Belfast, ME

Contact Name
Martha Piscuskas
Project Dates
Workshop Leader
Creative Communities Exchange (CCX) 2015
Real Estate
Over 15 years, a small rural volunteer-run seasonal community art center morphed into a year-round vibrant “anchor” of the creative economy in the working arts town of Belfast, Maine, with thousands coming through the doors every year. Waterfall Arts expanded beyond their rustic stream-side campus by taking over an old elementary school in town, now with 5 staffers and robust programming for adults and youth. How did they do this in one of the poorer counties in Maine? How did they find the resources to buy a building? And what did they do when pipes burst? This workshop will review a variety of concrete ways, both planned and un-planned, this artist-led organization acquired, re-purposed, and enhanced an old building to be a model cultural hub.
Project Goals
What were the specific goals of this creative economy project? Describe the community development challenge or opportunity that your project was designed to address:
After 5 years of very successful and dynamic summer programming in the tents and rustic studios of our campus in the woods, the City of Belfast (18 miles away) offered the organization a recently decommissioned 16,375 square-foot school to create an art center in town. City officials saw the need for a public artmaking space that appealed to all ages and felt that WA was the creative grassroots group to run it. Waterfall Arts viewed this as an exciting growth opportunity to reach more people, expand to year-round programming, and increase revenue. The Board decided to take this big leap and -- with little fundraising track record, one part-time office staffer, and no short-range, let alone long-range, plan -- won the bid on the school. Can you see the challenges here?
If the goals change over time, please describe how:
The goals of offering transformative arts experiences to more people, running education, exhibitions and events year-round, and increasing revenue did not change. The ways we achieve these are constantly shifting. One goal of the founding group – to bring art and nature together – has remained a part of our mission but harder to achieve in town. This goal was easily attained in our rural campus, but we’ve had to work to creatively incorporate an environmental sensibility to the Belfast building and programming. Examples: working with local schools, we’ve installed a very popular vertical living wall on the exterior; we show environmental art regularly both inside and on the grounds; our new print studio uses only “green” practices and materials.
Who was involved in this project and what did they do? (be sure to include the partners from outside of the creative sector and how local voices were included):
Early on, the Board of mostly artists, led by 2 stalwart and generous founding members, jumped into high gear to renovate the 1935 brick building prior to occupation, and to quickly raise funds for the purchase. Seventeen private citizens from the community were successfully solicited to put up $225,000 in guaranteed loans. A local foundation stepped up with a 3-year grant to kick-start organizational and facility development. One vocal downtown businessman, also on the City Council, was instrumental in making the case to the community. The City supported the project by keeping the price low ($155,000) and issuing a low PILOT (payment in lieu of taxes) agreement. Partners today, in some aspect of our facility, include the City, which runs an ice rink here in the winter; the summer Farmers Market and autonomous Art Market; our local downtown revitalization project, Our Town Belfast, which included us in their boundaries; the Belfast Creative Coalition, a creative economy organization we co-founded; and GOLogic, a local green design/build firm that provides pro bono consulting to us.
How does this project relate to a larger community development strategy?
Strategy might be too strong a word. Community individuals have focused on making arts and culture more central to Belfast’s downtown and its economy since 1980. Then, chicken feathers wafted through town from the processing plant on the waterfront (now replaced with a bustling high-end shipyard). Today Belfast hosts many art galleries, cultural festivals, restaurants, and music and theater performances year-round. The Waterfall Arts building is certainly a creative hub in Belfast and the county. Fifteen artists and musicians rent studios here; we exhibit local and national artwork in three spaces. Our little stage in the basement (the Fall Out Shelter) is used by local and traveling bands, student recitals, theater shows, dance parties, talks, meetings, etc. A recurring community discussion for over 20 years is about the development of a bona fide, well-appointed performance space. Several less-than-ideal venues exist, but none large enough nor modern enough to attract significant performing artists. Number of seats desired/deemed fillable varies widely, and, despite several afforts, no viable community solution has yet emerged. For the past two years, Waterfall Arts has engaged in serious internal discussions and has committed to expanding the building to include, among other things, a flexible-use state-of-the-art performance space, as a step in that direction.
