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March 13, 2019

Skowhegan grant money will set Kennebec on 'fire'

Courtesy / Skowhegan Main Street The Great Eddy in the Kennebec River, as seen from Coburn Park in Skowhegan, will be the site of a fire sculpture installation, funded by a grant from the Maine Arts Commission.
Google Maps Map showing the stretch of the Kennebec River in Skowhegan that will be lit with sculptures having fire braziers.

The Kennebec River in Skowhegan will light up for special events, the result of a $75,000 grant from the Maine Arts Commission to Main Street Skowhegan.

A three-year Creative Communities Economic Development implementation grant will be used to create sculptures with fire braziers in the Great Eddy area down river from downtown. The sculptures, similar to WaterFire in Providence, R.I., will be lit for festivals and special occasions.

The Lewiston-Auburn Metropolitan Chamber of Commerce also received a $75,000 CCED grant, which will be used to develop public art programs and policies, including installing public art in both cities.

The U.S. Bureau of Economic Analysis has reported that Maine’s arts and culture sector contributes $1.5 billion annually to Maine’s economy, representing 2.6% of the state’s gross domestic product.

In Skowhegan, the research and development is starting for the riverside project, with the goal of having a prototype by fall, said Kristina Cannon, executive director of Main Street Skowhegan.

The organization is working with the Wesserunsett Arts Council on the project, which is expected to “build a successful and sustainable business model that will bolster tourism, generate prosperity, create a sense of place, and draw interest among neighboring communities along the Kennebec,” according to a news release from Main Street Skowhegan.

'A grand vision'

Cannon told Mainebiz that when the idea first came out of a brainstorming session with Julie Richard, executive director of the Maine Arts Commission. Those involved in the Somerset County cultural plan wanted to involve not only arts, but natural resources, including the county’s biggest asset — the Kennebec River — Cannon said.

When Richard suggested creating a fire installation similar to the one in Rhode Island, Cannon and others were curiousl. A group including herself, Mary Haley of both Main Street Skowhegan and the Wesserunsett Arts Council and Skowhegan Town Manager Christine Almand took a trip to Providence to see WaterFire in action.

They were impressed. “The braziers are cool themselves,” Cannon said, “but what you can do around them, the festival itself is just awesome. We had a grand vision of what we could do if could pull it all off.”

That grand vision, Cannon said, could one day include one long fire water festival stretching down the Kennebec from The Forks in northern Somerset County to Gardiner, or even farther.

The grant is a result of several years of work by those who drafted a cultural plan for Somerset County, Cannon said. An initial planning grant from the arts commission spurred the cultural plan, which is necessary to get the implementation grant.

Some $45,000 of the grant funding will be used to pay artists. A request for proposals for a prototype sculpture will go out after the research and development phase to create the prototype, with another RFP in the fall for an additional four sculptures.

“We expect to get proposals from all over,” Cannon said. “But preference will go to local artists, so we can also support our arts community.”

The current phase of the process also means consulting with engineering firms on the installations, which would be removed in the winter.

“Providence’s canals don’t move that much,” Cannon said. “The Kennebec River does.”

The installation would be visible from Coburn Park, south of downtown, and not interfere with the planned whitewater park, which would be in the river rapids that go through downtown Skowhegan.

Cannon sees a chance for collaboration with other Kennebec River communities, including Augusta and Gardiner, which are also part of the Main Street program.

Lewiston-Auburn public art

The Lewiston-Auburn Metropolitan Chamber of Commerce grant will implement the second phase of a cultural plan for the cities, the chamber said.

The chamber is partnering with L/A Arts, with support from Arts and Culture LA on programs that will be funded by the grants.

“We are so pleased that Maine Arts Commission continues to share our vision for a vibrant LA community and supports our use of cultural planning as a pivotal tool for sustainable community revitalization,” Rebecca Swanson Conrad, president and CEO of the LA Metro Chamber of Commerce, said in a news release last month.

L/A Arts received a similar grant in 2015 to develop a cultural plan. That project was sponsored by the city of Lewiston, the city of Auburn, L/A Arts and ACLA. Cultural Plan LA outlines priorities and recommendations for action which, coupled with cross-sector partnerships, and is expected to catalyze LA’s creative potential, the chamber said.

Julia Richard, Maine Arts Commission’s executive director, said of the grants, “Both of these regions have worked so hard to get here. Their cultural plans are wonderful guides to move their work forward and we anticipate that the projects they have chosen to work on will provide excellent catalysts for economic success for their communities.”

The arts commission provides the grants support and stimulate initiatives in the state’s arts and culture sector. To apply for a grant, communities have to complete a cultural plan. Maine Arts Commission also funds cultural planning for communities and regions as an impetus for the work.

As a result, nine Maine communities to date have either completed or are in the process of completing cultural plans, according to the commission.

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