Andy Graham

PROFILE-September 2010
By Sarah Braunstein
Photographs by Jarrod McCabe

Andy Graham, Technicolor dreamer, has new ideas about measuring success.

 

Picasso famously said, “Others have seen what is and asked why. I have seen what could be and asked why not.” When Andy Graham looks at Portland he asks: “Why not?”

Andy Graham wants 10,000 creative people to move to Portland in the next five years. He wants a creative economy to flourish, and for arts and culture to be at the center of the city’s identity. If this happens, Graham says, then Portland—and Maine in general—will be a more joyful place. Why not?

Though he spends a lot of time talking about joy, it should be noted that Andy Graham is no starry-eyed dreamer or barstool philosopher. He is a businessman. He is seated in a modern, art- and book-filled office at Portland Color, the company he founded more than twenty years ago. When Graham talks about joy, and about the need for this city to generate a lot more of it, he does so in a voice of passionate, pointed gentleness. He makes joy, that most ineffable of feelings, seem like a perfectly reasonable expectation. He believes a healthy city can foster it.

At the core of his philosophy—which he practices in his personal life, with Portland Color, and with the Creative Portland Corporation—is the belief that Maine can be reinvented. Maine, for Graham, is not a stable, monolithic, or intractable thing. It is more than wooden boats, blueberries, and lobster. Maine is its people, and its people are ever-changing and still arriving. Andy Graham is a Mainer—New Jersey born and bred.

Some background: Graham arrived in 1974, intending to take a summer class in the English department at the University of Portland–Gorham (now the University of Southern Maine), and he ended up staying. Soon he transferred from the English department to the art department, where he found his mentor, the artist and teacher Juris Uban, whom Graham cites as one of the major players to bring work of national importance to greater Portland. Graham began taking photographs himself, documenting the city’s people and architecture. Portland, back then, was a vastly different place. His pictures of that era testify to the city’s unassuming, sea-splattered, working-class quality. He joined the local art scene, assisting at the school’s gallery, working on film series, and in the process, he says, Portland started feeling more and more like home.

Graham’s trajectory is important: the path he has taken over these decades—his circuitous, adaptive, self-reflective personal and professional journey—presages the path he thinks Portland must now take. In some essential way, Graham’s life and business function as a blueprint, or one of them, for the city itself.

In 1977, with partners Dana Hutchins and Robin Tara, Graham rented a cheap third-floor walk-up in what was then a rougher, more derelict Old Port. There they founded Image Works, a company specializing in slide shows, early digital animation, and video production. Ten years later, he left to create Slide Works, which became Color Works, which became, finally, Portland Color. Each iteration required a categorical reinvention. Each time technology changed (which it did rapidly and unapologetically), each time the customer’s needs changed (which they did rapidly and unapologetically), the company evolved too. Slide shows grew into graphic designs, into color copying, then poster printing, then fine-art printing, then pro photo-lab services, and now large-scale, sustainable, grand-format printing.

Today, Portland Color is a state-of-the-art printer for leading museums, galleries, and retail businesses. One of only six printers in the country to be certified by the Sustainable Green Printing Partnership, Graham’s goal is to use sustainable materials, leave a lighter footprint, and invest in cutting-edge green technology—even if there’s a slower return on the investment as a result. Graham has twenty employees, and his clients include Bloomingdale’s, Knoll, Eileen Fisher, the Metropolitan Museum of Art, and L.L.Bean. A plaque in the lobby from the Maine Women’s Policy Center celebrates the company’s women- and family-friendly policies. Graham is quick to say that the company is built on “a flat hierarchy.” This is a world of artists, of self-directed, opinionated people who like to poke and prod, push boundaries, and experiment. “The decision making in the moment should lay with the person with the best and most complete information about the question, not a ‘boss,’” he says. “The idea of hierarchy is difficult for me because it suggests that one job is more important than another job. [I want to] imbue each person with a strong sense of personal responsibility for their role in an organization.”

Portland Color isn’t one of those hyper-hip downtown spaces, a converted warehouse or factory retrofitted with polished steel and glass. The company is on the outskirts of town, in a nondescript, single-story structure one might mistake for a dentist office. Inside, however, it’s another story. Moving beyond the bright, art-filled foyer, one finds room after giant room of futuristic-looking devices, the coolest aircraft hangar of all time. If Andy Warhol and Steve Jobs formed a company, this might be it—art, commerce, and technology joined in prodigious communion. Walls vibrate with arresting graphics, photographs, sketches, diagrams, and advertisements for products that would surely make us cooler, better, more interesting people. Graham’s employees—many recent graduates from art schools—tap buttons on machines or chew the ends of pencils or jot notes on pads. There’s an air of quiet focus as printers the size of school buses spit out banners and wallpaper that will be shipped around the country.