What projects or places, if any, inspired your approach to this creative economy project?
Probably the common practice of artists re-purposing old buildings – barns, defunct manufacturing spaces, lofts, and old school buildings. The large classrooms with high ceilings loaned themselves well to art classrooms and studios.
Project Specifics
Please list the steps taken to implement the project:
Upon the 2005 decision to take on the building, the Board renamed the organization to better fit the expanded effort, and designed a new logo. The Board membership expanded to include Belfast artists and supporters, and a new paid executive director was hired.

Before moving in, the facilities committee reviewed and prioritized the building renovations: new roof, upgraded electrical system, installed internet access, created a gallery, opened up the entrance hall, divided some classrooms for small studio space, and painted all the interior walls. A big community open house included a dance performance and a poem written and recited by the Belfast poet laureate, “When a Waterfall Comes to Town.”

The facilities committee continues setting priorities for repairs and upgrades, in conjunction with our facilities manager and the director of finance and operations. (We now have co-directors, the DFO and Director of Programming.)
If the project steps changed over time, please describe how:
Programming and finances help dictate renovation projects such as the build-out of a print studio and a darkroom, dividing a couple more large rooms to create numerous smaller, more easily rented, studios. A donor supported upgrading a bathroom to include a shower, with an eye towards a future artist residency. Staying vigilant to pending facility disasters is also a constant. Some we miscalculate, like rain leakage from a rainy nor’easter (usually the wind blows from the southwest). Patching the north side of the parapet ensued. We were fortunate to receive an NEA grant to do a comprehensive assessment of our building in 2010. The resulting report six months later led the Board into a very forward-thinking discussion lasting 18 months, instigated by the then-impending (now true) demise of our ancient oil boiler. In keeping with the organization’s mission, the Board elected for the most environmentally sustainable solution: to renovate the building to become a net-zero fully insulated retro-fit including an aesthetic solar array, efficient heating/cooling system, and an ADA-compliant café and performance space. This is our current big leap.
What were your major obstacles for the completion of the project?
Leadership struggles ensued after the move to town, which required rebuilding of the Board and hiring an Interim ED. Inconsistent or non-existent staffing in key positions – facilities manager and DFO – at various times has hampered steady progress on maintenance and renovations. A lean maintenance budget also doesn’t help. The exterior is brick, so repointing and sill rot are addressed sporadically, as finances and volunteers allow. Some demo work being done by a volunteer on the third floor led to one of our biggest disasters: a rusty pipe broke unexpectedly, flushing water down to the basement, flooding it in minutes. The walls and ceilings of the rooms in between, and the entire basement floor, required replacement. Here’s the lemonade part: through creative financing from insurance coverage and a crowd-sourcing campaign (organized by graphic design students here for a training), our main women’s bathroom got a long-needed facelift, the basement got retiled (good-bye asbestos!), and the performance space refreshed with lighting and improved acoustics. Our heating system required replacement this fall, sooner than expected and prior to funds being raised or set aside.
Who or what was instrumental in overcoming these obstacles?
The staff and board seek out or take advantage of every possible resource and network constantly. An artist friend of the organization is a mason who did some re-pointing pro bono, and loaned us his scaffolding for further work. The current facilities manager is extremely dedicated, and while not a decision-maker on the big ticket items, he’s very knowledgeable about materials. A pop-up course for young creatives (Project M) elected to redesign our water-damaged performance space, and created a fundraising campaign, logo and video in a week. Regarding the heating system, fortunately we had a plan in place and could act quickly, once we acquired a massive bank loan. Our financial credit had improved significantly enough, and we had steadily and promptly paid our mortgage bills since the purchase of the building, that the bank approved a direct loan this time. And we have received favorable response from a grantor to assist in the heat system conversion.
What top three suggestions would you give to others attempting a similar project?
