Across every issue area, COVID-19 pushed Maine’s nonprofits to reinvent their programs and program delivery and to redefine their roles in their communities. Arts organizations, whose success relied on ticket sales for live performances and admission to exhibitions, faced unique challenges as they strove to connect to long-standing and future audiences. In downtown Portland, SPACE Gallery managed to rethink programs in innovative ways that have brought new audiences both local and international.
When shelter-in-place rules were at their most strict in spring 2020, SPACE’s popular music programs became “house concerts” where performers broadcast live from their homes. Artists who would have had exhibitions in the galleries redesigned their installations to fit into SPACE’s storefront windows where artists’ work would have even greater visibility. SPACE received a Kindling Fund grant from the Warhol Foundation that was meant to support a small number of selected artist projects, but SPACE negotiated with the funder and raised additional funds to provide rapid-response emergency grants to 75 artists in southern Maine.
SPACE took lessons learned from 2020 to design new online programs for 2021. They have found that the online format can include more new voices in presenting programs, as well as allowing a bigger, broader audience. In February, their program “Pulling a James Baldwin” had an online open mic format where 36 community members volunteered to read their favorite passage from a work by James Baldwin. When SPACE held a book launch for Portland-area author Phuc Tran’s memoir Sigh-Gone more than 500 people attended online, including many of Tran’s family members in Viet Nam. As “zoom fatigue” set in this spring, SPACE created a screen-free way to connect with Maine poets. The Poetry Hotline is a 24/7 opportunity to call-in and hear a poet read their work to you over the phone. The Hotline has been so popular that SPACE staff have had to turn the ringers off on all their office phones, because the hotline rings off the hook all day. In summer, SPACE will launch a series of COVID-safe outdoor programs in Congress Square Park, including a film about women in contemporary music (“Sisters with Transistors”) with a synthesizer petting zoo and the return of SPACE dance parties for families with young children (“Family Mixed Tapes”). SPACE rebranded their programs with a temporary logo to better capture their switch to content-producer/broadcaster.
SPACE made some interesting, permanent changes in 2020-21 as well. In response to Black Lives Matter marches, SPACE reconsidered systems they had in place that excluded certain artists and community members from contributing to SPACE’s mission. In summer 2020, SPACE designated two of the studios in their building to be rent free for young BIPOC artists. In spring 2021, SPACE created a new system for recruiting board members, where community members can nominate themselves to serve on the board. The new system saw a clear, positive response from younger people from communities of color with more than 30 people nominating themselves to sit on the SPACE Board of Trustees.
SPACE Gallery is midyear in their most recent Sam L. Cohen Foundation grant. In the Fall 2020 grant cycle, SPACE received a $15,000 grant to support the shift from their usual in-person programs to programs that were responsive to COVID-19 protocols and changing community need. In June, the galleries will reopen to visitors, but SPACE plans to continue learning from the 2020 experience to include more new voices and audience members.