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Arts collector
Portlandís new mayor wants a creative buzz
BY SARA DONNELLY

City councilor James Cohen inaugurated as mayor on Monday, December 5, has already made strengthening and marketing the cityís creative economy one of his priorities for his year-long term. Cohen, 40, is a partner in the Portland law firm Verrill Dana. In the arts realm, Cohen has also worked for the last four years as an advisor for the Maine Public Affairs Commission in Augusta and has served for six years as a trustee of the Portland Symphony Orchestra, three of which have been as the group's vice-president of budget and finance.

A week after his inauguration, Cohen threw a party at the Maine College of Art in which he spoke about his commitment to Portlandís arts and cultural community and mentioned his plans to hold a summit to bring together state and city arts advocates. The Phoenix sat down with the mayor on the day of the MECA celebration to talk about how he hopes to use his largely-ceremonial position to promote real opportunities for area artists.

Portland Phoenix: What are you hoping to do in the next year that will bolster the creative economy in Portland?

Jim Cohen: I think thereís a lot of creative economy groups that are meeting in various places, one of which involves the city planning department. One thing we need to do is to get all of these various groups to work more closely together so everyone is moving in the right direction. Thatís one thing, coordination. To the extent the city is able to bring some of these forces to bear to assist in that, Iíd like to work to see them do that. Another thing that we have been doing that we want to continue doing is to really identify which are the creative businesses in Portland. There are a lot of second-floor jewelry shops [in the city] and things like that where the clients are all over the country and we havenít really gotten our arms around exactly who is doing something similar here, both in terms of networking and then marketing that. Iím hoping to do similar things in the high-tech and knowledge-dependent industries, which are also part of the creative economy, whether it be biotechnology or marine sciences, those sorts of things. There is a critical mass of educated, dedicated people, and creative economy businesses [in Portland]. This is a place that can really be a center.

PP: So youíre planning on gathering all of these groups together and meeting?

JC: I am considering the concept of having a summit that would bring together the arts [advocacy] groups, the Maine Arts Commission, the Maine Creative Economy Council, the [Portland] planning department. I know of like five different groups, some overlapping, some have individual niches, but their ultimate goal and purpose is fairly consistent. So I think having some kind of summit to plan is a wise idea.

PP: Are you an artist yourself?

JC: Iím not an artist but I have played guitar for about twenty years.

PP: Are you in a band?

JC: No, itís just a personal thing that I do.

PP: The city negotiated a donation of $75,000 to Portlandís arts culture from the developers of the Westin Hotel, which will be built on Commercial Street. Do you think this was a good idea?

JC: We asked the developers to make a contribution for arts in the city. At the time it was not well defined exactly what form that contribution would take. To me, that was a perfect example of the council indicating that arts and culture was important.

PP: Do you know where the money is going to go?

JC: Sitting here today? No.

PP: Do you think the city should negotiate more money for the Portland arts from developers interested in building in the downtown?

JC: Thatís possible. My preference with that and any other contract zones is we have predictability up front. Iím certainly pleased that that money was set aside and I helped craft the language that did that but my only criticism is thereís not a lot of predictability in terms of how to go about it. My preference is we donít surprise developers with a request for a contribution, rather than come up with an upfront policy on it.

PP: Can commercial development in the downtown grow alongside the arts scene, or is it one or the other?

JC: I certainly hope that theyíre not mutually exclusive because there will be [commercial] growth. I donít think thereís a way to stop it and I donít think itís in anyoneís interest to stop it. One thing that commercial development does bring is potentially pushing up valuations. As valuations go up rent goes up, and sometimes that becomes the critical link for something like an art gallery to continue to stay. Sitting here today I donít know what the answer is. There are subsidy options but I donít know how that plays out. We need to be careful that too much development doesnít force the arts district out of the city entirely. Thatís something that can only happen through planning. So, Iím hoping to get the various groups together.

PP: Do you want to spend taxpayer money on Portlandís creative economy?

JC: I think that some amount of taxpayer money does need to be spent and at this point I donít think anyone has a good sense of what that would be. The city currently uses money [$10,000 in a one-time matching grant this year] to help support PACA [the Portland Arts and Cultural Alliance, an artist advocacy group] and I think that should continue. We currently spend [about $50,000] of our [capital budget] every year on public arts and I think that needs to continue. I think there needs to be a willingness to spend money where appropriate. Iím not necessarily looking to go out and spend money but if there are demonstrated ways that we can spend money that gets positive returns for taxpayers then itís something we should consider.

PP: Portlandís arts liaison, PACA, has been struggling to find funding after support from the city largely dried up in 2000. Any plans to increase funding?

JC: I think PACA is appropriate and the city has to be willing to step up to the plate. As a baseline there needs to be a group that does what PACA does. I think all of those things should be topics of conversation moving forward.

PP: Would you increase funding to a figure at or around PACAís 1997 budget of $80,000, which allowed it to afford a full-time executive director?

JC: I think thatís something that needs to be discussed. I donít want to prescribe sitting here exactly what the right answer is. The city and I will be open-minded in terms of how it needs to go.

PP: How would you define the creative economy, simply?

JC: Businesses that are knowledge-based wherein the participants in these businesses tend to be energetic and vibrant. Itís an economy that thrives in a vibrant arts and cultural community in a well-educated center.

PP: OK. So, basically, itís an economy based on creation?

JC: [Laughing] Sure. Thatís a lot simpler than my definition.

Sara Donnelly can be reached at sdonnelly@phx.com

 


Issue Date: December 16 - 22, 2005
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