UMaine abdicating responsibility for state’s future

Posted March 31, 2010, at 7:31 p.m.

Artists, educators, parents and community leaders in Maine work hard to create meaningful art and culture programs that will enrich our landscape and drive our creative economy. Since the first note played by the Bangor Symphony Orchestra 113 years ago and the first monologue recited at the Penobscot Theatre 36 years ago, local arts and culture programs have provided a connective tissue that makes Maine a vibrant place to work and live. With so many entities dedicated to assuring that the arts will grow and be available for future generations, it was disappointing to learn the University of Maine is considering the elimination of majors in music, theater and other liberal arts and sciences.

It is the responsibility of the University of Maine in Orono, the flagship campus in the University of Maine System, to train the future work force, provide professional development and serve as the center where people assemble for cultural activities. To eliminate programs that represent the core curriculum in music and theater is to destroy an important link in the arts and culture in our state.

The damage will have a cyclical effect: UMaine’s student population will suffer an immediate diminished quality of education; several years down the road, our community may feel the cuts in the form of fewer talented local professionals. Local arts organizations may have to look beyond our state’s borders to meet the community’s desire for arts and culture. Where can a school district find a drama teacher if the state’s flagship university isn’t educating future teachers? Where can a youngster who wants private music lessons find a mentor if the state’s flagship university has eliminated its music performance major?

In a 2004 report “The Creative Economy in Maine,” prepared for the New England Foundation for the Arts and the Maine Arts Commission, data showed both the arts and culture and technology sectors of the creative economy are large and growing. Arts and culture industries have been particularly strong in employment growth at a time when major areas of technology industries have seen significant employment declines.

It was also noted in the report that the arts and culture industries within the creative economy play three important roles: as an export industry closely connected to tourism and recreation, as a key element in Maine’s quality of life, and as a cluster of economic activity in their own rights. The report also showed in 2002, the arts and culture sector directly and indirectly supported more than 18,000 jobs and has paid out more than $545 million in wages.

Studies have shown time and again that students who participate regularly in the arts develop self-confidence, self-discipline and come to understand what it means to achieve. Students often develop the ability to work on projects with others because so many art forms are collaborative in nature.

People throughout history have used the arts not only as an outlet to express creativity but also as a means to share their stories. The University of Maine cannot expect young people to be part of the human experience if it takes away such an important avenue for self-expression, communication and community engagement. What the university can afford is one thing, but what our students and our state will lose is another.

David N. Whitehill is the executive director of the Bangor Symphony Orchestra.

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