Art Works Blog

Postcard from Maine and Minnesota

Here I am at Portland's City Hall with Marty Pottenger and some of the Department of Public Services workers engaged in the Art at Work project. (from l-r) Dwayne Cote, Brian Cogill, Dave Melendez, Gordie Greenlaw, Marty Pottenger. Photo by Tonee Harbert

My last trip was fairly alliterative---with stops in Maine and Minnesota. I started in Rockland, Maine, where I’d been invited to visit by Chellie Pingree, the U.S. Representative from Maine’s first district. I knew Chellie before I even came to the NEA; her husband Don has been a friend in New York. She is just such a terrific Congresswoman; she’s passionate about the arts. My visit there was almost a little redundant because she’s already such a supporter. Rockland is the jumping off point for North Haven, which is where she lives and has a farm so she is very close to all of Rockland’s life, and knows first-hand about how the arts have transformed that place.

In Rockland, my first stop was Tom O’Donovan’s Muir Garden for Contemporary Sculpture at Harbor Square Gallery. It’s a neat place. It’s not only a gallery that serves as an arts destination, but Tom’s taken a little space and really opened it up, renovated it, and put this sculpture garden on the roof. You have a great view of the town from there. It’s a great creative placemaking example. When you walk down Main Street what you see are galleries and arts activities of all kinds. We also visited Eric Hopkins’ gallery where we had lunch and visited with staff from the Maine Arts Commission.

You know, Rockland is Exhibit A of creative placemaking. This is a town, when I was in college in the mid-sixties, that was in a state of implosion. Industry was leaving, factories were closing up, and the town went through a period of real economic distress for many years. And now with the galleries and other places, like the Farnsworth Art Museum, it has really been transformed. And it’s been transformed because of the arts.

Our group for touring Main Street also included Chris Rector, who is a very arts-supportive member of the Maine Senate and Donna McNeil, of course, the arts policy and program director of the Maine Arts Commission, who has done yeoman’s work there over the years.

It was just wonderful to see how vital Rockland is, largely because of the arts. Jeff Charland and Dan Bookham, who are both part of the local business community, were very warm and welcoming to us. And what they emphasized, what they made clear by being there themselves, is how much the business community has dialed into the creative placemaking agenda. The businesses have to buy in for it to work, and in Rockland they really have.

Another terrific project in Rockland is the North Atlantic Blues Festival, which is Paul Benjamin’s project, and it is a huge draw. During the couple of weeks that the blues festival is on, people come from all over the country to take part, and the galleries can sell their work, and there’s just a lot of commerce surrounding the festival. This is a perfect example of how the arts can jumpstart an economy.

In the afternoon, we visited the Farnsworth Art Museum---one of our Blue Star Museums---for a community conversation. I was glad to be with our National Council on the Arts member Barbara Ernst Prey who has a painting in their collection. In fact, it was great to have Barbara with us for all of our stops on Wednesday. When we were at the Farnsworth we were hosted by Chris Brownawell, the director there. Boy, that’s a sensational museum. They have three generations of Wyeths there, which is great, I saw some wonderful Andrew and Jamie Wyeth paintings.

The main event was a discussion with a group of community arts folks, including Manuel Bagorro, the artistic director at the Bay Chamber Concerts and Music School; Ben Fowlie, the director of the Camden International Film Festival; Suzette McAvoy, the director of the Center for Maine Contemporary Art; Peter Korn, the director of the Center for Furniture Craftsmanship; Meg Weston, president of Maine Media Workshops; Paul Hodgson of Everyman Repertory Theater; and, of course, Chris Brownawell. I always love these back-and-forths and this was no exception.

Then we headed to Portland, where the first thing that we did was go to Portland Stage for another community forum. First of all, the place was packed, and, as a producer, the box office is the first thing you notice. Portland Stage is a nationally recognized company. Anita Stewart, who was our host there, is the theater’s executive and artistic director, and she’s a real dynamo. She has served as an NEA panelist in the past.

During the panel I shared the stage with Jennifer Hutchins from Creative Portland Corp, Tammy Ackerman who is doing creative placemaking in Biddeford, Maine, and Sharon Corwin, who runs the Colby College Museum of Art. We had a great back and forth on the panel. Of course, there was a wonderful Colby connection there for me, and it’s interesting how the Colby Museum now is starting to be not only a museum, but an avenue for community outreach between the college and the Waterville community, which had always been fairly isolated from each other. Biddeford has been another very economically challenged town where they are determined to use the arts as an engine for the renaissance of that place. The work they’re doing sounded so good that I felt that on my next trip I want to go to Biddeford and check it out.

I also visited with Portland Mayor Michael Brennan. He could not have been more welcoming. He has a great self-deprecating sense of humor, and he really gets it about the arts. He’s passionate about the arts, and when you look at Portland, you see that he has good reason to be. Portland, which is a city that I used to visit fairly often when I lived in Waterville, is a completely different city now. It’s really an art city, and I think it’s largely because of the galleries. As I saw on the second day in Portland, when we walked down Congress Street, it’s just one gallery after the other after the other interspersed with stores that sell off-beat merchandise and also restaurants. It’s a very vital cultural district, and what everyone there says is that it wasn’t always so. Congress was a very grim street, and it was a grim neighborhood before the arts took over and helped make it into something.

This transformative power of the arts is something that Chellie is very aware of and very proud of, and it was fun to see her so embraced by the arts community there. I think they get what a passionate advocate she has been for them, and I think she was very glad to show me around.

