Wednesday, September 3, 2008

It’s not about the art: Looking behind the effort to paint South Portland oil tanks

Published in the Portland Phoenix

The real goal behind the Art All Around project, which proposes to paint original artists’ designs on several Sprague Energy Corporation oil tanks in South Portland, will be fulfilled even if none of the tanks is ever decorated.

According to Jean Maginnis, who dreamed up the idea and is coordinating the effort to bring it to life, the project is not actually about art for art’s sake. Instead, she says, it’s about forcing “a large public discussion of art.”

Maginnis, the founder, executive director, and sole employee of the Maine Center for Creativity, the “group” that spearheaded the effort, is getting her wish. Five semifinalists’ proposals — all abstract designs — were selected by jury from 560 submissions and made public in the middle of last month (see “Words Over Pictures,” by Ken Greenleaf). And since then, the outcry has been deafening. Though her organization has raised just $200,000 of the $1.2 million needed to actually put paint on steel, hundreds — even thousands — of Portland-area residents are thinking and talking about art, though not exactly the way Maginnis might have hoped. (See sidebar, “Talk of the Town.”)

Good intentions
Maginnis is a passionate defender of her brainchild, initially responding to a Portland Phoenix request for an interview and up-close viewing of the proposals by saying “I’m not going to share my information with you if this is something you’re going to attack.”

She did eventually grant us an interview, in which she explained that she wants her three-year-old organization’s signature project to appeal to several distinct audiences, mostly far from Maine.

-international media outlets, which might cover Maine as an artsy destination;

-art-interested people around the country and the globe, who might travel to Maine if they thought about it as a creative place;

-Google Earth users across the Internet, who might see the painted tops of the tanks on their computer screens, if and when the Web-based satellite-photo database adds new images;

-business owners and leaders everywhere, who might be inspired to use artists’ work or artistic approaches in business applications;

-investors, who might bring their businesses to Maine if they were more aware of how creative our state’s residents are;

-artists, who might benefit from being able “to feel that they are able to make their dreams come true;”

-and, ultimately, the millions of people — mostly Portland-area residents but also visitors — using cars, boats, airplanes, trains, bicycles, and even just their feet on routes from which they can view the tanks.

These are, indeed, positive intentions — efforts to “put Maine on the map in the national and international markets,” and even trying to get people who bad-mouth the Pine Tree State to start “saying something different about Maine than ‘it’s not worth investing in.’”

Fixing what’s not broken
If all this strikes you as a massive undertaking intended to right a large number of wrongs, you’re getting the picture. And if you question whether some of those wrongs are as bad as Maginnis makes them out to be, you’re not alone.

Maginnis says that she already has strong evidence of her project’s success. For example, she notes that many of the 560 entrants wrote in their entries that they had learned something new about Maine when researching their submissions — which is, it’s true, a start down the road of teaching the world about Maine’s creativity, but not really numbers worth boasting about. And she professes great satisfaction at having brought discussions about art into the halls of government and corporate boardrooms, in her search for financial and logistical support — even though many of her sponsors and collaborators are long-time activists in the local arts community.

There are even farther-reaching goals, though. Maginnis admits that, based on the wealth of national-scale artists who live here, Maine has a strong reputation among artists and art sellers and a robust visual-art life and economy. Considering their small populations, Portland and Maine — which have been art destinations for decades — have a high number of quality galleries and museums. But still, Maginnis insists that more people think of Maine as a state where businesses and artists struggle, rather than one where ingenuity is key to survival — and that this project can help shift that view.

That seems like a strange perspective, but it’s easier to understand how she got there when she offers the most startling example of the pessimism driving her forward. There are, she says, currently “no industries” in Maine where creative people can work.

That’s a particularly ironic statement for many reasons, not the least of which is the letter of support from Governor John Baldacci that is prominently posted on the Art All Around project’s Web site. In it, the governor makes clear that “more than 63,000 Maine residents are currently employed in the creative sector, which provides about 10 percent of all Maine’s wages.”

Her claim is further contradicted by the fact that she delivers it — with great earnestness — in one of several conference rooms in the offices of a large Portland marketing firm that provides her with free desk space and other support. At the desks outside the room where she is speaking work some of the most successful creative minds in the state.

Talk of the town
The public’s objections to the Art All Around project are legion, and range from philosophical to savage. The most pragmatic complaints decry the use of $1.2 million in private donations to pretty up massive oil tanks when the petroleum industry is making record profits and Mainers can’t afford to heat their homes or gas up their cars.

Some local residents have expressed concerns about the designs themselves, with one South Portland artist telling the Current (a weekly community newspaper serving South Portland) the designs give her “little to be excited about.” A resident and business owner quoted in the same article used the word “horrendous” to describe some of the designs — her strongest praise was, “Others, I could live with.” And a South Portland city councilor voiced among the most common criticisms of the designs: “I was expecting (design proposals) more along the lines of Maine-related history, mountains, seascapes, and native animals.”

Even the tough-as-milquetoast Portland Press Herald arts section recently ran a column calling the project “controversial.” (Note to those reading daily newspapers: the word “controversial” is code for “We hate this, but aren’t comfortable saying it ourselves, and we can’t be bothered actually talking to anyone to get a quote.”)

Project creator Jean Maginnis has an answer to all of those critics. “A lot of people” tell her they like the project and its semifinalists and are willing to support it with their time, energy, and money. Fighting back tears, she explains that this work is “valuable . . . because art matters.”