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Meet Emma Wilson

Emma Wilson is a champion for the creative economy in Maine and a tireless advocate for the power of the arts to transform lives. She was one of my first friends in Yarmouth, and, after nearly 13 years of friendship, we still talk or text daily. I'm constantly inspired by Emma's mission to elevate artists and deepen the impact of creative enterprise. With so many talented artists in Maine, she’s the one who helps each of them shine. I'm honored to feature Emma in the Maine Women's Project.
Here she is in her own words:
My name is Emma Wilson and I'm the Director at the Portland Art Gallery. I'm a passionate advocate of Maine's creative economy, and I'm also known as a mom to Isabelle, Johanna, and David; a 'Jersey girl' and avid Bruce Springsteen fan; the youngest of 4 girls; and a joyful spirit with a high pitched boisterous laugh who randomly bursts into lyrics.
While living in Georgia many years ago, I accepted a position at the Morris Museum of Art as the Public Program Coordinator. That role gave me my first taste of using art as a platform to connect with the community and larger social issues including, race relations, mental health, the war in Iraq and Afghanistan, and also my love of music, art, and gardening. From that launch point, I became a volunteer at the Portland Museum of Art before being hired in the education department. At the museum, my appreciation and understanding of how significantly the arts impact Portland's creative economy deepened
When I was offered the opportunity to take on a role with the Portland Art Gallery, I was intrigued to work in a different arts organization… and I approached it with some traditional assumptions of how an art gallery functioned (white painted walls, sitting at a chic desk, not making eye contact with people when they walked in, wearing a lot of black clothing). I wasn’t sure if it would be a good fit, but after seven years, I’m going strong! Directing the gallery has given me an even greater appreciation of how vital the arts are to both our economy and our culture.
We represent 60 artists, most all with a connection to Maine, but not exclusively. We take very seriously our responsibility to help support the livelihood of our team and our artists. PAG is a small business, and we face the challenges of all small businesses. What we found early on is that the conversation about art and money, specifically artists making a living, was fraught with tensions. The concept of utilizing marketing and outreach to stimulate interest and sales for artists was something that carried distaste for some. Being an artist is a career path that is demanding, unpredictable, rewarding, and beset with uncertainty. It’s important to honor the personal genesis of an artist’s work and also to promote its value. We want our communities to enjoy a vibrant arts and cultural scene that provides education and attracts businesses and visitors to our region, and we believe in the power of the arts to boost the overall economy of our city and state.

How would you describe our community in one word?

#lovewherewelive (is that a word?!)

Who is the Mainer you find most inspiring? 

Mary Herman, the exemplary former First Lady of Maine. I had the privilege of working with Mary when at the Wayfinder Schools. She LOVES Maine and opened my eyes to the wonder of our residents. She would say, “I don't care about things, I care about people,” and she meant it. She cares especially about Maine’s children and youth and access to education. She's truly remarkable.

What is our community's biggest challenge?

Balancing between growth and keeping Maine environmentally sound.

What is our community's greatest asset? 

Natural beauty throughout the state! In Portland, our dynamic working waterfront downtown filled with cobblestone streets and historical architecture infused with arts and restaurants is so unique and so appealing.

How would you like to see our community changed in the next five years?

I wouldn't change it, I would GROW it! Increase the arts and increase the local economy by attracting new businesses and industry (and provide jobs and necessary housing). I hope to see an increase in the role of the next generation in civic and private leadership positions.

What are some of your favorite local spots?

A few of my favorite restaurants are Knotted Apron, Woodford's F & B, Sur Lie, Boda, and Scales. Portland has an incredible culinary scene, of course, and it's a great complement to the arts scene.
I'm not a beer drinker, but I do love Grippy Tannins for a refreshing glass of wine. And I love going to Apres for a flavored seltzer. The decor at Batson River is a visual delight, especially during the holidays.
I love to shop locally! Portland Art Gallery is a great option, of course. My favorite places for gifts and personal items include Aristelle, Folly 101, Sherman's Books, and Sun Market for specialty food items.

What about favorite outdoor spots?

My perfect day includes a day spent at Higgins Beach, eating a 'Maniac' lobster roll from Bite Into Maine (pro tip: you have to ask for it - it's not on the menu), and winding down with a sunset concert at Thompson's Point - my favorite music venue of all time.
Another great spot is the Lily Bay Campground on Moosehead Lake. We camped there for 10 years and it's magical. That's all I'll say. But try to reserve one of the waterfront sites on Rowell Cove.

What do you feel is unique about Women's Leadership? 

Generally, I feel that women have collaborative leadership styles and value strong communication. I say generally because I have also had the privilege of working with male leaders who have the same priorities and some women who do not.

How and why did you decide to make Maine home?

The short answer is Heather Shields
I got married in 1996 and at the time my husband was a medical student with an Army scholarship. With a Masters in Social Work, I practiced as a Clinical Social Worker. We lived in St. Louis for 4 years when he was in medical school and then in Tacoma, WA for 4 years while he completed his residency. After residency, we moved to Augusta, GA for 4 years while he completed his service requirement. As a clinical social worker, I shifted career paths to the arts when we were living in the South. We had circled the Portland area on the map before we moved around the country for 12 years because of the nearness to family and friends, lifestyle, and natural beauty. We moved to Yarmouth, Maine where our three kids graduated from high school.
My son David graduated from high school in 2020 and, having been divorced for 4 years, I decided to move to Portland in 2021. It was time for a fresh beginning and moving brought me closer to work, plus the size of the city is more familiar (remember - I grew up in New Jersey!). With Heather's help, I was able to find the PERFECT home and neighborhood and I haven't looked back. My investment in Portland continues to grow.

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