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BANGOR – When most people “from away” think of Maine, they envision its natural treasures. They wax poetic about lobsters and lighthouses and the rugged coastline.
Dana Gioia, chairman of the National Endowment for the Arts, waxes poetic about the Pine Tree State, too. But he’s a poet. And when he speaks of Maine, he mentions cultural treasures such as the Alice James Poetry Cooperative, the Maine Indian Basketmakers Alliance, and the Theater at Monmouth.
“When I think of the range – from a writers’ cooperative publishing contemporary poetry to a kind of cooperative that keeps alive and growing the Native American arts, to the performing arts, it’s really a state that is extraordinarily rich,” Gioia said Wednesday.
Today, he’ll get to meet some of the artists, crafters and visionaries who make the state extraordinary during his first visit to Maine since his appointment three years ago.
Gioia’s colleague Tony Chaveaux, NEA deputy chairman for grants and awards, will conduct a grant workshop from 10 a.m. to noon at Bangor City Hall.
The workshop is intended to help leaders of nonprofit arts organizations learn more about federal funding opportunities and how to apply for NEA grants.
“We’re coming to Maine more to learn than to lecture,” Gioia said by phone Wednesday. “I look forward to meeting people and seeing organizations in action.”
The NEA’s motto is: “A great nation deserves great art,” and Gioia believes that extends to every part of the nation, not just the obvious artistic centers.
In eastern Maine, he will meet with local arts leaders during a breakfast at Bangor Savings Bank, view the city’s public art, visit the University of Maine Museum of Art in Bangor and the Maine Indian Basketmakers Alliance gallery in Old Town, and make a stop at the University of Maine campus in Orono before leaving for a tour of Portland’s cultural amenities.
Though this is Gioia’s first visit to Bangor, he has traveled in Maine before and says the state has all the elements necessary for a successful creative economy.
“Maine has an extraordinary natural landscape and a wonderful collection of historic towns in beautiful, sometimes even spectacular, places,” Gioia said. “Maine has the unique ability to create communities that provide the best of urban and rural lifestyles combined, and the arts play a role in terms of creating urbanity and also building the social fabric. A community is a more attractive place to live if it has music, theater, a symphony and fine and traditional arts.”
U.S. Sen. Susan Collins, a former member of the NEA’s National Council of the Arts, invited Gioia to visit Maine when the two met at a recent conference.
On Thursday, Collins said she’s impressed with Gioia’s work and thought the visit would be an opportunity to highlight the NEA in Maine – and to highlight Bangor’s pride in developing the American Folk Festival.
“She’s actually had a long and supportive relationship with the NEA,” Gioia said. “We’re grateful to have her [as a] champion for us.”
The NEA, in turn, has been a longtime supporter of several cultural stalwarts in Maine, including the Maine Indian Basketmakers Alliance.
The organization, which represents 150 basket makers in the state’s four federally recognized tribes, initially received NEA grants through a Maine Arts Commission program 15 years ago.
In recent years, MIBA has directly applied for NEA grants to support various endeavors, including an apprenticeship program that has increased the number of basket makers in the alliance and, perhaps more important, decreased the average age of the state’s American Indian weavers by 20 years – from 63 to 43.
The alliance’s director, Theresa Secord, said she hopes Gioia’s visit helps other Maine organizations benefit from NEA grant opportunities as well.
“It’s pretty tough in the parts of Maine where we live and work to attract funding for the arts and even an audience and customers for the arts in a gallery,” she said, “but I think we’re doing that successfully.”