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NEA Head in Maine to Promote Creative Economy
06/13/2012   Reported By: Jay Field

A few years ago, the National Endowment for the Arts started pushing creativity as a tool for economic revitalization and recovery. Creative Placemaking seeks to bring non-profit and private partners together to build arts economies in struggling communities. Today, the head of the NEA came to Maine to talk up the effort and highlight Rockland as a city others in America ought to try to emulate.

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Rocco Landesman says he travels to many struggling communities that simply don't get how an arts economy could be a viable way of creating more opportunity and prosperity. Landesman, a longtime theater producer on Broadway, took over that the NEA in 2009.

"People, you know, want to build information and technology centers, new factories, etc. Those, in the planning and execution can take half a decade or more," he says.

But the arts--a theater company, a gallery, maybe a blues club--those institutions, by comparison, can come in literally overnight. Speaking to a crowd of artists, gallery owners and arts patrons, Landesman recounted the transformation in a neighborhood called Over-the-Rhine in Cincinnati.

"It was crack dealers and hookers and police cars cruising around years ago, and someone opened an art gallery there--foolishly, but they did," he said. "And then some artist housing came in nearby. And then the theater was put in."

Soon, people started returning to the historic neighborhood to spend money and walk its streets. It's the same kind of revitalization story Landesman heard from his audience in Rockland. Christopher Brownawell is director of the Farnsworth Art Museum.

"A little more than a decade ago, this coastal community was plagued with blight, unemployment and a decaying infrastructure," he said, the byproducts of the decline of traditional industries like commercial fishing.

These days, Rockland is, by no means, trouble free. The community continues to struggle with high rates of drug and alcohol abuse, and more people continue to live in poverty here than in the state of Maine and the nation as a whole.

But Brownawell says there are also unmistakable signs of a rebirth in Rockland. "Today, the arts are the major economic driver, supported by a growing retail and restaurant scene," he said.

In 2010, for example, a state survery found that Farnsworth Museum alone funneled more than $12 million into the local economy. Then, says 1 st District Congresswoman Chellie Pingree, there are all the smaller galleries, theater companies, film festivals, movie theaters and restaurants.

"I think this is just an amazing convergence of a community coming together at all economic levels," she said. "It's not just art for some people. It's art for every part of the community."

Pingree and NEA Director Rocco Landesman end their Maine tour with a visit to Portland.  The tour wraps up Thursday.


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