Like many museums around the country, the Portland Museum of Art is looking to diversify its base of support by appealing to a younger audience. To do so, they started a group called the Contemporaries a year ago as a means of attracting new museum supporters while simultaneously offering them entr`e to the local arts scene.
The response has been overwhelming with nearly 300 individuals signing up. It speaks volumes about the changing demographics of Portland. Who are these people and where did they come from?
They are people between the ages of 30 and 50 who pay a membership fee of $250 a year to have exclusive access to arts, culture and each other. They are young professionals with small children who live in the area and make plenty of money. They want to be part of a scene, they want to be seen. There is a certain level of prestige that comes with being connected to an art museum. As members of this group, they know that at the four scheduled events a year, they will see their friends and meet new people. It is a trusted situation for a good time that they don't have to plan. Plus, you get to dress up, which doesn't happen enough in this town.
Each event has a focus. The program agenda rotates from education to connecting with artists to connecting with curators. The experience can be rooted in the traditional such as a tour of the private collection at the Homer Studio in Prout's Neck or more contemporary, such as a party at the museum with artist John Bisbee, whose band played among an exhibition of his sculptures made from nails. The drinks flow freely.
One member, J. Lee Nelsen explains,"The Contemporaries are a like a cross between Nova and Cheers. Who wouldn't like to learn about some really cool stuff while hanging out with Norm?"
The success of the Contemporaries surprises me. I did not think there were enough young professionals living locally to support such an effort. The museum and other organizations have tried for years to establish this type of group to no avail. However, the critical mass is here now. Portland was named one of the top cities for creative mid-life professionals by Kiplinger's magazine last year.
In addition to having a good time, the Contemporaries are stepping up to the plate and demonstrating leadership. Four have since joined the museum board, which brings the under 50 crowd up to 10 percent of the board makeup. Compare this to 2006 when that number was only one.
The local arts community has been lacking in leadership for some time so I applaud the museum for cultivating this new round of supporters who can pony up while partying down.Jessica Tomlinson is the director of public relations at Maine College of Art. She lives in the West End of Portland with her husband, artist Henry Wolyniec and their son, Otto. She thinks Portland is the bee's knees.