Launch pad(s) for the future
Rockland — Rockland City Council held a special meeting March 19 to explore the establishment of a municipal arts and culture commission.
More than two hours of lively discussion revealed a common belief that the arts are vital to the city’s well-being … and that figuring out how to manage, “grow” and market that sector of the economy is no simple task.
City attorney Kevin Beal opened the workshop session, filling in for absent City Clerk Stuart Sylvester. Mayor Larry R. Pritchett took care of some other council business before introducing the council members — Elizabeth Dickerson arrived a few minutes later, due to her Maine legislative schedule — and a slate of representatives from various Rockland-area organizations that intersect with the arts.
Facing the council members as part of the discussion were Christopher J. Brownawell, director of the Farnsworth Art Museum; Gordon Page Sr., the new executive director of Rockland Main Street, Inc.; Jared Cowan, owner/founder of downtown Asymmetrick Arts; Strand Theater Director Sarah Ruddy; Maggi Blue, representing Midcoast Magnet (also director of marketing for Penobscot Bay Regional Chamber of Commerce); Robin McIntosh, Business & Tourism Development/Special Projects director at the chamber; Emily Schuchart, the Farnsworth’s membership coordinator; Parks Commission members Bill Pearce, Alison Weaver and John Grondin; and Charlotte Dixon, first vice chairman of the Center for Maine Contemporary Arts board of trustees. At council desks in addition to Dickerson, Pritchett and councilors Louise MacLellan-Ruf, Eric Hebert and Frank C. Isganitis were Acting City Manager Thomas J. Luttrell and Community Development Director John Holden.
First and last to be discussed were the concrete pads the city installed last year in public parks with the intent of siting sculptural works. One of the pads, in the new Ferry Terminal Park, has a sculpture in place; another sculpture was installed in the South End — installations that happened without going through application and approval processes, as MacLellan-Ruf pointed out several times during the course of the evening.
Holden spoke of a major National Endowment of the Arts grant the city has applied for in order to develop a strategy of engaging the community in Rockland’s future arts growth. If awarded, the NEA grant would result in $75,000 to go to three contractual positions — a facilitator, a marketing consultant and a branding consultant. There also would be a substantial outlay of in-kind funding for such things as an arts asset map. Holden said notification happens within a few months and implementation in the fall.
Later in the evening, Dixon referred to the NEA grant as proof that Rockland has a rare convergence of circumstances and would be one of the few cities in the country to receive such funds.
“For a city of 7,500 people, the size of the arts economy in relation to the overall economy is probably up there in national statistics … Rockland is one of the few cities in the country with the resources we have,” she said.
During a short period of comments from the public, former mayor Brian Harden, speaking in part for the Rockland Historical Society’s interest, emphasized that Rockland’s arts sector is more than a city-wide phenomenon … and that therein lies a challenge, as far as the idea of city government-based municipal arts board, ad hoc or not. He and the Council went back and forth as to whether or not such a board or committee could have non-residents as members. The importance of that was made clear when Harden called for a show of hands among the workshop’s invited participants as to who actually lived in the city limits; only a few were raised.
The big-picture options drew the most discussion overall, but several participants — particularly Pierce — kept bringing the most immediate issue back to focus: what, if anything, can be done in regards to filling the empty sculpture pads at Ferry Terminal Park and Winslow-Holbrook Memorial Park during the coming season?
“The Parks Commission does not want to be in the position of determining what art is,” he said.
Weaver agreed, saying the Commission’s greatest concerns are along engineering and safety issue lines. All the Commission members were clear that if something is going to go into one of the city’s parks, they want to know all about it well ahead of time. Pierce said he didn’t think any proposed art advisory committee should be part of Parks, but several Council members suggested that was the appropriate place to put it, logistically, at least initially.
Recreation Director Rene Dorr shared an idea of gathering suggestions for works from local artists and galleries and running them by an advisory group that might include the Farnsworth and CMCA. MacLellan-Ruf cautioned against placing more art without public input and Isganitis called for an objective, not subjective, process.
Overall, most lauded Brownalow’s initial suggestion of a start-small approach to tackle the fill-the-pads issue. Terry Pinto, director of the City of Rockland’s water pollution control facilities, who was not present, had submitted a suggested public art and culture committee board composition that also won kudos from all participants in that it includes city residents, artists, members of the greater arts community, someone to represent Main Street businesses, an arts academic and a local student, as well as a Councilor and the mayor/mayoral representative in ex-oficio (i.e., non voting) capacity.
By evening’s end, there was an aim to put an order for the establishment of some sort of work group, under the Parks Commission, on the April agenda. Cowan and others pointed out that coming up with an application process is not something to be rushed … and summer is coming up soon. As an alternate use for the summer, Virginia Slawson, speaking from the audience but representing just the kind of consortium being discussed in that she is a member of the arts community, owner of a building and business on Main Street, member of the Ad Hoc Harbor Trail Committee and serves on Rockland Main Street, Inc’s design team, suggested the city consider putting in temporary plantings on the pads or an art-bench contest.