In 2008, Jean Maginnis was thinking about how to create a think tank to advance creative innovation in her home state of Maine, when a literal tank gave her an idea. Sprague Energy’s giant white fuel storage tanks that line the Portland harbor represent traditional industry, but were also, she realized, huge blank canvases for creative expression. This idea launched both the nonprofit Maine Center for Creativity and the Art All Around competition, in which nearly 600 artists from 80 countries submitted designs to paint the 16 tanks.
“That was the signature project, letting people know of this metaphor of old infrastructure and new ways of looking at things coming together to add value,” says Maginnis. “There’s value in our current and old infrastructure, old and new working in tandem to really progress the community.”
The project also established a model for collaboration between the arts and industry, which Maginnis sees as critical “to put Maine on the map for creativity and innovation, and help communities grow both economically and culturally.” The guiding principle of the Maine Center for Creativity is to think of Maine the state as a single company that needs common tools and connections to thrive.
“If you were the CEO of the state, what would you do to help people communicate and connect?” says Maginnis. “We know from studies in various businesses that a culture of innovation is really developed through density. So how do we begin, as a state of 1.3 million people over 35,000 square miles, to more densely connect ourselves? If our talent, and we believe we have a lot of great talent here, is to compete in the global economy, how do we network with each other to add to our knowledge and learning?”
One program in development is the Maine Network of Innovation and Creativity, which facilitates “requests for collaboration” that connect people both online and in person, using MCC’s platform as a hub for shared information. “You might have someone in a very small town who is an expert in puzzle making, for instance, who just happens to be known internationally,” says Maginnis. “It would be really important for us to know that here, because there may be a project that’s very related to puzzle design in a corporation that would want to know that this expert lives here in Maine. The keywords are ‘seek,’ ‘find,’ and ‘collaborate.’ It’s about identifying talents and then creating a mechanism for collaboration.”
The request for collaboration also helps Maine businesses solve common problems that impact the whole state. For example, the Maine State Chamber of Commerce facilitates an internship program using another state’s platform, but it wasn’t working for many of Maine’s small businesses because there are far more students in the system needing on-the-job experience than there is space for meaningful positions. “Maine is made up of 140,000 small businesses, with maybe only two to 10 people per company, yet these students are very interested in working for these companies,” says Maginnis. “The burden is how do you really create a powerful and impactful internship when you yourself are working 12 days a week?” The network helped bring together the Chamber of Commerce with both small and large companies to refine the system to better meet the needs of both students and businesses.
Another of MCC’s projects to help create an ecosystem for innovation is the center’s Creativity Training program, which started as a series of overnights for leaders from some of Maine’s biggest companies, including Unum, WEX, L.L. Bean, and Mechanics’ Savings Bank. “It’s not going to a summit meeting and then you get innovative,” says Maginnis. “It’s a way of thinking, it’s a mindset, and it’s tools and skills that you use over and over to show that you can continue to apply creativity and innovation to work in general.”
The training brought two leaders from each company (“It’s sort of like learning a language, if you’re learning French but you can only speak to yourself, it’s not as effective,” Maginnis says) to a total of six days over a four-month period in which business problems were tackled from an arts perspective. Exercises included working with an improv performer on issues of fear and anxiety in creative leadership, a photographer’s lessons on perspective, and a task to invent a new letter of the alphabet.
“Often times, especially if they’re working for a big company, people can be tasked with a huge project that they feel overwhelmed by,” says Maginnis. “And though it can initially feel overwhelming to think about how to create a new letter of the alphabet, it’s a wonderful exercise that really creates a new mindset. The alphabet is such a metaphor for the simple things that we know, but then it gets you thinking about how do you create something new from the things we know? It was about visual design, it was about sound, and it was about the rationale–why do we need this? It has to add value to the alphabet, so it has to have meaning and value. And that’s very related to business language–the need to add value and meaning to their product lines or other services.”
Overall, says Maginnis, the goal of MCC is to grow and maintain a culture of innovation in Maine, where the talent exists but the relative isolation limits the exposure to new ideas and risk taking that creative hubs need.
“I hear a lot people say, ‘Oh, I’m not creative, this isn’t a creative company,'” says Maginnis. “The truth is that every business is creative because they have to create the products and the services for the money to come in. I remember a VP of operations telling me, ‘I’m not creative,’ and I said, ‘If you’re a VP of operations, you’re very creative–everyday operations takes highly creative thinking. Part of our mission is really to advocate for this empowerment of people knowing that they’re creative. It’s in our DNA.”