Shoshona Currier, second from left, director of the Bates Dance Festival, talks about how the festival is famous all over the world but not so much locally. One of her goals is to make it more well known locally. She and others involved in art and culture were part of a Great Falls Forum panel at the Lewiston Public Library on Thursday afternoon. From left to right are, Rachel Desgrosseilliers, founding executive director of Museum L-A; Currier; Adilah Muhammad, L/A Arts Downstage coordinator; and Sheri Withers-Hollenbeck, public art advocate and owner of The Curio. Russ Dillingham/Sun Journal Buy this Photo

LEWISTON — On a snowy Thursday, panelists at the Great Falls Forum discussed the current state of the arts in Lewiston and how local institutions must adapt to meet the needs of younger artists.

They described a city that has a nationally-renowned Bates Dance Festival, a small but vibrant performance venue in L/A Arts Downstage, an arts community dedicated to bringing more public art and artists downtown, and a resurgent Museum L-A that plans to build a new museum for a new generation.

On top of that, there’s the Public Theatre, the L-A Community Little Theatre and many other organizations.

“We are blessed in Lewiston-Auburn to have a rich and robust set of institutions of arts and culture and to have a great many artists,” said moderator Jim Parakilas, chairman of L/A Arts.

But as Lewiston — a city with a rich history — changes and grows, the panelists said it must find ways to encourage and host younger artists.

At Downstage, its coordinator, Adilah Muhammad, said the small basement venue is allowing a new generation of artists to find their footing. While some larger arts institutions can have barriers to showing work, Downstage is a place that allows the young artist to decide what art is, she said.

Downstage hosts monthly musical performances, often featuring two Portland-based bands and one Lewiston-area act. They’re often DIY punk or indie bands. At the same time, Downstage holds open mic nights, film screenings and more.

“One of the things we’ve been trying to do is keep it organic,” Muhammad said. “There’s a lot of artists in the community who don’t have access to space, or don’t have the ability to try new collaborations.”

Sheri Withers-Hollenbeck, an artist who is only a few weeks away from opening a new arts-centered business downtown, said Lewiston has changed in the eight years since she returned from Portland.

She said there is a tight-knit artisan community that has translated to downtown retail opportunities.

“The amount of art being sold on Lisbon Street on a regular basis has just multiplied,” Hollenbeck said.

Hollenbeck formerly ran The Hive, a downtown arts collective that had a roster of some 25 artists. For her new venture, The Curio, she’s looking to host more performances with films, art talks and music.

She also gave the city credit for supporting her public art efforts, where she’s received backing for her ideas to paint fire hydrants, crosswalks, electrical boxes and more.

“Who would’ve thought I’d be sitting at Public Works with all these engineers talking about painting fire hydrants?” she said.

For Shoni Currier, director of the Bates Dance Festival, her goal is to expand the long-running festival’s connection with the Lewiston community. She said while the festival is known widely throughout college campuses and large cities like New York, she feels like it flies under the radar in Lewiston.

“I’m working on integrating (the festival) in a more robust and deep way, into this community,” she said.

The panelists also hit on how the arts are changing in Lewiston.

Hollenbeck and Muhammad said small shops, breweries and other unconventional places are becoming hubs for art, and can be where artists sell a good chunk of their work. As young people find these outlets, larger institutions should be putting support behind them too, Muhammad said.

“We need to start thinking differently in this community about how we access art,” she said. “Younger generations are becoming more business-savvy and know where to go where the people are.”

She added that if institutions can’t keep up with what artists need, they’ll find it elsewhere.

Rachel Desgrosseilliers, founding executive director of Museum L-A, said as the new museum is developed, she has been listening to a lot of young people. They’re telling her they want a new, interactive type of museum.

“Young people want to be involved,” she said, adding that the museum would like to make “connections between the generations.”

She said that Lewiston’s history as a cultural hub is often overlooked, but is being replicated today. As immigrants arrived in Lewiston in the mid-19th century, its culture began to change, she said. During the 1940s and ’50s, Lewiston had one of the highest populations of musicians anywhere.

She said the museum runs a “students as curators” program that directly involves Lewiston youth, giving them an opportunity “to teach the community what’s going on.”

Currier said young people are also looking for new and different ways to take in the arts. She said that means experimenting with venues. Last summer, a Bates Music Festival performance took place in Kennedy Park on a Friday afternoon.


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