Arts for Money’s Sake

Posted Dec. 19, 2010, at 6:12 p.m.

In these lean times, the arts are a convenient target for public funding cuts. Whether it’s school, municipal or state programs, pretty paintings and soothing music don’t rise to the top of funding lists. But increasingly, the arts — and artists — are understood as economic drivers. This is especially so in Maine, where the rich quality of life that comes in small, safe and friendly communities can combine with scenic beauty to build a strong tourist trade and vibrant cottage industries.

The Maine Arts Commission long has understood this and now has begun awarding grants to spur economic growth. Arts organizations in Eastport and Biddeford are the first to win $50,000 “Creative Communities Equals Economic Development” grants. In both communities, the money will help arts groups work with municipal governments.

In Eastport, the grant will be applied to efforts by local arts booster groups, the library and museums, historical preservation groups and city government to brand the community as one in which creative enterprises thrive. Establishing more public art in the town will continue to send the message to visitors that Eastport is both a gritty fishing outpost and a culturally cool arts incubator. There even is a plan to launch an “art boat” to ferry Canadians to town to visit galleries and patronize restaurants.

In Biddeford, the challenge is to create an arts district — a part of town where artists can find affordable places to live and work.

In both communities, the effort is to revitalize downtown areas, which helps all sectors of the local economy.

Maine’s place in the visual arts world has been well-established for more than 100 years. When the Wyeths, Edward Hopper, Fairfield Porter, Rockwell Kent, Winslow Homer and others came to Maine, seasonally or permanently, and their work was seen in cities such as Boston and New York, they helped further the state’s mystique. That mystique continues to draw tourists and more artists today.

Whether it is a potter shipping her work to specialty shops around the country, a sculptor creating custom work for high-end houses or a photographer who captures the stunning Down East coast for calendars, artists are entrepreneurs. They consume materials for their work, buy local goods and services, and add richly to the state’s allure for its top industry sector, tourism.

Arts grants must be sophisticated in how they are tailored to boost local economies; merely paying for an artist to pursue his or her muse is not a good use of public funds. But when creativity can be linked to commerce with such grants, the potential for growth, particularly in Maine, is great.

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