ARTSIPELAGO-NOV

Betting on art as the centerpiece of an economic comeback, Tides Institute & Museum of Art’s Artsipelago will rebrand and connect a number of established efforts as well as develop artist live/work space and studio space to drive arts participation and ultimately talent retention in this rural, multicultural, coastal archipelago.

ArtPlace recently caught up with Hugh French, Director of the Tides Institute and Museum of Art and asked him about the political gains that have been made with their creative placemaking efforts.

ArtPlace: Have you gained any political traction with your efforts? If so, with whom and how did you do it?

French: We have gained political traction, but it has been a slow, gradual effort and not something limited to our recent Artsipelago initiative that has been supported by ArtPlace. Let me give a few examples.

When we began ten years ago, we gambled heavily in purchasing an extremely derelict brick building in the heart of Eastport’s small downtown. The building had been slated for destruction. It needed everything. Everyone thought the building had to be torn down. Nobody could imagine any alternative. There was enormous skepticism here, both by the city government and the public, that we would be successful – both as an organization and in restoring the building and bringing it back to life. Ten years later, we’re still here and so is the building. We’re infinitely stronger as an organization now, actively working with many partners throughout this border region (U.S. and Canada) including the city government. Our building is nearing complete and meticulous restoration at enormous cost and mostly with private funds. We’ve gained enormous respect in the process. Nobody thought this could be done. Nobody thought we could do this. We’ve done it in a low key way, going very systematically about the needed tasks. We’ve worked hard not to over promise and to do exactly what we say we are going to do.

The political difference between this initial building of ours and our new nearby downtown StudioWorks building project supported by ArtPlace is night and day. The StudioWorks building is also extremely derelict and needs everything. But the city government has been very supportive of us. The state government has been very supportive of us. The public has been very supportive of us. The public attitude now is, yes, the Tides Institute can do this, if anyone can, we can. There is an expectation now that we will be successful. It is a very, very welcome difference from ten years ago.

In addition to support from ArtPlace, we were awarded a $250,000 grant from the State of Maine through its Communities for Maine’s Future bond program approved by voters in the state in 2010. We were the only award from this program in the all of the four counties that make up eastern and northern Maine – a vast remote, rural area. These grant monies come to us from the state through the city government. This would have been unthinkable when we began ten years ago.

Then the Governor of Maine, in late June of this year, froze all state bond funded programs, throwing our $250,00 grant and our StudioWorks building project into complete jeopardy. How were we going to complete this project that had already begun? A month before the state bond freeze, our major contractor had installed four stories of staging around the exterior of our building. At the same time, we needed to draw down some of the grant funds ($60,000) to pay for initial building work. When the freeze happened a month later, we worked the phone lines daily calling our state senator (a keen supporter of ours who also happened to be the president of the state senate and of the same political party as the Governor) and his staff, calling the state’s department of economic and community development (we had developed very good working relations with the department’s senior staff) that administered the grant program, and calling the key senior staff of the Governor’s office.

All of this effort paid off. We were successful in making our case that our StudioWorks project was fully engaged, was up and running, and that it should not be penalized. A work around in our state funding piece was developed with the Governor’s office and the state’s department of economic and community development, guaranteeing that these monies would still flow to the StudioWorks project. We were one of only three communities in the state where such a work around was achieved. It was and is not an ideal solution, but a solution was achieved. Ten years ago this would not have happened.

Caption: August 2012, the Tides Institute and Museum of Art in August 2012 awaits the masonry crew and coppersmith in its final phase of exterior restoration to the 1887 anchor downtown property. Photo credit: Hugh French.

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