Before heading to dinner, we were welcomed to the Maine College of Art (MECA) by its President Don Tuski who filled me in about what they are doing at the MECA. They have an Artist at Work Center, which is about creative entrepreneurship. MECA is a center of arts activity in Portland. They very much focus on getting graduates plugged into the real economy. They take a very entrepreneurial attitude to all of this. The school is really an incubator for creative activity and creative people of all kinds. That college is on a growth path, there’s no question about it.

That evening we had dinner at Fore Street Restaurant. I would say, in terms of the meals that I have had in different places around the country---and I’ve had a lot of them, in hundreds of places---I’d rank that number one. It would be one of the best restaurants in New York, or Paris, or any other place. It was a fantastic restaurant---best chicken I’ve ever tasted and incredible mussels!

It was a fun evening, and I reconnected with some old friends. Janet Mills was there, who I knew at Colby. We have a great mutual friend---the writer and sculptor Michael Rothschild, who lives in Strong, Maine. Charles Stanhope, the chairman of the Maine Arts Commission, was part of our host group and he was great and very helpful.

The next day, as I’ve already mentioned, we took a tour of Congress Street, which was revelatory. It ended at City Hall. The city halls in Maine---and this is true of a number of them---are different from most city halls in the country in that most of the ones in Maine have a big auditorium in the center of them that have always been used as performing arts spaces. There couldn’t be a more physical expression of the importance of art in communities than to build a performing space into your city hall. And this was a big performance space---I’m guessing a couple of thousand seats. They do concerts there and productions of all kinds. Talk about arts being integrated into the civic fabric!

I was thrilled to see a really exciting arts project---Art at Work---during my visit to the Portland City Hall. Artist Marty Pottenger has been working with the police department there, which has all kinds of issues there, like immigration issues and tension between the police force and the community. What they’re doing---with support from an Our Town grant---is using arts and playwriting and storytelling as a connector between the police force and the community. We heard one officer recite a poem that she had written about her life on the force and her interaction with the community. And some other police officers put on parts of a play that they’ve performed in schools and for audiences around the country to talk about their experience in dealing with the community, dealing with work, and with each other. Through this work, they’re able to express their points of view and their thoughts and their feelings as members of this community, even though they sometimes have an adversary role. It was great to see this kind of expression; I think everyone was moved by it. And the results from it seem to be pretty great: there’s been a decrease in lawsuits and complaints, and I think there’s been more success in outreach to the community. You know, I’ve always loved Portland, but it’s a much more vital city than I remember it being before, and I think everyone can agree that that’s because of the arts.

So from New England, I headed to the Midwest, specifically to Minnesota where our host was U.S. Representative Betty McCollum. She’s an old friend, and she has been a tremendous advocate, not just for the NEA, but for the arts generally. We started our visit with a tour and small roundtable discussion at the History Theatre in St. Paul. The History Theatre has been there for a long time, and they tend to do very topical and historical work. They’re right next to a big Light Rail build out that’s going to put a station right outside their door, and I think it’s going to be very good for them when it happens. Ron Peluso is the artistic director there, and he joined in the conversation, along with Jeff Peterson, their Board President, and Barbe Marshall, their development director. We also had two playwrights there--- Kevin Kling and Jeff Hatcher. They added their dimension to what’s going on in St. Paul. I had been to St. Paul before as a guest of Betty McCollum, but this was the first time I got to see the History Theatre, and what they’re doing there. One of their plays that they’ve done recently was called 1968, which was probably one of the most momentous years in recent memory. It was a series of playlettes about things that happened in 1968, and of course to most people watching that now, not including me, it’s all news. We had a good back and forth conversation, and I’d like to go back and see a full production.

Next we went on to a reception at the University Club in St. Paul. The first person I noticed when I came in was my old friend Minnesota State Senator Dick Cohen, who, more than anybody else, is responsible for what is unique in the country—an amendment to the state constitution that protects funding for the arts indefinitely. I think he should write a book about how  he got that done because it’s something that if it were emulated in the other 49 states would not be such a bad thing.

I also chatted with Lee Koch from the Ordway Theatre, and Jeff Prauer of the Metropolitan Regional Arts Council. There was really a good cross-section of the Twin Cities arts community, and I was able to visit with quite a lot of them. It was great to speak with Laura Zabel from Springboard for the Arts and Sue Gens, the executive director of the Minnesota State Arts Board (MSAB). I’ve encountered her many times over the years, and she’s always terrific. I met Anne Spencer from the North Star Opera, and there were quite a number of MSAB board members there, like Michael Charron from Winona who I got to talk to quite a bit. And there was John Gunyou from Minnetonka, and Sean Dowse from Red Wing who’s the executive director of the Sheldon Theater. This had a lot of aspects of a reunion for me; there were so many people that I knew from my visits and history in St. Paul and Minneapolis, even before I came to the NEA. It was fun, and it was great of Betty to arrange all that. I really like these events because it gives me a chance to hear, person-to-person, what’s going on.

The next night I went to a dinner hosted by the McKnight Foundation to celebrate thirty years of their support for arts. I was hosted by Kate Wolford and Vickie Benson. I had the opportunity to make a few remarks and really just thank the artists for their work and talk about how important they are to us. I basically said that artists support us in so many ways that it’s great when we can turn around and support them.

So, all in all I think we covered a lot of territory, literally and figuratively. Both places, Maine and Minnesota, had something of a quality, for me, of reuniting with old friends. I knew so many of the participants already, and it was great to reconnect with all of them.

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