What it’s like to make a living as an artist in Maine

Photographer Tanja Hollander, at work in her studio in Maine.
Photo courtesy of Tanja Hollander
Photographer Tanja Hollander, at work in her studio in Maine.
By Emily Burnham, BDN Staff
Posted Oct. 11, 2013, at 1:39 p.m.

Last year, Tanja Hollander did something she had dreamed about doing for nearly 20 years: She quit her day job as a paralegal to focus on her art.

“It was a scary thing. Scary, and exhilarating,” said Hollander, of Auburn. “I have a mortgage, after all. Parts of me wish I’d done it earlier, because once you cut off your day job you really have to figure out how to survive. I’m really hustling.”

Hollander, a photographer known for her “Are You Really My Friend?” project, is one of a minority of artists and artisans in Maine who make art their full-time job. Most can’t sustain themselves financially from their craft alone. They work as teachers, editors, coaches and bartenders, on top of spending as much time as they can in the studio or on stage.

Most artists would tell you they wish art was their full-time business, but in Maine — a state that’s highly seasonal, mostly rural and often dependent upon the spending habits of out-of-staters — is it feasible? Can you make a living as an artist in Maine?

Why it’s good to live in Maine

Julie Richard, executive director of the Maine Arts Commission, noticed when she started in her position last year that Maine’s art industry is different from the rest of the country. Her organization gives Maine artists more than $100,000 in grants each year — some as small as $500, a handful as large as $10,000.

“The arts are really enmeshed in the community,” said Richard, who has been part of the arts community in places such as New York, South Carolina and Arizona. “Almost every town in Maine has artists front and center who are integral to the life of the community. There’s a history of that here. It’s something that’s been true for a very long time.”

There’s a reason people such as Winslow Homer, Alex Katz and Edna St. Vincent Millay chose to live in Maine, not a big city. Its beauty, people and pace of life inspire.

According to Census Bureau data from 2000, Mainers employed in the “Creative Workforce” — defined as those self-employed in fields including graphic design, photography, visual arts, architecture and performance — constitute about 2.7 percent of the state’s overall workforce.

Dan Capaldi is a Portland musician and composer, with a solo project called Sea Level and a duo called the Soft Bullets with his England-based collaborator. By day, he freelances scoring for commercials and TV. By night, he makes his own music.

“Living in Maine, you are really free to do whatever you want and make your own decisions,” said Capaldi. “You are forced to be creative to get yourself out there. There isn’t the crazy population of New York or another huge city, or the mass of venues or other showcases, so you have to do it all yourself. It’s very liberating.”

Another of Maine’s biggest positives is its affordability.

Hollander, who appreciates Maine’s low cost of living, spends a large percentage of the year traveling and visits New York City on a regular basis to connect with collectors and gallery owners.

“Does paying four times the rent in New York that you would in Maine balance having to drive or fly there once a month? I don’t know,” said Hollander. “I do know that it’s not as hard to stay connected nowadays. It’s not as important today to be living right in the middle of it all.”

The Internet has changed the industry. Twenty years ago, it would have been nearly impossible for someone to get their work out to a large audience without living in a big city. Now, with a website and a strong social media presence, anyone can see an artist’s work.

“Before, as a musician, you had to have a video on MTV, or be on Ed Sullivan or something. There were so few ways to get exposure,” said Capaldi. “Now, there’s countless outlets. You can be your own boss. That’s a relatively new thing.”

The challenges

Technology has created a more level playing field, but much of Maine is still isolated from a lot of the money that keeps artists afloat. The only time that money really starts to flow into the state is in the summer, when the tourists arrive.

Susan Cooney is a Belfast artist who creates detailed graphite drawings of the Maine coast. She is one of many Belfast residents who operate a studio in the art-filled downtown where summer tourists have a pivotal role in an artist’s success — or failure.

“It’s interesting how things change. In 2006, I had great sales, and then it fell off after the economic crash in 2008,” said Cooney. “Then it went back up. This year it feels like the customer base really has changed. The people that are coming through Belfast aren’t necessarily buying art … our art walks have dropped off. I don’t know if that’s a microcosm of Maine or if it’s a Belfast thing, but it’s definitely changed.”

The whims of the art-buying public can sometimes be so capricious that artists have no choice but to fold. Cooney’s neighbor in Belfast, photographer Charles Dufour, closed his gallery this fall after sales fell to an unsustainable level. Randy Colbath, a Howland-based artist who creates imaginative sculptures out of Maine wood, decided to leave the state he has called home all his life and move to Florida, where the market is stronger.

“I don’t think I could ever make enough money in this area to sustain myself,” said Colbath. “I’ve been traveling all over New England and the New York City metropolitan area doing art fairs for the last couple of years, traveling too far for too little.”

Gorham-based couple Barry and Karen Dodd — who write, direct and produce with several collaborators the Maine-made Web series “Ragged Isle” — have received plenty of accolades for their work. Its third and final season premieres online on Halloween of this year. Last year they launched a website called The Entertainment Experiment, a forum for Maine-based digital storytellers to showcase their work.

To make it all work, however, they’ve had to tap their own finances.

“We’ve stretched our pocketbooks as far as they can go to make our first series,” said Barry Dodd, a Waldo County native and New England School of Communications graduate. “There are always crowd funding opportunities but that’s hardly a sustainable business model, and it’s tough to keep going back to the fans to beg for money.”

Even with a day job — Cooney is the swim coach at the Waldo County YMCA, Colbath worked as a marine engineer, both the Dodds work as editors and producers — it is hard to make art and maintain a studio.

“Most of us work other jobs. That’s just the reality. Some people teach their art, some don’t work in their fields at all,” said Cooney. “But almost everyone has to do something else. My husband works too … I worry that studio rent will go up, and the market will dry up, and I don’t know where we’ll be.”

What can be done?

Hollander believes that while some challenges Maine artists face are unique — the seasonality, the rural isolation some may experience — the majority of the difficulties could be found by artists anywhere.

Selling enough art to make a living appears to be the largest stumbling block to artists of any stripe.

“I think the biggest thing is that we need to get people to think about buying art,” said Hollander. “There are not a lot of collectors of contemporary work in Maine. I hope that will change. I think things like First Friday [Art Walk] in Portland are breeding people that value the creative economy and artists of all kinds. I think things like Buy Local have made people think about where their food comes from — why can’t we do the same thing with art?”

It also behooves artists to become skilled beyond their craft: Marketing, networking, knowledge of tax code and other business skills are crucial to making creativity a viable source of income.

“You’ve got to be able to market yourself, make your own videos, be your own boss. You can’t do it without being able to do a lot of different things,” said Capaldi. “You have to have some kind of business sense.”

Maine College of Art offers workshops and training sessions in marketing, grant writing, contract law and other areas for its students. Groups such as the Etsy Maine Team have formed to promote Maine-made crafters and artisans, while festivals like the Portland Fringe Festival, held each June, offer opportunities to see Maine-based theater and performance groups and allow the artists within those groups to network.

“It’s complicated,” said Capaldi. “But it’s one hell of a life.”

http://bangordailynews.com/2013/10/11/living/what-its-like-to-make-a-living-as-an-artist-in-maine/ printed on September 20, 2014