The Maine Photo Project: A Snapshot

Hot Off the Presses, Museum love, Soapbox

The Maine Photo Project officially drew to a close on December 31, 2015. This report is not only about recording this major statewide cultural collaboration, it’s also about celebrating it.

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Click the image to download the full report.

The Maine Photo Project officially drew to a close on December 31, 2015.

From the first, it was articulated as a year-long collaboration, with exhibitions organized by 32 Maine cultural nonprofits. Several exhibitions that opened as part of the Maine Photo Project remain on view into 2016—notably those at the Bates College Museum of Art, the Farnsworth Art Museum, and the Maine State Museum—and the Project’s associated book, of course, is only hitting the shelves of bookstores and museum shops now. However, the project itself, with its public programs and wide-ranging cross-promotional efforts, has more or less closed up shop.

For now, the project website and social media pages remain live, but before too long those will disappear or evolve into archived versions. (Partly for that reason, this blog post is appearing not only on the Maine Photo Project site but also my own personal site, in order to give it a more permanent home.) Much the same thing happened with previous statewide exhibition collaborations: Maine’s State of Fiber (2004), the Maine Print Project (2006), the Maine Folk Art Trail (2008), the Maine Drawing Project (2011), and the Maine Civil War Trail (2013). A Google search will bring up news articles about those collaborations, and many of those articles are filled with important details and listings of participating organizations and exhibitions. But none of the project websites are live anymore, and there is no other form in which centralized, publicly accessible information about these remarkable initiatives can be found.

One of the wonderful things about the Maine Curators’ Forum—the organizers of the Maine Photo Project as well as the earlier Print and Drawing projects—is its fluidity. It is, as we’ve described it on the Maine Photo Project website and elsewhere, an informal “consortium of curators representing Maine’s leading arts and cultural institutions.” Its membership, if that’s the right word for it (there are no selection criteria or regular dues, and it is not incorporated as an independent nonprofit), is constantly changing, and the group as a whole tends to form and re-form as new initiatives are identified and launched. With no overhead and no laborious administrative structure to maintain, the group is lean, responsive, and resilient. The absence of bureaucracy is one of the key reasons it has been so successful in leading these statewide cultural collaborations, and why the collaborations continue to welcome more and more participating institutions from a broad cross-section of Maine’s nonprofit world.

That flexibility comes with a price, however. A walls-free administrative structure means that business is conducted almost exclusively through virtual means. Not only is there is no physical archive to speak of—and our library and museum participants can explain the liabilities associated with digital-only archives—but even if there were, there would be no obvious place to keep it.  The essential business of the Maine Photo Proj0009ect, for the most part, is recorded in 40-odd different peoples’ email inboxes.

The mutable funding structure of the Maine Curators’ Forum and its projects also has its pitfalls. Historically, it has been wildly successful in raising funds for its major projects: Maine Photo Project participants contributed an average of more than $700 each to support the project, well over the agreed-upon minimum of $200; another $10,000+ was raised in grant funds. But in the “off” years, there is no funding at all—not even the minimal amount that would be necessary to maintain a web service and domain name registration or pay for the most part-time of part-time staffers.

As my own contract came to an end (I was technically contracted by the Maine Historical Society, which acted as fiscal agent for the Maine Photo Project), I became increasingly aware of the need to transfer knowledge between this collaboration and the next.  (There will be a next collaboration, of course—this is Maine, after all.) For that reason, with the blessing of the Project’s Steering Committee, I conceptualized, compiled the data for, and produced this operational report and economic impact analysis.

0006The report includes essential information about the collaboration: who participated, what their exhibitions were, where the money came from and went toward, what the project produced in terms of programming and marketing tools, etc.  It also includes some analytics, though, because—to be perfectly transparent about it, and to repeat what I wrote in the note about purpose and methodology on page 1—this report is not only about recording a major statewide cultural collaboration, it’s also about celebrating it. It’s also about advocating for the positive cultural and economic impact not only of this collaboration, but also of those that preceded it and those that will follow.

You can click through to read the full report—it’s substantial but nice-looking, and there’s also a bite-sized Executive Summary on p. 2—but you will have to indulge me here as I quote from the section entitled Economic Impact, because it’s too good not to repeat in as many places as possible:

The Maine Photo Project . . .

  • provided paid professional opportunities to 27 people in Maine, including the Project Coordinator and presenters for events
  • spent $37,790 on goods and services almost exclusively in Maine (including $5,390 paid directly to artists)
  • underwrote the Maine Photography book, an unprecedented work of scholarship that provided valuable visibility for 3 Maine authors and dozens of Maine artists and cultural institutions
  • hosted 5 discrete, project-wide events, which served 260 in-person attendees (4 of the 5 events were free of cost)

 As part of their Maine Photo Project offerings, participating institutions collectively. . .

  • served more than 459,831 in-person visitors to Maine cultural institutions, including 3,571 teachers and 21,932 students
  • offered 52 public photography exhibitions and 102 related programs
  • provided exhibition opportunities for 384 living artists—most with deep ties to Maine
  • did so with an average adult admission price of only $3 (many participating institutions offer free admission for all)

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That collective data comes from a post-project survey I conducted of all the participating institutions—and 100% of them responded. How’s that for commitment and collaboration? So in a very real sense, I’m only one of many authors for this report—it’s a team effort, just like the Maine Photo Project as a whole.

This report is absolutely, 100% public, open-access information, and it will have a permanent home on my website and on the Maine Photo Project website as well, as long as (and in whatever form) it continues to exist. We’ll also be sharing it directly with all the project stakeholders, including all 32 participating organizations, our funders, our program and media partners, legislators (we’ll be on the ground at Museums Advocacy Day and Maine Museums Day) and state, regional, and national advocacy groups. It’s our hope and expectation that it will be integrated into existing physical and digital archives at many of these locations.

But we’d love to share it at the grass-roots level, too, and that’s where you can come in. If you’re thinking about an arts or cultural collaboration, on whatever scale—or if you know someone who is—we hope that you will find this a useful thing to share with your colleagues, trustees, artist friends, and anyone else you think might be interested in knowing how a large-scale cultural collaboration can work—in every sense of the word.

. . .

In closing, I should acknowledge that this post is likely the last formal communication from the Maine Photo Project and from me as its Project Coordinator. In recognition of that, I want to say what a privilege it has been to serve the Maine Curators’ Forum and work with this wonderful group of creative, dedicated, brilliant, friendly, funny, and generous people. Thanks to the Steering Committee and all the participating organizations for putting your faith in me, to the sponsors and funders for supporting the project on such a high level, to the many arts writers who gave it your attention, to the fantastic presenters at our public programs, and, of course, to the numberless photographers who put their heart, soul, sweat, and tears into the artwork that appeared in Maine Photo Project exhibitions, in person and online.

I am so glad that there will be a lasting record of what we all achieved together.

Jessica Skwire Routhier
Maine Photo Project Coordinator

 

 

 

 

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