NEA Arts Magazine

Fostering a Creative Economy

Maine Arts Commission Quantifies Benefits of the Arts

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Holly Meade

Artist Holly Meade -- one of Maine's visual artists who are fueling the state's creative economy -- working on woodblock prints at her home studio, Reach Road Gallery, in Sedgewick, Maine. Photo by Jenny Smick.

The smokestacks of many New England mill towns may lie dormant, but in Maine, the arts are fueling a new kind of industrial revolution. Since Governor John Elias Baldacci took office in 2002, the Maine Arts Commission has been a national leader in demonstrating the value of arts-based economics to the success of Maine's towns and cities. Through a series of symposiums and surveys, the commission has determined that the creative economy generates an estimated $3.7 billion in cultural tourism dollars for the New England region, qualifying it as a major regional export industry. This research, which quantified how the presence of artists and creative businesses benefit the state, has served as the cornerstone of new statewide policies that promote arts-based local community development.

Commission Director Donna McNeil indicated that the ball really got rolling in 2004 at the commission's Blaine House Conference, a two-day gathering of artists and public policy makers held at a renovated mill in Lewiston. Featured speaker Richard Florida, author of The Rise of the Creative Class, explained his theory of economy-based arts advocacy. But what really energized the crowd was the clear-voiced challenge of Gov. Baldacci.

"We will open the door even wider to everyone in this state who wants to invest in the creation of good-paying jobs and vibrant communities," the governor said in his opening address. "Today we will open the door even wider to the concept that every Maine person can reach his or her full potential if we embrace the arts, embrace creativity, embrace diversity, embrace entrepreneurship, embrace innovation."

Baldacci's enthusiastic support has inspired local officials to see opportunity in the arts galleries lining small-town streets. "That was really the beginning," McNeil said. "The creative economy philosophy has taken hold in Maine."

McNeil and her staff work with artist agencies and groups across the state, helping them convince local officials that a few art galleries and bookstores beget restaurants and coffee shops, and the next thing you know, a small town is drawing tourists. For example, a survey showed that 58 percent of visitors to the Farnsworth Art Museum came to Rockland, a midcoast city of 7,600, with the museum as their only planned destination. But for every dollar these visitors spent on museum admission, they spent another $1.56 at other area businesses, proof the arts can be an economic generator.

Since the Blaine House Conference, the commission has released nine reports on topics ranging from commerce to quality of life. A little of this data goes a long way when McNeil interacts with state officials. Case in point: the Maine Turnpike Authority's new rest stop in Gardiner, scheduled to open this summer, will include a 2,000-square-foot fine craft shop.

McNeil added that the NEA's partnership support was critical to the state's creative economy efforts. "The invaluable support from the NEA fuels all of Maine's good work as it focuses on quality of life and rebrands itself through investment in our artists and the historic town centers they inhabit."