ORONO, Maine — Trade and tourism are why most Mainers and Canadians cross the border, but a group that met this week at the University of Maine also wants people to travel north and south for arts and culture.
About 60 people from Atlantic Canada and New England met for three days at the Collins Center for the Arts to talk about how to put into action the memorandum of understanding signed last month by Gov. John Baldacci and Shawn Graham, premier of New Brunswick. The document calls for the establishment of a Maine-New Brunswick Cultural Initiative
“The Maine Arts Commission is always looking for ways to promote the arts in the state and this is a fantastic opportunity to further Gov. Baldacci’s initiative to strengthen our regional and international partnerships,” said Kerstin Gilg, a staff member with the commission.
“There is already a foundation for this kind of cultural collaboration in the work being done by presenters,” he said. “The Maine Arts Commission will play a role in helping the cultural trade routes that have already been established as well as building new networks for the exchange of arts and culture.”
The goals of the conference were to improve the cultural landscape in the following ways:
ä To create time and space for directors of presenting organizations to meet, build partnerships, and share information about booking practices.
ä To encourage conversations about bringing arts and culture into business and trade practices.
ä To provide a platform to inform the national conversation around problems involving artist work visas and artist travel.
The three-day event began Wednesday with the annual meeting of the Atlantic Presenters Association. Presenters are venues that book performing artists.
The association is a nonprofit regional arts presenters’ organization for the four Atlantic Provinces. It allows directors of small, medium and large venues to block-book performers and for artists to showcase their talents for a group of people responsible for deciding which acts are scheduled at their venues.
Adele Adkins, who does programming for the Collins Center for the Arts, said Friday that she was able to see Canadian artists perform at the conference whom she’d heard about but had never seen perform. Adkins said she would be booking a couple of the performers for the center’s 2011-2012 season.
“It’s always inspiring to get together with other presenters,” she said Friday. “We’ve been able to talk one on one, build community and talk about some of the issues we all must deal with, such as crossing the border.”
A panel discussion Thursday afternoon focused on the problems faced by Canadian and other international artists working in each other’s countries. Panelists agreed that the wait for visas for artists working in the U.S. has gotten shorter in the past two years, but performers still can be turned back at the border if they don’t have the proper paperwork.
Julia Kennedy of the U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services office in Washington, D.C., said the goal is to complete paperwork for visiting artists within 45 days. Expedited work visas, processed for a $1,000 fee, should take 15 days.
That process is neither efficient nor affordable, according to Ed Pearlman, a fiddler and teacher from Portland. He said that if the goals of the memorandum are to be met, the law needs to be changed. He said the $1,000 fee is unaffordable for many artists and should be repealed. Pearlman wants the turnaround time to be a 45-day maximum and not an average or goal. He also said there should be no additional fee if an artist is working on a tight turnaround time.
“We’ve got people in Maine doing these things [focused on at the conference] on an individual level,” Gilg said Thursday. “If we network together, we all become stronger. If we work together, Maine is no longer at the end of the line; it’s in the middle. Maine becomes the hub.”
Peter D. Smith, general manager of the Imperial Theatre in Saint John, New Brunswick, said Friday that by working with theaters in New England, his theater and others in Atlantic Canada were able to book the hit Broadway musical “Mama Mia.”
“We’ve been trying to get it for years,” he said, “but they wouldn’t come just for us. Because each theater could do half a week, we booked them for two weeks and that made it feasible for the show to travel to Canada.”
Although Smith and other members of the Atlantic Presenters Association have been working with the Collins Center for many years, Smith said the event was a good opportunity for Canadians to meet people from other states in New England.
“We’ve just started this conversation, but it’s already helping,” he said. “We no longer have to stop our outreach at Orono. Now we can go further and in other directions as well.”