Maine artists continue to struggle under Gov. Mills’ economic restrictions


Our relationship with the arts has been severely and permanently altered this year. As every day passes, it appears more and more likely that the heavy-handed policies enacted by governors across the country–including Gov. Janet Mills here in Maine–have made weathering this pandemic much worse than it needed to be.

Businesses across Maine and the nation are still reeling from the effects of continued restrictions on daily operations. Many are able to make due with curbside pick-up, online ordering, shipping, remote work and virtual events. But for arts and music venues, the continued mandatory limits on indoor and outdoor gatherings have put them in an untenable bind.

Broadway has been shut down for months and recently announced that it expects to be closed through next May. Could it be possible to survive as an arts venue for a year or more without revenue? If it could happen anywhere, it might be Broadway. Where does that leave the thousands of small spaces where music and arts thrive on a local scale?

Over the last six months, the New England arts ecosystem has taken a drastic hit. Many iconic venues have closed, including The Middle East Downstairs and Great Scott in Boston and Portland’s Port City Music Hall. The owner of Portland House of Music has launched a crowd-funding campaign to attempt to hold on until after the pandemic restrictions subside. 

When that day will come is anyone’s guess. The situation for Maine businesses gets worse and worse the longer the governor delays a full reopening of the economy. Gov. Mills has shown that she will unilaterally alter the rules without regard to any change in the state’s COVID-19 data. 

One would think that the recent move to “Stage 4” of the reopening plan would mean that the state has seen some discernible shift in the case data, but the hospitalization rate has been nearly the same since early July. If anything has changed, overall cases have ticked up slightly since the summer, but we should be expecting that as we “flattened the curve.” 

In addition, this next phase of Maine’s reopening finally allows bars to open, but not without significant limitations. For example, the state’s 2020 Winter Capacity regulations do not allow for “live singing or playing of brass or woodwind instruments” or “open dance floors,” meaning the cultural pleasures we enjoy at these establishments will not be there when they reopen on Nov. 2.

To help struggling artists, galleries and clubs, some American venues formed the National Independent Venue Association (NIVA). To date, some of NIVA’s work has involved making small grants, but most has taken the form of lobbying Congress to pass another round of taxpayer-funded relief, specifically helping those venues.

Recently, SPACE, an art gallery and theater on Congress Street in Portland, established the Maine Musician Relief Fund to provide some assistance to Maine’s struggling musical community. Provided by private foundations and individuals, the fund is granting 70 musicians $1,000 each. The recently formed Maine Music Alliance offers a similar service, distributing grants to small venues based on need. These are small but noteworthy efforts by the Maine arts community to raise awareness of the hardship it is experiencing. 

As a part-time musician, and a friend of many full-time artists and musicians, the effects of the lockdowns on the arts has caused me considerable pain. It is a cold and ruthless policy which casts away the intrinsic, unexplainable value that a thriving artistic community brings to all of our lives. Our “leaders” forced us to trade it for brutal command-and-control social management.

Deemed “non-essential” by the governor, arts venues were some of the first to close up shop and will likely be among the last to reopen. A casualty of our present antisocial society, we are told that the viral transmission risk of attending a concert is too great to allow them to exist in any form other than behind a computer screen, or a hundred yards away at a drive-in. 

Politicians and their mouthpieces tell us that “we are not out of the woods” to yet witness the unique beauty of an in-person art gallery or concert. I don’t know about you, but I would never use the word “nonessential” to describe the role of music and the arts in my life.

Of course, we can bustle about elbow-to-elbow in the aisles of the local grocery store, pharmacy, or big box store, but to even attempt to provide the people with the nourishment of the arts will warrant severe disciplinary action from the state. 

Governor Mills has not hesitated to flex her power under the 7-month-and-counting “state of emergency,” noting in her most recent radio address to Mainers that business owners who flaunt her executive orders “are subject to enforcement, including fines and potential loss of license.” She made note to mention that a $20,000 fine was issued in a single case, lest you think you could get away with trying to serve your neighbors.

The constant sabre-rattling by Mills is nothing less than a direct threat to Maine small business owners, a warning that they will regret taking their livelihoods into their own hands.

As we are constantly reminded of the mounting human costs of the unprecedented and reckless lockdowns, we must keep the arts in our minds. From mounting rates of suicide, addiction and depression, to the unending struggle of lower-income workers to make ends meet, to the projected health costs of delayed medical procedures and faltering progress on child hunger around the globe, the full costs will likely be unknown for years.

Artists have the immense power to cause us to rethink our reality, to rethink our relationship to the world. As cold as this winter will be, it will be a day at the beach compared to another summer without the transcendental warmth of the arts. 

Next time a politician tries to convince you that we need lockdowns to beat a disease, usher them to exit the stage.


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