Erin Thomas / Artist, Designer, Photographer
Erin (Duquette) Thomas has shown her canvas paintings, pastels and mixed media originals in several solo and group gallery shows across the Northeast for more than two decades, her original works are held in private collections both locally and around the globe. Thomas has always worked and operated or managed creative and art-based small businesses in the Seacoast through consulting, curation and management until more recently taking a more active role in her community by leading several art initiatives to create a more vibrant arts and culture scene that is driven by the artists themselves. Thomas founded the BAA (Berwick Art Association) and a popular blog and art research group, Modspoke. Thomas is also an active photographer, and responds to local fire and first response scenes to document the on-call and volunteer fire services in her community and surrounding neighborhoods.
The outlook for arts and culture in the Northeast has been on the grim side over the last decade. That's not to say there are not winning combinations in art and exemplary creative businesses present, but with grave disregard for the artists themselves coming from community arts organizations, larger businesses and politicians, the true and deep value of creative expression has become lost in translation by the time it reaches the public at large. This does both the artist and the public a huge disservice.
This new way of exploiting the word "arts" by larger public and non-profit organizations to create commerce for administrators, marketers and politicians is effectively contributing to a vapid art culture that is damaging the market for the artists and original musicians that need it to survive. It puts itself on the forefront as an authority (even if inadvertently). Positioned as an “expert” in the industry, and with strong financial backing, it then reaches the masses quicker than even the most savvy individual artist can on their best day. During this down economy, when everyone can now be considered an artist via social media, art and music is now viewed as a non-necessity product in most budgets. As these organizations misrepresent the quality and creativity in the art market, it's stifling the artist community with cultural appropriation, be it blatantly with White people performing African-themed dance on top of an African burial site or through casual theft of another's original idea.
Sales of original works, commissions and opportunities to earn within the economy have been disappearing for many artists, and in turn so has the hope and confidence that is needed to take up creative exploration to share within a community as a beacon of soul, hope and love. Many artists are feeling massive guilt and shame about their talent, sometimes beyond repair, because of the pressure to force themselves into financially viable roles that appease mainstream trends or put food on their tables.
Independent creative backing seems to have slipped into oblivion, and this is exactly when the public organizations and non-profits should be stepping up to the plate and propping up our best and brightest talent with support, as well as spending the time and money it takes to actually identify those individuals. It appears as though the opposite has taken place and the non-profit or community organization is utilizing monies to either start businesses under an "arts" umbrella, or placing money in the hands of administrators that expertly fund-raise and network. There is a growing movement of "arts" organizations ignoring the very thing they claim namesake of, and it's become hard to ignore.
One of the biggest reasons I was attracted to the Seacoast in the mid-nineties was the art scene, and the artists...the button factory was thriving and exciting with innovative projects and artists that mentored younger artists, there were creative job opportunities in art supply, custom framing, printing and design, gallery and furniture industries, and the public was supporting the artists in any way they could, and the artists were propping up each other with mentorships and paid studio gigs. You could see a really great band at the Elvis Room for a few bucks, visit an open studio or an innovative creative business start-up, and Maine had a 1% for art program.... a program that really meant that 1% of the state spending went to a Maine artist, unlike the current program that is called "1% for art", but does not operate as State law as it once did. I ended up buying land in Maine, partly because of the 1% program, it gave me a ground floor opportunity to be included in a pool of other talented artists that I would compete against.....competition is healthy and necessary for an artist to focus their goals. I can hold my own in image creation and art, but I can't compete well in the grant and administration roles because I have focused all my attention on the creation of the art itself. I am terrible at most board meetings, grant scripts and financial data sheets and even teaching, therefore, I am not considered viable in "the arts" industry at this time.
This turn has created a format where politicians, administration experts, board volunteers and marketing professionals now operate cultural organizations, often with no educated curation beyond a basic understanding of what art is. There is a blatant disregard of the needs of the artists and musicians themselves, and there is rampant theft of ideas. If you openly discuss your concerns, you are told that you are showing dissent that will hurt funding. They are acting as art and culture authorities when their talents really lay elsewhere.
I see their talents as valuable, filling a void that is needed from the artists, but yet, they are not seeing our skills as artists as valuable in return, except to snatch ideas from, or borrow a figurehead image from. This is deeply concerning to me on a large scale, although I do not know how to fix it. It breaks my heart that I personally know some of the most talented people in the industry, and they are not even close to finding support for what they do, some are like me, too overwhelmed being mediocre at a minimum wage day job while dreaming of bigger opportunities for what they've spent twenty years preparing for, or, they are bringing in pennies by producing some kind of commercially acceptable watered down version of their art, or they are working on the backs of family or loved ones. Mentorships and opportunities to partner with experienced artists is one of the most important ways an artist can grow and learn, but if an artist doesn't have a studio to begin with, they can't bring in a younger artist to learn. Competition in front of peers and expert curators is needed, and knowledge of the creation process is essential to grow as an artist, and the opportunity for the public to see the talent that our communities offer is ESSENTIAL to the growth of the artists. The public is currently unaware of the selection of art and music offered, and instead they are getting "cultural programming" selected by a small group of curators.
Arts Industry Alliance and their TEAM initiative is one of only a few organizations that I have felt I can get behind. The mentorships and peer to peer exchanges that have been taking place are beyond amazing and inspiring, and the advisors and Director Scott Ruffner are actually LISTENING to what artists need, and applying it to a growing and organic public dialogue and business model that is defined by what artists are asking of it. Ruffner has been speaking on behalf of a large cross section of artists and putting himself in the line of fire on our behalf. He takes the hits for us every time he speaks up. AIA as a group is also doing the ballsy dirty business of both calling out the institutions that are making questionable decisions, while promoting and propping up the entities that are doing it right and keeping the talent pool moving forward with strength and dignity. I have been honored to be a part of AIA over the last couple years, as they take my opinion, stresses and experience with total seriousness, and they have connected me with the work and mentorships that I need to keep me on the right track to maintain a career as an artist. I can't be more impressed with the willingness to put themselves out there for the greater good of the art scene itself. Bravo AIA & TEAM, you haven't let me down.