Can the Arts Revitalize a Depressed Town? A Foundation Will Find Out After Buying Most of It

Of the many sad ironies generated by the Trump administration thus far, here's one that hasn't gained much attention. If the president succeeds in gutting public support for the arts, he will further hollow out post-industrial areas beset by what he deemed "American carnage" in his inaugural address.

A vibrant arts ecosystem stimulates economic growth, creates jobs, and engages disenfranchised communities. Growing numbers of donors and funders understand this, and they've been stepping up in recent years to support ambitious new efforts at creative placemaking, among other efforts, as we've reported. 

Still, we've never seen an arts-fueled renewal initiative quite like the one that's now unfolding in Maine, led by the Portland, Maine-based Libra Foundation (not to be confused with a similarly named funder with offices in Chicago and San Francisco.)

The foundation, which was established by Maine investor and philanthropist Elizabeth B. Noyce in 1989, has a deceptively simple plan for revitalizing a depressed town: it's buying most of the town. Libra recently purchased a huge chunk of the rural hamlet of Monson, Maine, and expects to spend as much as $10 million revitalizing it.

The foundation's goal, according to the Bangor Daily News, is "to save a dying industrial town known for slate quarries and furniture making with a dramatic infusion of cash into the arts, agriculture and eventually recreation." 

The plan is to convert the houses into artist residences and the center into studio space. The store would sell art and produce grown by farms in Piscataquis County, which the U.S. Census Bureau rated as Maine’s poorest in 2015. Since October, Libra has spent $750,000 buying a dozen houses, a community center, a general store and a nearby farm. 

A scan of the foundation's website reveals a laundry list of familiar-sounding areas of interest. Yet this unassuming web copy, coupled with a list of past arts grantees—few of whom received more than $50,000—belies the ambition of its Monson undertaking.

It's also ambitious within the larger field of creative placemaking.

The Knight Foundation's Arts Challenge, for example, funds the "best ideas for engaging and enriching communities through the arts," but the foundation itself isn't in the business of gobbling up entire small towns. 

Another big creative placemaking proponent, ArtPlace America, has a similar project-driven method. This approach has its benefits. Rather than sink millions into a single town, ArtPlace maximizes its breadth—as of early 2016, it funded projects in 43 states and the District of Columbia. In addition, 24 percent of ArtPlace’s funding has gone to communities with fewer than 50,000 people.

That said, 50,000 people is a far cry from Monson's population of 686 and Piscataquis County's population of 17,026. And Libra's allocation of $10 million—just shy of the $10.5 million that ArtPlace will invest in its 2016 round of the National Creative Placemaking Fund—to rebuild a town from scratch is quite different than ArtPlace awarding $400,000 over two years to the Farmworker Association of Florida to improve farmworkers' health.

And therein lies the fundamental difference with the Libra Foundation's grantmaking in Monson. Rather than cut checks to organizations or individuals, it focuses on purchasing or constructing assets in down-and-out cities that can be leveraged by the community as a whole.

This portfolio-driven approach isn't new, of course. The Los Angeles-based Mortimer & Mimi Levitt Foundation supports arts events in small to mid-sized towns and cities across the country to "activate underused and neglected public spaces and create social impact." It also has a penchant for Rust Belt towns, as seen in its support for transforming a formerly toxic brownfield in Bethlehem, Pennsylvania, into an arts camp.

But again, like ArtPlace America, Levitt's overall grantmaking is diffused and organizationally driven. Levitt will award a maximum total of $375,000, spread across 15 nonprofit organizations, in its 2017 grant cycle. It also focuses on cities with populations of up to 400,000.

By investing in the real estate market, Libra's approach isn't just anomalous, it's also somewhat risky. But its strategy comes into clearer focus when viewed against the philanthropic thinking of its founder, Elizabeth Noyce.

Noyce, the ex-wife of the co-inventor of the microchip, used her divorce settlement to start Libra and promote her unique brand of asset-driven ''catalytic philanthropy" designed to bolster Maine's economy. 

