By Brian Goslow
Named for the five rivers that encompass the Midcoast Maine region, The Five Rivers Arts Alliance covers 12 towns spread over 200 square miles with the stated mission to strengthen those communities through the arts, “by increasing awareness, knowledge, education, appreciation, participation and support for the arts and other cultural activities.” They certainly do that through a series of monthly ArtsWalks and annual festivals. Artscope’s Brian Goslow cornered chairman Karl Saila to talk about the organization, those events and this summer’s successes.
What does being chairman of Five Rivers Arts Alliance entail?
As chairman I lead the alliance’s board of directors and as a group we are responsible for the performance of its established mission and continued success as a non-profit established under its bylaws to promote the arts and culture of our mid-coast region of Maine. We develop, monitor and update the strategic plan for the organization, centered on promoting our members’ art, their businesses such as galleries and studios, and other nonprofit art related organizations and educational institutions such as Bowdoin College’s Museum of Art. Using board led committees, we review financial aspects (of the organization) including fundraising and grant writing, promotions and publicity, and event planning that are undertaken by our executive director who has day-to-day management responsibility.
How long have you been involved with the organization and what’s been the most rewarding aspect of being part of it?
I have been involved for two years as a member and have served on the board for about six months. My volunteering time for the Art Walk season has provided me with better understanding of our need for increased volunteer numbers and commitment to achieving successful events. When I joined, our organization had just undergone rebuilding and was operating solely with member and board volunteers. Spending time as a volunteer interim executive director brought many challenges and increased the speed of my learning curve. I think the most rewarding aspect for me has been finding and hiring our current executive director, Sheila Youmans. She is bringing with her all the skills and experience needed by Five Rivers to increase our membership base and further our presence in the region’s communities.
How many members and volunteers do you have?
We currently have approximately 210 members of which 150 or so are individual artist members; the remaining are businesses and non-profit organizations. Our volunteers are drawn primarily from the membership, and vary with the events and seasons. We are striving to increase our core number of volunteers for ongoing assistance such as publicity, website management, office assistance and the like. As an estimate there are about 10 to 15 members volunteering regularly for us but we need to add more and it is one of our goals for Sheila this year.
Does each town have its own distinct identity (and if so, can you give a few examples of how they differ)?
I believe everyone in Maine could express distinct identities for their community and presumptuous on my part to speak for them. Our Five Rivers name was derived to try and define our region that surrounds them. This region includes Bath, Brunswick and Topsham, which are more urban than Richmond, Bowdoin, Bowdoinham, Harpswell, Arrowsic, West Bath, Georgetown, Phippsburg and Woolwich, but can still consider themselves small towns. All are coastal communities, several are more inland, but still border Merrymeeting Bay, the confluence of our five rivers. Most importantly, all have many thriving and striving visual, literary and performing artists that need an organization like ours to help bring their talents to light and have the public recognize this culture as we do the farming, lobstering, industrial and educational aspects of each community.
I’ve been following your ArtWalks, festivals and the work of many of your area artists through your facebook page. 5RAA supports all aspects of the arts — literary, performing and visual as well as the traditional crafts. What goes into pulling them all together for special events?
A lot of hard work — planning an event includes; obtaining participants from our membership and from other public groups; obtaining sponsors to help financially with costs; finding a venue for the event whether it be public space or private; lining up sufficient volunteers to staff the event; and timely publicity that promotes the event. Probably our most intense event planning centers on the annual Brunswick Art Walk season that runs from May into October, with planning starting in February by the event committee. Printing of a comprehensive brochure describing details for the event and used by the public attending to find everything, needs to meet design, printing and publication deadlines that allow us to be ready for the first art walk event. We include “pop-up” sites for artists from outside the downtown area to set-up and display their work, and of course arrange for musicians to perform at multiple locations downtown. I think I could go on and on.
How has attendance been this summer and how have artists been faring in terms of selling their work?
Weather is a big factor at times but overall attendance has been very good; We have had feedback from people that are visiting for the first time from areas as far away as Boston, having heard about us from our distribution of brochures on the Amtrak Downeaster train; tourists have increased our attendance as well. Sales amounts by individuals have not yet been polled, as we are halfway through the season; however, we feel that they are getting good exposure of their talents.
How do the arts assist the Midcoast Maine region in attracting seasonal visitors?
Seasonal tourism has been attracted more and more over recent years due to things like the extension of train service to Brunswick and a seasonal train to Rockland for special events, but the region’s cultural events are big attractions that have gained broad recognition. We not only have our Brunswick Art Walk (which runs from May through October) but there is the Bowdoin College Museum of Art, the Bowdoin College Summer Music Festival and the Maine State Music Theater program that put on acclaimed art shows, music performances and stage productions that attract people to the region.
People seem to be showing a greater appreciation of craftwork in recent years; how has this benefited your region?
We have seen an increase in members that have their talents in woodworking and woodturning, fiber arts and quilting. But I hesitate to categorize; are these crafts or art? Is sculpture different from woodworking? To me, and I think to Five Rivers, these are all forms of art and important to everyone because one can appreciate beauty in a multitude of forms brought forth by the talented artist. Our region benefits if we promote all that way.
What events do you have coming up in the months ahead?
We have our September and October 2nd Friday Art Walk events and fall will bring our Pecha Kucha program of artists’ presentations. December brings our Art Downtown and All Around three-day weekend program by artists and craftsmen where they open their studios to the public with receptions and shows. Artists in the region that need space to show are given their chance at a pop-up site. It is our holiday event.
If someone was going to plan a visit to the Five Rivers region between now and the end of the year, what Arts Alliance event would you suggest they plan to attend — and why?
If one wishes to see short but interesting presentations by varied artists then Pecha Kucha is for you; otherwise our December holiday Arts Downtown and All Around or our two remaining Art Walks may be for you where you can enjoy the art and taste our sponsoring restaurant’s cuisine. The short answer is, all of our events.
(For more information on the Five Rivers Arts Alliance, visit 5raa.org.)