Art Works Blog

Welcome to Maine, Chairman Landesman. Have a lobster with a side of art!

Felicia K. Knight. Photo by Towle Tompkins

This is my first NEA blog in at least four years. When I was NEA Director of Communications (my tenure ended four years ago), I usually chipped in a Big Read blog because someone else missed a deadline.

Since returning to my home state of Maine, I’ve been serving on both the Maine Arts Commission, Maine’s state arts agency, and the board of Portland Ovations, Maine’s largest presenting organization. In my work as a media and policy consultant, I also work with several clients across the country who are involved in the arts, humanities, and international cultural exchange.

Because of my ongoing involvement with the arts in Maine, my previous vantage point within, and ongoing affection for the NEA, I was approached to write this guest blog in anticipation of NEA Chairman Rocco Landesman’s visit to Maine today.

I happily agreed and promised not to mention anything about the Boston Red Sox 2004 World Series victory over Chairman Landesman’s beloved St. Louis Cardinals. Or that it was a four-game sweep.

(That won’t affect any grant money slated for Maine, right?)

While Maine boasts a cultural heritage rich with names like Wyeth, Welliver, Millay, Longfellow, Nevelson, Indiana, Ipcar, Hawthorn, Hartley, and Hopper, its current creative prosperity is linked less to nationally recognized bold-faced names than it is to countless ordinary citizens toiling on the front lines.

Thousands of local artists, business people, elected officials, and volunteers in Maine cities and towns actively embrace the fact that art and culture enhance both economic development and quality of life. Across the state there are stories of economic and neighborhood revivals for which art has been either the main fuel or a significant additive.

Maine is a large, rural state. Despite the number of millionaires and even billionaires who summer here, Maine is not a wealthy state. In 2011, Maine had the lowest personal income growth rate of any state in the country. Much of its early 20th-century prosperity came from traditional manufacturing or agriculture, and economic growth has been elusive for many since the farms and the mills ceased production. Recent economic woes also have done little to foster wealth in Maine.

Success has come when new kinds of manufacturing, tech services, and even agriculture are viewed through a lens of creativity that refuses to separate commerce from art and culture, but instead melds them into a kind of eco-system where one draws from and supports the other.

The various names for this approach come and go and fall in and out of fashion, but when executed with sound policy, vision, and commitment, communities find they are the better for it. It’s not easy. It breaks the mold of traditional city planning and it takes patience.

Chairman Landesman will visit Portland where he may expect and indeed will find many strong and prosperous arts organizations that contribute to the economic vitality and pure livability of Maine’s largest city and its environs. I’m glad he’ll get to hear from Portland’s arts leaders. They are doing exceptional, rewarding work that provides the greater Portland area with a remarkable array of cultural offerings.

Because an NEA Chairman is the nation’s arts advocate, there’s no substitute for hearing directly from American citizens about what’s effective on the ground and what isn’t. For that reason, I hope he also gets to listen to people from across the state who can attest to the part creativity has played in places where the challenges are greater and the result perhaps more astonishing.

On the ground in Maine, the Maine Arts Commission’s Creative Communities = Economic Development (CCED) matching grant program recognizes that each community has some unique primary asset around which it can build. Each year, it awards two CCED grants to encourage cultural, business, and governmental sectors to work together toward economic and community revitalization.

With a $50,000 CCED grant, Eastport, Maine, a once prosperous fishing and canning center (located five hours downeast of Portland), formed a coalition of government, civic, business, and arts leaders called “On the Creative Edge.” Their work has led to more integration of arts and culture into the city’s planning and economic development. This, in turn, has led to the attraction of transformative foundation dollars, the creation of active artistic spaces downtown, and recognition that arts and culture are cornerstones in rebuilding Eastport’s future.

In 2002, the National Folk Festival came to Bangor, Maine (two hours north of Portland) for its three-year residency. When it left, the city replaced it with the American Folk Festival on the Bangor Waterfront, a celebration of multi-cultural traditional arts. Ten years later, Bangor has a revitalized waterfront that hosts not only the Folk Festival, but also a series of commercial summer concerts, and several events for the ever-growing KahBang Festival. Bangor is also in the process of building the largest municipal auditorium in the state.

Other Maine cities and towns such as Stonington, Westbrook, Waterville, and Biddeford are grappling with economies that are in transition, but also on the creative edge. They are finding that no one sector has a corner on creativity and the key to creative economic growth is for all interested parties to work together. And each town has at least one leader who is passionately committed to this vision.

I mentioned earlier that a key ingredient is commitment. There are as many fads in economic development (Industrial parks! Tax increment financing!) as there are in the arts (Graffiti! Renzo Piano additions!) On a policy level, ideas need the teeth of commitment or they have no power. Americans are an impatient lot and policy makers can be among the most impatient. If results are not fast enough to keep up with the latest polling, or if an idea is not their own, there is the risk of moving on to the next big thing. When that happens, nothing takes root. And when that happens consistently, no idea, no matter how good, is taken seriously.

These collaborations among government, business, and the arts are not unique to Maine. We see them transforming neighborhoods, corridors, and downtowns all over the country, which to me, is all the more reason to remain committed to the model.

Call it what you want or don’t want: Creative Economy, Quality of Place, Asset-Based Economy, it doesn’t matter. A rose by any other name would smell as sweet.

Felicia K. Knight is president of Knight Vision International and served as Director of Communications at the NEA from 2003 to 2008.


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