatives have brought attention to the arts and culture of this rural state that is home to 1.4 million residents and covers two million acres, 2,000 miles of rugged (and increasingly developed) shoreline, and a vast area of working forest, farms, and urban settings not unlike its northern NewEngland neighbors.

The cultural landscape of Maine is as rich and diverse as its natural landscape, although it is less well known. Recent initiatives have brought attention to the arts and culture of this rural state that is home to 1.4 million residents and covers two million acres, 2,000 miles of rugged (and increasingly developed) shoreline, and a vast area of working forest, farms, and urban settings not unlike its northern New England neighbors.

While Maine's geography may invoke a sense of quiet isolation and lead one to believe that its cultural expression is a backwater as well, a major statewide conference held June 12, 2001 in Rockport, Maine proved otherwise. Over 200 people attended Creating a Better Maine: Strengthening Maine Communities through the Arts and Humanities. This gathering built on the momentum begun by community arts initiatives led by the Maine Community Foundation, the Maine Arts Commission, and the Maine Humanities Council.

The three sponsors brought together community arts leaders, economic development staff, municipal leaders, policy-makers, grantmakers, and arts and humanities organizations for a day of shared learning and exchange dedicated to exploring ways that Maine communities are improving their local economy and social conditions through arts, culture, and humanities programs. The main purpose of the conference was to help all participants build a strong case for continued investment in the arts and humanities in our communities.

The full day of workshops explored the successes and challenges of projects that aimed to increase participation in cultural activity, bring economic benefits through arts and cultural development, expand community and civic pride through cultural heritage and humanities projects, and promote community arts development in both rural and urban settings.

The opening plenary featured the Creative Economy Initiative and provided evidence that the creative sector is an economic force in New England deserving of political attention and investment. The Creative Economy Initiative is a research and policy partnership of New England business, government, and not-for-profit leaders committed to better understanding of and support for the region's creative sector. It is sponsored by the New England Council (a regional economic policy group), the New England Foundation for the Arts (NEFA), and the Maine Arts Commission, together with the five other New England state arts agencies and the Boston Symphony Orchestra.

The research was conducted for the Council by Mount Auburn Associates and describes the creative economy's impact on regional competitiveness, workforce development, and community revitalization. Research results demonstrate that the "creative economy" — including nonprofit institutions such as museums and libraries, individual artists, and arts-related commerce — generates 245,000 jobs and, when coupled with cultural tourism, some $10 billion annually in economic activity. Further, the report says that New England's cultural institutions help keep the region competitive by enhancing the quality of life for the skilled workers that businesses are trying so very hard to attract. The report looks at the arts “as an industry cluster in much the same way we view financial services and technology industry clusters,” and it evaluates their contribution to jobs, tourism, and economic development.

While economic arguments for investments in the arts are anathema to some, many small groups in Maine are hungering for this information as they struggle to convince local school boards, municipal officials, local businesses, and their fellow community members to strengthen arts education, support capital improvements to historic opera houses and music halls, and invest in local cultural organizations.

The Creative Economy Initiative: The Role of Arts and Culture in New England's Economic Competitiveness, and subsequent updates are available on the NEFA Web site.

In many communities and urban areas, historic and cultural preservation is a cornerstone of community development. A masterful illustration of this was presented by Mayor Joseph Riley, Jr. of Charleston, South Carolina in his keynote speech. The City of Charleston is recognized as one of the most livable and progressive cities in the United States, largely because of the cultural amenities and historic and open space preservation efforts. Mayor Riley, in office for over two decades, has not wavered in his firm belief that cities can be places of beauty and that preserving historic and cultural elements also preserves the social fabric that contributes to community and responsibility.

The impetus for the conference was the approaching conclusion of the Maine Community Foundation's involvement in a four-year initiative supported by the Wallace-Reader's Digest Funds. The Maine Community Foundation (MCF) was one of ten community foundations selected by the Lila Wallace-Reader's Digest Fund to participate in their Community Partnerships for Cultural Participation Initiative. The MCF program — “pARTners: The ART of Building Community” — provided $300,000 in grants to expand participation in cultural activities for Maine's communities, supported model programs in Portland, Waterville, and Hancock County, and increased the Foundation's internal funding resources for Maine-based cultural programs.

A second major incentive for the conference was the pending renewal of a major cultural initiative, The New Century Community Program. In 1999, the original legislation for this program drew national attention as a model of collaboration whereby all seven cultural agencies1 that receive state funding presented a joint program to advance the state's economic and social development through the revitalization of its cultural institutions. The New Century Program received $3.2 million dollars for two years from the state and provided matching grants and technical assistance to Maine communities to:

• Expand access to educational resources by promoting literacy and giving access to historic and contemporary materials;
• Preserve Maine's historic resources — its properties, artifacts, and documents;
• Advance the economic and social development of Maine's communities by strengthening their arts and cultural resources.

After the conference, and after rancorous debate in the legislature in a year when budget projects were facing a shortfall rather than the surpluses of prior years, the Maine legislature agreed to fund the program for one additional year at $400,000, a fraction of the $4.2 million requested.

Recent studies show that Maine has over 1,000 cultural organizations, yet only 10 percent have budgets exceeding $25,000. While the urban centers of Portland, Lewiston-Auburn, and Bangor have major cultural facilities, cultural events and opportunities abound in all corners of the state and often rely on volunteer efforts, cooperative ventures among large and small cultural venues, and efforts to build on the local history, heritage, and creative capital of tradesmen, local artisans, and professional artists who find their homes and inspiration in Maine.

Maine arts organizations of all sizes share many challenges with their brethren in other states and regions — how to build community support, how to expand audiences and collaborative programs, how to build on the rich cultural heritage of the state while engaging people in new creative forms of expression, and how to celebrate the diversity of our communities while gaining new respect for the history of diversity that often included cultural repression.

All of these questions are part of the work of building community through the arts in Maine. Cultural expression in Maine is rich and diverse, and it flourishes despite a challenging funding environment. Efforts to relate arts and cultural development to other community needs such as education, economic development, and quality of life offer new hope for increasing awareness and support for state and grantmaker interest.

Lissa Widoff is project director, The Art of Building Community, Maine Community Foundation.

For more information call 207-667-9735 or write lwidoff[at]mainecf.org.