WATERVILLE — Julie Richard knows that without strong arts education in Maine schools, children will not have a strong understanding of the arts.

They will not become artists or audience members who patronize the theater, musical performances, dance, cinema and other events. They will not garner a love of the arts — which enrich lives immeasurably. They will not become critical thinkers.

Richard, executive director of the Maine Arts Commission, is working hard with her staff to ensure all children in Maine have an arts education.

“It gives kids all kinds of skills that they can use in almost everything in life,” she said.

Richard spoke early Thursday at Thomas College as part of the business breakfast series hosted by Thomas and Mid-Maine Chamber of Commerce. Her organization, a 50-year-old state agency governed by a 15-member governor-appointed panel, is funded by the Legislature and supported by the National Endowment for the Arts. Not only does the commission promote arts and culture, it also provides grants for art education, artists, programs and projects.

The commission’s goals and those of Waterville go hand in hand.

The state for the first time this year is partnering with Americans for the Arts on the Arts & Economic Prosperity 5 study, which explores the economic impact of spending by nonprofit arts and culture organizations and their audiences.

Waterville, through Waterville Creates!, is taking part in the study. Arts and cultural organizations are distributing surveys, and it is important that people fill them out, as the information will be critical to their receiving arts funding, Richard said Thursday.

“If you don’t fill those out, you’re not going to get the numbers that you need,” she said.

Waterville also is seeking a Creative Communities = Economic Development Grant to support dialogue and partnerships between municipalities and the cultural sector to boost economic development in communities.

In the audience Thursday were Amy Cyrway and her husband, Brian Vigue, who own The Framemakers in downtown Waterville.

Cyrway said she loved hearing what Richard had to say and she is excited that there is such a focus on arts and education, not only in the city, but also at the state level.

“I think it’s very inspiring,” Cyrway, who is president of the Waterville Area Arts Society, said. “I’m feeling very confident in the arts in Waterville. That’s our focus right now. I think we’re on the right track — I really do.”

‘ASK YOUR PRINCIPAL’

When Richard became the commission’s executive director more than three years ago, she traveled around the state to find out what Mainers’ impressions of arts and culture were, laying the groundwork for the commission’s efforts today. She learned that Mainers have an understanding and appreciation for the arts. They also understand that arts and culture affect economic development, the creative economy and the overall health and well-being of the state, she said.

In 2015, the arts commission received $742,000 from the state — an increase of $50,000 from 2014. This year, it received $974,000, up $232,000 from the previous year.

“We got it by asking for it,” Richard said.

She estimates the economic impact of the arts in Maine is $313 million. The state spends about 73 cents per capita on the arts.

As part of a separate effort, surveys are being sent to principals of 649 schools in Maine to try to help measure the amount of arts and cultural education children receive in schools and to help provide programs where needed. The goal is to improve achievement in arts and culture.

“This is to build a compelling case for an increase in resources and to take action once we get that information,” Richard said.

Last time, the commission got only 36 percent participation. This time it hopes for 100 percent. To help increase participation, school principals have been contacted to help ensure the surveys are completed, she said.

“If you know a principal anywhere around here, please talk to them about it. Just ask them if they filled out our survey,” she said.

Appreciation for the arts and their benefits does not stop when people get older. While efforts to provide arts and cultural education to students is a priority for the commission, providing the same for older adults also is important, Richard said.

One of the commission’s goals is to collaborate more with higher education. The commission also started a creative aging program, which provides seniors with instruction on how to paint, play the violin, ballroom dance and learn other skills.

“It’s also to boost the social aspect of arts with older people,” Richard said.

Studies have shown that seniors can become depressed, and communication and enjoyment of the arts helps to ward off that depression, according to Richard. They are happier and take fewer medications as a result, she said. The average age of Maine’s population is the oldest in the nation, and the commission has been working on Maine Area Agencies on Aging to help provide seniors with activities.

“I think that this is really going to be a growing, more vibrant program for us and really benefit our older adults,” Richard said.

The commission also would like to create senior artists colonies — vibrant places for artists or those who want to be artists to work and live.

“We’ll continue to pursue this,” Richard said. “There is definitely some interest there.”

MAINERS WANT ARTS

The commission is working to bring more tourists to the state and help arts organizations to become more aware of how they can draw tourists, according to Richard. Twenty-five million tourists come to Maine each year, and arts and cultural organizations can capture that audience, she said.

Maine is one of five states in the country without a statewide arts advocacy program, and the commission is working to change that by creating a 501(c)(3) support organization that would house an endowment, be managed by the state treasury and help increase funding.

Richard said she hopes the bills supporting the creation of the nonprofit fundraising arm will be passed and signed by the governor next week.

Cyrway and Vigue said people in the Waterville area are ready to support the arts.

For example, Framemakers hosted a “block party” last year where people were invited to paint or decorate 5-by-7-inch blocks of pine to be sold as a fundraiser for the Arts Society’s scholarship fund. The blocks were sold for $45 each, with $30 going to the artist and $15 to the fundraiser. The party was well-received and a lot of people, particularly young people and those not necessarily artists, took part, Vigue said.

Richard said studies have shown that 98 percent of Mainers are interested in the arts. She said that the commission, in town hall focus groups, asked people to express in a few words what they want their communities to be known for.

“Overwhelmingly, people said, ‘We want our community to be known as a community for arts and culture,'” she said.

Amy Calder — 861-9247

[email protected]

Twitter: @AmyCalder17