In 1991, when out-of-state banks began purchasing Maine banks, she simply started her own. When Maine's construction industry was on the decline, she built homes for workers. And when downtown Portland, Maine, needed an economic lift, she purchased 10 percent of the city's office and retail space. 

Is it any wonder that her foundation went on a property-buying spree in Monson?

Noyce's can-do strategy echoes that of Roxanne Quimby, the natural self-care product tycoon and another longtime Maine benefactor. Following a 2016 donation of 87,500 acres and cash worth a combined $100 million, a federal executive order will establish the Katahdin Woods and Waters National Monument. 

As for Libra's Monson experiment, the Bangor Daily News reports that while residents applaud the idea, many are skeptical, as Libra "has not laid out a specific multi-year plan for the project." These residents may be comforted to know that Libra has been down this road before.

In New Gloucester, it bought a huge abandoned psychiatric hospital campus and spent $110 million creating Pineland Farm Inc., which now has 800 workers. It also spent $30 million revitalizing a potato-processing plant and transforming it into an "Olympic-caliber skiing destination."

The Monson experiment represents a departure from these projects in that it focuses on the arts, or more accurately, it views the arts as one component of a larger place-based architecture. Town Manager Fred Krone drives this point home, noting, “It’s not just the arts. You’ve got recreation, the beginning of the 100-Mile Wilderness, which is a big draw, and agriculture, which is an underutilized resource."

Which brings me to the two $64,000 questions. First, will it work? And second, can other foundations emulate Libra's approach?  

To the former, I recently referenced a piece by Darien Carr, the winner of a Knight Cities Challenge, in which he expounded on what makes a successful creative placemaking project. Given the fact that Libra is embracing Monson's strong artistic and agricultural past, the prognosis is encouraging, assuming Libra remains open to residents' concerns. Here's Carr:

Places are not only geographic locations. They are diverse communities whose unique existence depends on both history and culture. The people that live in these neighborhoods know this better than anyone. It is up to placemakers to hear what they have to say.

On the other hand, you can readily acknowledge the risks of placing all the creative placemaking eggs in Libra's basket. What if, say, 18 months from now, the foundation decides to cut its losses? Then what? Or consider the optics of a Libra-owned town. As the New York Times reported upon Noyce's passing in 1996, some Portland residents complained that Mrs. Noyce was becoming "too big a factor in the Portland economy." That may very well have been true, but it certainly beat the alternative, right?

The latter question regarding the exportability of Libra's model is a bit more vexing. Institutional grantmakers like Knight, ArtPlace and Heinz appreciate the organization-driven approach to creative placemaking. These funders would rather support an organization that does on-the-ground creative placemaking work than take on that work itself.

And while funders commonly purchase a single building or work with universities to establish "arts corridors" in large, self-sustaining U.S. cities, few have embraced Libra's "buy the depressed town" approach.

But all of this could change. After all, there are countless Monsons around the U.S.—that is, depressed towns with historic ties to vital industries and the arts, access to natural wonders, and affordable real estate.

And while Libra's strategy may seem novel, it makes a good deal of sense when you consider the evolving philanthropic landscape. As David Callahan points out in his book The Givers, private philanthropy will play a greater role in all facets of civic live as government funders step back. Libra is merely filling a vacuum created by the absence of government funding and private capital investment.

So let's take Callahan's premise one step further. A generation ago, "factory towns" based on industries like paper milling, logging and textile manufacturing sprinkled all corners of the American landscape. Does it really stretch the imagination to envision a future with "foundation towns" where the arts play a pivotal role in a larger place-based strategy?

No, it doesn't, especially given that large institutional funders' love affair with creative placemaking shows no signs of abating.

But don't just take my word for it.

"There’s a lot that can be done there, and we’re not just looking at Monson," said Erik K. Hayward, Libra’s senior vice president.