ROCKLAND, Maine — It was a case of the choir testifying to the preacher.
Representatives from several Rockland-area arts organizations told the head of the National Endowment for the Arts on Wednesday that over the last 25 years, they have seen a struggling, gritty fishing town be transformed into a bustling tourist destination with a booming restaurant and retail economy.
Sitting in a former church that was transformed into the Farnsworth Art Museum’s Wyeth Center, surrounded by paintings by the iconic three generations of Maine artists, Rocco Landesman heard how a diverse group of arts groups have quietly boosted the local economy.
Landesman was the guest of Rep. Chellie Pingree, who moved to the Knox County island of North Haven in 1971. Pingree recounted how the only place to eat in Rockland while waiting for the ferry in those days was the Ye Olde Coffee Shop. Now the city is a foodie mecca.
As the fishing industry began struggling and declining in the decades that followed Pingree’s arrival, the arts filled a void, she said. But looking at the successes, she noted that “everything didn’t just fall into place.” A lot of vigorous community debate about the city’s vision for its future came first.
Rockland Mayor Brian Harden echoed this observation at the end of the meeting. After Landesman praised Pingree for consistently defending the arts and arts funding in Congress, Harden told him that government at its most local also was part of that effort.
“We have had to fight to allow those changes to happen,” Harden said, and recounted how the City Council helped the Farnsworth Art Museum take over a storefront on Main Street, thereby cementing its connection to busy Route 1. The dominance of nonprofit organizations such as the museum in the commercial district has been a sore point with some locals, who worry those organizations are not sharing the property tax burden.
Among the speakers who briefly explained the organizations they represented was Peter Korn, founder of the Center for Furniture Craftmanship in Rockport, a small school that brings students of all ages to the area for three-month intensive training in fine furniture building. Though the theme of the meeting was the economic impact of the creative class, Korn said such a focus could devalue arts institutions.
Rather than sing the praises of the economic value of the arts, Korn said he believes the arts have economic value only because of their social value.
“It’s a spiritual activity,” he said of creative pursuits, which “engage and strengthen the fabric of a healthy community,” and suggested the economic justification is not needed.
Benjamin Fowlie, who introduced himself as one of the few arts leaders who grew up in the area, talked about launching the Camden International Film Festival, which marks its eighth year in September. Such endeavors have the potential to give young people “a reason to stick around and call Maine home,” he said.
Meg Weston, president of the Maine Media Workshops + College, told of how she came to Maine to attend a workshop at the school in the mid-1970s and, as part of an assignment to photograph people, hitchhiked from Rockport to Rockland. The photos she took then, she said, resembled those of Depression-era photographer Dorothea Lange.
When it came time for him to speak, Landesman, who attended Colby College, admitted that he has taken Maine and Pingree for granted, knowing that both the member of Congress and the state support and understand the importance of the arts in the economy.
“Rockland is really the poster child for the NEA in how the arts can be used to revitalize neighborhoods,” he said. Agreeing with Korn’s point about the spiritual or social value of the arts, aside from their economic impact, Landesman observed that “every society, from the beginning of time on Earth, has had art of some kind.”
He said in surveys asking what makes people value where they choose to live, the expected answers about jobs and housing did not top the list. Instead, it was the “openness” of an area, its social offerings and its aesthetics.
Landesman was scheduled to tour Portland on Thursday as part of his visit to witness the state’s creative economy.