Whenever possible, say “Yes.” And even when you aren’t sure. Take advantage of opportunities -- be open to possibilities that aren’t on your radar screen. Be seen in your community, keep expanding your network, so you meet people who can help you and vice versa. Don’t say yes to everything, but if you can – do. These will create new opportunities for you. Project M, a boot camp for designers using their skills for the good, visit us every year because we accommodate their needs, and they organized an indiegogo campaign for us.
Get the right Facilities staffperson and team. Make sure you have people there who know buildings, contractors, electrical, roofs, structures, materials. The right Facilities Manager is absolutely worth their weight in gold – we’ve learned this the hard way. The committee members can volunteer, trade, do work for cost, or recruit for a volunteer work party.
Rent the heck out of it. If you own space – find every way to rent it out as soon as possible. Diversifying your income stream is the road to sustainability, and rental income is critical to our budget. If you have an asset, don’t be stingy! Rent every which way – long-term studio leases, lease a space for a month, a week, a day, an hour. For parties. We have print and clay studios – we rent out to production artists occasionally. We’re developing print or clay birthday parties. Have a nice gallery? Rent it out for fancy parties. Have a kitchen space? Rent it out for cooking demos. Put mirrors on one wall and voila – a dance studio is born! Martial Arts. Ballet. Have a stage? Rent it out for a CD release party. Theater auditions. OR trade – rehearsal space to a band in exchange for a free performance for a fundraising event. Trade studio space for graphic design. We’ve had rental requests from a wide variety of groups (we haven’t said yes to all of them): hair salon, daycare center, quaker meeting, a gym, farm CSA pick up, a school, a travel agent, even private art education group.
Project Impact
How has this project strategically connected arts and cultural activities to social, economic, and cultural issues in your community? What is different in your community as a result of this project?
Taking on this building has provided the City with a non-profit creative “anchor.” Perhaps because we are artists and open to new ways of seeing, many individuals, organizations, and visitors often share their ideas and visions for programming here or in the community. Our presence in town, in this funky old school building, has definitely contributed to the growth of creative place-making. We are a major repository of ideas, seed-plantings, and even some new ventures. For example, the farmer’s market lost their spot due to new construction, and our flat backyard, plenty of parking, and proximity to downtown (4 blocks) made us a perfect spot for re-location. We encouraged some artisans to create a tandem art market, and both are now going strong here, generating lots of foot traffic for us. We collaborate with and are integral to the Art Walk, the Free Range Music Festival, the Seal Bay Festival of New Chamber Music, the City’s Winter Carnival. We founded the Belfast Creative Coalition to bring the level of promotion and coordination to the next level.
Why do you consider the project successful, as related to your project goals above?
We are still here, and well-utilized, even through a recession. New and returning community members continue to come. Our facebook “likes” continue to grow, new people access our programming, all of our studios are rented. The City has increased its financial support to us. We do reach more people because we have expanded our free programming, both in the building and at public venues, particularly young artists. Because we have a large building, we can dedicate a classroom to become a public clay studio or print studio. A life drawing group moved from a private studio to our classroom years ago, and continues to meet weekly. Visitors often remark how much they love the feel of the building, and many continuing and new groups use our spaces.
How did you measure this success or progress?
I think this is answered by previous responses. We can still pay the bills, new and repeat visitors still come through the doors, the community still seeks to partner with us. Apparently we continue to remain relevant.
Please describe any unexpected impacts:
The focus on the Belfast building meant much less energy went to the Montville site in recent years; just a factor of capacity. Those of us who've been involved since the beginning wish that campus could be better developed.

Because we are a rural hub, we are viewed and perhaps view ourselves as able to address all art-making community needs. And because we own a building (with the bank) and our programming has expanded, we may be considered to have more resources than we actually do. Yet we scrimp and do without just like any other small non-profit – I am not sure community members take this into account. And an old building breaks a lot, requiring us to be resourceful in unanticipated ways.
CCX Workshop Handout