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State of the arts

Emerging trends and promising futures for Portland artists
By IAN PAIGE  |  April 1, 2009


Maine has a knack for attracting artists who aren't out to "make it" but to make. Now, an emerging interconnectedness between Mainers and the rest of the nation seeks to put our state on the map beyond public perceptions of the picturesque. In Portland, and around Southern Maine, developing trends hold promise for our changing, but still cantankerously distinct, artistic character to act as a new kind of cultural reflection.

There are SEVERAL VENUES SUPPORTING ARTISTIC INGENUITY THROUGH ALTERNATIVE MODES OF PRESENTATION. Coleman Burke Gallery in Brunswick secured itself last year as the area's forum for large-scale works while SPACE Gallery (where I work) offers artists multidisciplinary possibilities. Larger institutions are joining: the Portland Museum of Art's new "Polar Dispatches" show uses the elevator as exhibition space, and its 2009 biennial has a streamlined format with far fewer but more curatorially coherent works. PMA contemporary curator Susan Danly puts her finger on the point: "More and more Maine artists are involved in a broad dialogue with other national and international artists. There is no particular 'Maine' subject that identifies them as such." It could finally be time to bury the lighthouses.

Much of this innovation would not be possible without INDIVIDUAL SUPPORT AND INSTITUTIONAL GRANTS THAT ENCOURAGE UNIQUE DEVELOPMENT. Donna McNeil, director of the Maine Arts Commission, hopes that in the face of dwindling economic support, "artists will find a friend in government." She continues, "The Maine Arts Commission has received almost $300,000 in stimulus dollars for the retention of jobs in the non-profit creative sector ... have increased Good Idea Grants dollars to $70,000 a year and assembled 'practical help for artists in tough economic times' on our Web site, all in the hope of assisting Maine's creative workers in this time of need." Individual artists are working with social programs, and even small awards make a big difference.

A major catalyst for Portland's artistic development is CITY SANCTIONING AND FINANCIAL SUPPORT. The positive changes over the last few years since the city designated downtown Portland as the "Arts District" are obvious as you stroll past galleries with clubs and restaurants growing around them. Heart of Biddeford is an example of a community-supported downtown revitalization group. According to HoB's Rachael Weyand, "We have seen a lot of arts-related businesses open up downtown over the last few years as a result of making the arts central to our goals. For instance, the Art Mart opened their doors on Main Street, having initially planned to open in a strip-mall outside of town."

Portland Arts and Cultural Alliance (of which I am a board member) has been the Forest City's designated arts agency for 12 years and the First Friday Art Walk has proven to be a major contributor to the creative economy of Portland. More is in store, with the establishment of the Creative Portland Corporation to help grow local arts as an economic and cultural influence.

Of course, TRADITIONAL GALLERIES AND ARTS INSTITUTIONS are playing their integral role. When galleries like Aucocisco, June Fitzpatrick, and Whitney Art Works represent increasingly diverse rosters, maintaining their ties to established Maine masters while scanning the younger generations for cutting-edge artists, they can help redefine the character of Maine art. Many of these artists are employed (or enrolled) at Bowdoin College, USM, and MECA, making their continued financial and artistic presence in Maine at least a bit less tenuous.

Finally, the spirit of the Maine arts scene is, and hopefully always will be, born of ARTISTS TAKING MATTERS INTO THEIR OWN HANDS. Official organizations like MENSK offer grassroots support for cultural development, resulting in events like Rooftop Films and First Friday Truck shows. More underground ventures like the Sacred and Profane festival throw Portland in the national spotlight while remaining communal in nature.

However, the recent frustrations of The Dooryard arts collective reveal the FRICTION BETWEEN UNBRIDLED CREATIVE PRACTICES AND THE DESIRES OF THE COMMUNITY those practices are helping to revitalize. Noise ordinances, rising rents, street-performance crackdowns, and other measures intended for the betterment of the community can act as a tourniquet to creativity, cutting off the lifeblood of the city. We must balance art with the rest of our community's needs, and be sure not to exclude artists from our efforts to stimulate economic and cultural growth.

Ian Paige can be reached at

Related: Interview: Greil Marcus, One city, many angles, Growing pains, More more >
  Topics: Museum And Gallery , Portland, Bowdoin College, Portland Museum of Art,  More more >
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Re: State of the arts
How does PACA get to take credit for the Art Walk, exactly? It was basically dormant when the art walk started.
By Car in Lincolnville on 04/03/2009 at 5:48:06

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