There are many oases in our ‘cultural desert’

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Leland Faulkner of Auburn, a performance artist and filmmaker, recently decried the Twin Cities’ “cultural schizophrenia” in an op-ed published June 3. His comment stemmed from Auburn’s attempt to cut funding for L/A Arts programs within the school system.

The funding was restored, but Faulkner’s phrase resonated. It was reminiscent of the notorious (and now 39-year-old) description of Lewiston as a “cultural desert” by the leader of the Maine Council for the Arts and Humanities.

In a war of words, “schizophrenia” is better than”desert.” It’s still unflattering, but schizophrenia, at least indicates the presence of culture, which is more credit than the chairman gave L-A in his commentary of Feb. 11, 1968.

It’s also accurate, because opinions of L-A’s arts scene are fractured. For every Faulkner-like conclusion, contrary evidence exists. Like the recent social capital survey of L-A, which found our engagement in the arts has increased five percent since 2000, one of our largest gains.

Yet Faulkner’s negative assessment was correct, as cutting an arts budget indicates an unappreciative community. But the survey is valid too, as recent investment into cultural outlets in L-A (like the Franco-American center, and the Public Theatre) proves public interest in the arts.

There’s more here than meets the artistic eye, that’s for sure.

Perhaps the right phrase is “cultural disconnect,” to reflect our scattered, yet interdependent, cultural organizations, who can behave like a group of people trudging through the rain, cursing their luck, but all forgetting an umbrella.

L-A has the venues: the Franco center, Bates College, the Androscoggin Bank Coliseé, L-A College, the theaters, schools, and most recent, the Basilica of Saints Peter and Paul and the new downtown Gallery 5.

It has the artisans – musicians, actors, painters, writers, sculptors, fiber artistsall within its boundaries.

And, most of all, it has the culture. Lewiston-Auburn, by virtue of its history and its present, is perhaps one of the most diverse communities in Maine, a broad spectrum of languages, ethnicities and religions.

What it seems to lack are patrons – a critical mass at the bottom, pushing the arts forward – and benefactors – those at the top, pulling the arts along through their philanthropy.

Unfortunately, these latter groups are hard to come by.

The arts in the Twin Cities also lack unity. The arts scene needs a centrifuge around which to spin and grow, either an organizational structure (like L/A Arts) or a primary venue, acting as source of a cultural gravitational pull.

Currently, the arts forces seem to be disconnected, with individual groupings using their own pull to yank, and also repel, from each other. For entities whose success is inextricably linked, it’s an imperfect survival strategy.

The pieces, however, are here, and culturally speaking, the opportunity for generating an unique, vibrant arts scene has never been better. The social capital study shows support for the arts is building.

See? There are many oases in our “cultural desert.”

Take a drink.

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