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January 3 - 10, 2002

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Timely meditations

Prescriptions for Portland in 2002

By Chris Thompson

The other day I got a Christmas present from recently-deceased composer John Cage. “Within five years after you get a Ph.D. from a given American university in a particular field,” he explained in a 1970 interview I had come across, “all the things that you learned in the course of your education are no longer of any use to you.” As someone about to take his Ph.D. exam, Cage’s words of wisdom gave me the kind of warm feeling that can come only from a solid kick in the pants.

Aware of the challenges of the “global village” before most people had even heard of the phrase, Cage believed that our propensity for instant obsolescence owed “to the fact that changes are happening more rapidly than they happened earlier, that the techniques involved, the information useful, etc., are not the ones which you were taught.”

He felt that the only way to tackle this was “to give each individual, from childhood, a variety of experiences in which his mind is put to use, not as a memorizer of a transmitted body of information, but rather as a person who is in dialogue.” This would be a revolution in art, in education, in culture in general . . . is that too much to ask?

It may be a lot to accomplish in a year. But it seemed that this focus upon fostering dialogue is the only place to start. So in Cage-ian experimental spirit, I consulted the I Ching and then fired off emails to a dozen individuals involved in the arts in Portland, and asked them: What would you like to see happen in the visual arts in Portland in the next year?

I received the whole gamut of replies, from one-liners to multi-page manifestos. Here are the (edited) answers, listed in an order as random as was the process of deciding whom to hit up for his or her valuable time in the few days before Christmas.

Alison Ferris, curator, Bowdoin College Museum of Art: “I would like to see courageous acts of creativity in the upcoming year.”

Artists Henry Wolyniec and Jess Tomlinson: “Portland pays a lot of lip service to the arts issue but they need to deal with the arts as an asset other than as an economic vehicle. This is where and how this may be accomplished. Portland specific: A commitment to the city’s arts and cultural plan. The city used arts to revitalize the Congress Street corridor and now their arts and cultural plan has taken a back seat. The city’s funding for [the Portland Arts and Cultural Alliance] has decreased and PACA is now becoming a performing arts presenter. This does not bode well for the visual arts community. Who is looking out for our interests in the city’s plan? Portland and the rest of Maine: Artist housing. In Portland, this need is much greater due to the increasing rents and dwindling studio spaces available. To have a vibrant downtown requires a vibrant mix of population. If artists cannot afford to live and work in Portland, what type of city will Portland become? While this is not necessarily a task for the city to address, it is part of their arts and cultural plan to support these efforts. Statewide: Concentrated resources. There’s a lot happening throughout the state. However, there is no one place to access all the information and opportunities available. What about the artists’ equivalent to the Resource Hub? A one stop shop for information about grants, competitions, health insurance and services, etc.”

Christine J. Vincent, president, Maine College of Art: “Two thoughts: I’d like to see much greater visibility and recognition for the constellation of nationally significant programs that take place each summer here in Maine in the visual arts and design. On a relative basis, Maine surpasses all other states as a site of independent advanced study institutes for professionals in art and design — Skowhegan, Haystack, Maine Photo Workshops, Center for Maine Contemporary Art and MECA’s own Maine Summer Institute in Graphic Design as well as MECA’s MFA Summer Intensive sessions — not to mention non-institutionalized programs, such as Kippy Stroud’s “artist’s camp” at Northeast Harbor. This is an astounding concentration of the leading lights and up-and-coming talent in our field. And as the country continues to make a slow move toward re-embracing arts education at the K-12 level, I’d like to see a much clearer public understanding of the unique role that artists themselves play as educators and mentors, along with stronger programs to prepare artists for this critical role.”

Andy Verzosa, owner, Aucocisco Gallery: “I would like to see better visual arts coverage in local publications. I would like to see the city of Portland really see to it that the arts in Portland get supported — we generate a lot of money and interest in Portland from music to theater to art happenings and exhibits. I would like to see a city-sponsored public art gallery that exhibits local artists or groups that do not have access to the PMA, MECA, or commercial galleries. I would like to see city-sponsored awards, scholarships, and grants offered to artists of all ages and disciplines. I would like to see affordable housing and health and medical care for artists. I would like to see an effort take place that allows artists who are Maine residents who studied in arts colleges or degree programs here or out there to be able to work off part of their student loans in exchange for art-in-service projects in Maine.”

Gan Xu, art historian, Maine College of Art: “I would like to see a show of Chinese art in Maine in 2002. It’s the time to have such a show in a major art institution like the Portland Museum of Art.”

Cindy Meyers Foley, assistant director, Institute of Contemporary Art, Maine College of Art: “I want to witness a drastic turn towards recognizing and supporting contemporary artists with the same vigor that follows the landscape tradition, and the noble personalities already established in our state’s visual culture. Supporting contemporary artists whose work pushes expectations, boundaries, and challenges the status quo of what art can represent in contemporary culture is essential towards maintaining the integrity and growth of Maine’s visual arts tradition.”

Artist Aviva Rahmani: “If I had a practical wish list it would include all those support systems that would make it possible to see more astute writing emerge from this state that would mark the specialness here on a global scale and attract serious collectors: good salariesýfor writers, educated audiences, more/better venues with adequate funding for installations and publicity. Networks such as the one that [USM curator] Carolyn Eyler and the Center for Maine Contemporary Art have introduced between venues to coordinate publicity and shipping costs and to build excitement should be fostered. The general non-art public has to get a concept of art as more than frivolous decoration or mindless illustration and that’s about the artists making their work seem relevant to working-class people as well as those ‘in the know.’ It’s all so beautiful here and the tourists lap up the prettiness so much that it’s easy to get mindless and make decorative illustration unless there’s an incentive for something more than the Wyeths. Maine is a complex state with complex problems and the arts here either reflect that or deny it. We have poverty and environmental degradation and sprawl alongside endless lupines and awesome coastlines. As artists, we are the first place the buck has to stop when we speak of what we want as artists. If we want credibility, then we have to come to terms with sentimentality and facility and engage ourselves in what makes our existence relevant.”

Artist Daniel Pepice, FAZE co-organizer, Maine College of Art student:¼“I’d like to see a union of every gallery and artists’ group in southern Maine work together to introduce interactive/performance/sound/video art and other new or non-traditional media.”

Artist Tanja Hollander: “What a funny question. Off the top of my head, I would say a gallery dedicated to works on paper. I don’t think a strictly photography gallery would survive, nor do I think it is important to separate photography from the other media any more than it already is. A serious space with respect throughout the country. Is that too much to ask?”


Chris Thompson teaches at the Maine College of Art. He can be reached at = xxtopher@hotmail.com


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