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October 15, 2012

Jean Maginnis connects art, business to drive Maine's economy

photo/TIM GREENWAY
photo/TIM GREENWAY
Jean Maginnis, executive director of the Maine Center for Creativity, marshalled resources to transform a cluster of Portland oil tanks into the world's largest public art project

VIEW: Jean Maginnis talks art for economy's sake

Maine Center for Creativity

Address: 477 Congress St., Portland

Executive director: Jean Maginnis

Founded: 2005

Employees: 2

Budget: $100,000

Contact: 730-0694

www.mainecenterforcreativity.org

Although she's a champion of collaboration, one can almost imagine a lone Jean Maginnis, paintbrush in hand, dutifully applying brushstrokes 100-feet off the ground to complete the world's largest public art painting.

"My mom warned me about not climbing up a ladder," says Maginnis, founder and executive director of the Maine Center for Creativity, a Portland-based nonprofit tasked with promoting the state's creative economy.

Instead of climbing a ladder, Maginnis tapped her background in strategic marketing to bring local business and cultural interests together to organize the Art All Around competition, an international contest drawing more than 500 artists from 80 countries eager to compete for the chance to turn South Portland's industrial waterfront into a record-setting work of art.

"At first it was just little ole' Jean Maginnis asking 15 people to help, then it was 20, 50, 100. Before you knew it, the whole community was getting engaged in transforming a group of oil tanks into the world's largest public art painting," she says.

So far, the sprawling results of the Art All Around competition, a collaboration between MCC and Sprague Energy, have been the organization's most visible effort. When completed, the $1.3 million project will span 16 oil storage tanks lining Casco Bay, featuring the abstract, maritime-inspired work of London-based artist Jaime Gili.

Located along one of the busiest transportation corridors in the state — Amtrak, the Portland International Jetport and I-295 are all within sight — the oil tank project reflects MCC's mission to build Maine's visibility as a creative and innovative place.

"Frankly, before this happened, there were not too many things making the arts and cultural piece of our economy very visible, so we took a canvas that is 260,000 square feet and let people know we are creative and innovative here," says Maginnis.

Public art can often come under close scrutiny from the community, as evidenced by the "Tracing the Fore" sculpture that was removed from Portland's Boothby Square in response to public outcry. But Maginnis says any project that keeps people talking is doing its job.

"I think the role of public art is really to bring about a public discussion, which means you can't be afraid of a little panning," she says.

Likewise, there was some pressure to choose a Maine artist for the project, an idea that Maginnis and the selection committee dismissed early on.

"We can't put Maine on the map if we are just talking to ourselves," says Maginnis. "We want to export our ideas and import the dollars. Maine has always been an international, open port back to its shipbuilding days. I think that's why Maine is a place where new ideas and creative things are happening."

Five of the tanks have been painted thanks to support from individuals and businesses like Sprague, Greg Boulos, accounting and management consulting firm BerryDunn and Portland law firm Jensen, Baird, Gardner and Henry, who offered pro-bono legal work to help bring the project to life. But it will take another $350,000 to see the project through, according to Maginnis. "I hope our community will help us finish it sooner rather than later," she says.

MCC also launched the speaker-driven Creative Toolbox series and Pecha Kucha, an expedited presentation model originating in Tokyo (the term means "chit chat" in Japanese) giving participants a lightning-round style opportunity to share their "big idea" with the crowd in six minutes or less.

Maginnis spearheaded the creation of the state's first Creative Industry Award, a first-of-its-kind recognition of individuals who demonstrate the power of art and commerce combined. The first award was presented in September to Idexx founder David Shaw and his wife, actress Glenn Close, for their support of cultural and entrepreneurial endeavors in Maine.

For Maginnis, the mission of MCC was born out of both economic reality and personal experience. "I saw that the state was not growing enough, so that any campaign to promote [creativity] would be taking a piece of a pie that wasn't big enough to begin with," says Maginnis.

But it was an announcement from her teenage son that brought Maine's stagnant creative horizon into focus.

"He let me know that he didn't have enough opportunity here in Maine and that he would have to move out," says Maginnis, whose son is now a stand-up comedian living in New York City.

"Everyone has heard this 'brain drain' story, it can be told a million times, but that's when I decided to use my marketing and business skills along with my interest in the arts to help expand economic development and cultural growth," she says.

Maginnis traces the origin of MCC to a 2004 statewide summit on Maine's creative economy. Noticing that growth in some of Maine's legacy industries had continued to decline, Maginnis was eager to explore new business models that would help drive Maine's economy. According to a 2004 study by the New England Foundation for the Arts, Maine's arts and culture sector grew 24% between 1997 and 2002 to become larger than the state's pulp, paper and wood harvesting industries.

"When I formed MCC in 2005, I saw the numbers were going up in the creative industries and down in the traditional industries. In fact, we didn't have growth [in pulp, paper and manufacturing] for 15 to 20 years before that, so why would we keep doing the same thing?" says Maginnis.

A big part of marketing and promoting the state's creative economy is about expanding the term's definition, according to Maginnis.

"There is a perception that the creative economy is just individual artists, writers or performers, and it does include them, but it also includes 14 other areas," says Maginnis, citing research and development, advertising, architecture and software and examples of industries one might not associate with the creative economy.

"I often feel like a translator, because I understand business models and how important products and markets and development are, but I also understand the creative process from the artist's point of view and I understand how they overlap," she says.

Clarification: This story has been modified to reflect the support of law firm Jensen, Baird, Gardner and Henry and accounting firm BerryDunn to Maine Center for Creativity's tank project.

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