Portland's Second Act
Last year, during the Portland Symphony Orchestra's annual "Magic of Christ-mas" concert, dancers from the Maine State Ballet pirouetted onstage for half the performances. For the rest of the shows, the dancers were members of the Portland Ballet Company.
The arrangement doesn't sound momentous, but within the cozy confines of Portland's arts community it was big news. "That Ari was able to get the dueling ballet companies to participate in 'The Magic of Christmas' was nothing short of hell freezing over," says Jessica Tomlinson, a longtime arts activist who serves as director of public relations for the Maine College of Art, referring to the PSO's new executive director, Ari Solotoff.
Solotoff, who's been on the job since last August, downplays the significance of the collaboration, saying that the previously feuding ballet companies were actually eager to work together and that the symphony just happened to be in the right place to make it happen. But Tomlinson insists that the partnership Solotoff engineered is emblematic of a new vigor in the Portland arts community that will soon pay dividends for audiences. "We have some new leadership in the arts community that doesn't know about the old beefs in the first place or that wants to work through them," she says. "There are some unprecedented presenting organizations wanting to work together these days."
Tomlinson's conclusion might not be evident to casual observers. In recent months, the arts pages have been full of drama: New Year's Portland cancelled, the Center for Cultural Exchange closed, the eighty-two-year-old Children's Theatre of Maine on what seems to be a permanent hiatus. The theater group Acorn Productions and the Bakery Photographic Collective have left the city for bigger, cheaper digs in Westbrook, and some prominent artists and administrators — PSO music director Toshi Shimada, MECA president Christine Vincent, Portland Museum of Art head curator Jessica Nicoll — have found new opportunities out of state. So patrons can be forgiven for wondering if the city has become particularly inhospitable to the arts.
In fact, many observers say, the opposite is true. They see the turnover in organizations and personnel as healthy, bringing new energy to long-standing groups and sparking interest in collaboration across disciplines. The only drawback, they say, is that much of this action is taking place behind the scenes. Audiences now are viewing the performances and exhibits that were planned months and even years ago; to see the fruits of today's collaborations, you're going to have to wait a while.
"It seems like there's a much more open environment now than there was in Portland five years ago, but there's not as much actually happening," says Ryan McMaken, the former program director at the Center for Cultural Exchange, who recently moved to Savannah, Georgia, for a job at a music festival. Still, he notes, "I wouldn't be surprised if a few years from now the audience is getting what they need."
McMaken and others agree that the concert-going public is at a bit of a loss these days. The more than twenty- year-old Center for Cultural Exchange, which specialized in music and dance from ethnic communities around the world, stumbled due to financial problems after its founders stepped down in late 2005. Just down Congress Street, the State Theatre has been shuttered for months. The theater, which seats over a thousand, filled a crucial niche in the city's popular music scene, hosting acts ranging from Bruce Hornsby and John Hiatt to Wilco and Ray LaMontagne. Some of those shows have moved to the larger Cumberland County Civic Center, while others have been booked at smaller clubs such as the Big Easy or SPACE Gallery. The vast majority, however, simply bypass Portland altogether.
And it's not just a problem for popular music. Both Ari Solotoff of the PSO and Aimee Petrin, the recently installed executive director of PCA Great Performances, mention the challenge of moving beyond the confines of Merrill Auditorium, the city-owned concert hall that is home base for both organizations. "The Merrill will always be our home and be the amazing city venue that it is," says Petrin, whose organization presents everything from the national tours of Broadway shows to chamber orchestras, "but it's not always appropriate for a particular artist or audience."
Furthermore, Portland's downtown real estate market doesn't always accommodate the limited budgets of nonprofit arts organizations. "We could not find a space that was even close to being affordable for our use," says Michael Levine, producing director of Acorn Productions, a theater company that had been cobbling together rehearsal and class space at venues ranging from a yoga studio to the University of Southern Maine. "Everything was either marginally affordable and really, really dumpy, or it was just not going to be financially feasible."
Last fall, Levine and the Acorn board finally settled on a large space in Westbrook's Dana Warp Mill [Down East, November 2006], which is home to dozens of artists — a growing number of them refugees from Portland's high rents. Though Levine is thrilled with everything from the high-speed Internet access to the square footage to the easy parking, he says the organization is struggling to convince acting students and groups that are interested in renting Acorn's extra studio that the location is accessible to Portlanders.
For Nat May, though, the relocation of groups such as Acorn and the Bakery Photographic Collective, where he is a member of the board, is actually a positive sign for Portland. "I was the dissenting voice not wanting to move to Westbrook, but I've really come around," he says. "We should celebrate the fact that we have such a successful arts collective that it doesn't fit downtown; it's indicative of a certain amount of growth."
Likewise, Jessica Tomlinson of MECA insists that even semi-permanent closures like those of the Center for Cultural Exchange and the Children's Theatre of Maine reveal something unique about the arts in Maine: "One person can make a difference," she says, "whether by deciding not to fund an organization or by the choices they make in directing an organization or by coming in as a new leader and making changes."
While Tomlinson and May tend toward the optimistic — both in their thirties, they've become unofficial spokespeople and cheerleaders for the city's arts community — their perceptions are supported by some very real innovation bubbling up across Portland, ranging from the immensely popular First Friday Art Walks to the Portland Music Foundation, a loose affiliation of musicians, promoters, and deejays who've recently banded together to nurture the city's popular music scene.
Then there are the investments made by Christopher Campbell, an architect who last year bought the building that housed the Center for Cultural Exchange. He is offering its performance space to arts groups on a rental basis while he figures out a long-term plan that likely will include operating it as a performance venue, and he has already established office space for arts-related nonprofits upstairs. A few blocks down Congress Street, Campbell also owns the Artist Studio Building, which houses both SPACE Gallery, the innovative alternative arts venue where May is the executive director, and thirty-five artists' studios. "I live in Portland — I don't want to go to Westbrook for my evening's entertainment or to see neat things," he says. "Selfishly, I think it's important to keep artists downtown."
That's why it's so significant, Campbell and others say, that the city's arts infrastructure is seeing new vitality. The Portland Arts and Culture Alliance, which was dormant for a few years starting in 2002, re-emerged in 2005. These days, it is completing the kind of projects that don't generate headlines but that do make the arts community more accessible to locals and tourists, such as the database it compiled of the city's arts resources, ranging from individual artists to arts-related businesses, nonprofits, and other organizations. The group also participated in a soon-to-be released national study on the economic impact of the arts, which will compare cities nationwide on measures such as the number of arts organizations per capita. "These kinds of things aren't very exciting," admits May. "But we need these tools so that when we talk to the city or the business community we can remind them of the value and importance of our assets."
In the long run, audiences benefit from that kind of organization, as well as from such seemingly simple tools as the comprehensive arts guide that the Portland Downtown District (PDD) put together in 2005. The guide was originally intended to simply cover the downtown district, a chunk of the city that includes the Old Port and the Arts District. But, working together, PDD officials and arts activists created a much more thorough guide that extends across the city's downtown peninsula. "I go to New York all the time to look at art, but I don't know where to go to knock on studio doors to meet people," says May. "It's pretty easy to do that here."
It's the manageable size of Portland's arts community that has allowed the city's new arts leaders such relatively easy access to one another. And, should all the behind-the-scenes talk actually bear fruit, in the months and years to come the audience will be the beneficiary. "Everyone thinks that if you collaborate it makes things easier, but it's really harder," says Aimee Petrin of PCA. "But if it works, there's nothing better."