If you imagine, for a moment, the mental agility required to manage such a shape-shifting business, and the expertise and creativity needed to make it thrive, then you understand something about the soul of Andy Graham. He is unintimidated by big ideas. He has a calm, watchful, almost dispassionate air, and speaks with frankness about both his successes and his trials. He admits he can be a curmudgeon, and yet his demeanor is suffused with earnestness. Unlike many of his fellow human beings, he actually listens to what you say.
He also seems to be listening to the city that has become his adopted home. Portland wants to be great, and Graham felt compelled to give something back. But how could he support the city? He had taught himself to run a business, to shape it in accordance with his values and vision—how does one go about shaping a city? He started by going back to school—this time to the Muskie School of Public Service at the University of Southern Maine, where in 2008 he earned a master of public policy and a certificate in applied research and evaluation methods.
As a student, Graham came to understand that collaboration is all well and good, but that sometimes what’s needed to advance real change is one person: what he calls a “visionary leader.” Sometimes change happens when a single person gets curious, wants something to be different, and says: “You know what? I’m going to do this myself.” So Graham looked at his city, envisioned the city he wanted to live in, and decided he was going to try to make some changes.

To Graham’s mind, SPACE Gallery was doing the best work in town, but for too long it had been thought of as fringe organization. “SPACE should be viewed as a critical member on the list of important arts organizations in the city—along with the symphony, the museum, and Portland Stage Company,” he says. It was a “Why not?” moment, and now Graham is president of the board. SPACE, Graham thinks, is exceptionally adept at keeping an ear to the ground and maintaining connections to the larger world. This part is important: Graham wants Portland’s art and cultural scene to be recognized as exceptional—not just here or on a regional level, but nationally. Graham understands that SPACE is engaged in a conversation with the world beyond Portland, and he wants that dialogue to continue—he wants SPACE to be a model for other arts organizations, and for the city itself.

For Graham, the bottom line is pretty simple: art is good for communities. Art is transformative. Art brings joy. The city, he thinks, should factor these ideas into its infrastructure and programming. The things a city measures, Graham believes, tell us a lot about a city’s values. A city can choose to measure—and thus base its success on—readily quantifiable assets: the number of jobs it creates, increases in property values, tourist visits per annum, etc. But that’s only one small part of a fulfilled and meaningful life. Graham wonders: What would happen if we, as a community, valued and measured joy, vitality, and creativity? And what if we formalized these values? What if we built public spaces that allowed arts and culture to flourish? Spaces that brought together diverse people? That integrated diverse cultural traditions? And what if we made these public spaces sustainable, beautiful, and reflective of forward-thinking design? What would happen to our city if we adopted this ethos more radically?

It’s no surprise Graham joined up with the Creative Portland Corporation (CPC). Established in 2008, CPC describes itself a “nonprofit created to receive donations, grants and contributions in support of the City of Portland’s economic development efforts which enhance and create creative economy business and arts district development and employment opportunities.” Operating under the auspices of the city’s economic development team, the CPC’s goal is to generate jobs, revenue, and quality of life by encouraging the development of the creative sector—in part by raising money to support the arts and by launching a national marketing campaign to draw creative entrepreneurs to the city.

Graham is president of the 13-member board of directors that is appointed by the city council. His work with the CPC involves developing a national brand for Portland so that practitioners and professionals in the creative sector—architects, designers, writers, fine and performing artists—will relocate here. In May of 2010, the marketing committee of CPC launched liveworkportland.com, a website and online campaign that reveals a city of extraordinary people, art, music, and food—a city, simply, that you would be a fool not to move to.

Or, as they put it: “Move to Portland. Bring your family. Bring your parents. Bring your friends. Bring your businesses. Bring your ideas.”

To make it easier for potential transplants, the website hosts an aggregation of housing and work-related links, as well as profiles of successful creative entrepreneurs. Graham describes these online profiles as “mirrors.” He hopes people outside Maine will see themselves in the profiles—or, perhaps, see a self they want to be—and take a step closer to moving here.

Rather than the traits that have historically defined neighborhoods—like ethnicity, politics, or income—Graham wants Portland’s neighborhoods to be built on shared values, such as a commitment to arts and diversity, and on emotional alliances. The more people in Portland value arts and culture, the more likely the ethos of the city, and thus the shape of its neighborhoods, will change for the better. By inviting visionary entrepreneurs from away, by breaking down the notion of the standoffish “Mainer,” the city puts itself in a position to capitalize on a potential influx of highly skilled and motivated individuals from beyond its borders. Portland is not a static, hermetic, rigidly hierarchical place, this new campaign points out. Like Portland Color, Graham’s ever-evolving company, new people, fresh blood, and bold vision are invited to come in and shake things up.

If Portland Color and its 20 employees represent a synthesis of commerce, art, and ethical practice, imagine 10,000 new people all on the same mission. What might it mean for the future of Portland? For the rest of Maine?

Graham’s standards are exceptional high. “It’s not enough to do things that are ‘good for Portland’ or even ‘great for Portland.’ We need to do things that are really great. And that’s what’s going to make us successful as organizations and as a city. To really reach, and not to compromise.”

When asked how a successful creative economy in Portland might affect the rest of the state, Graham grows thoughtful. “I think that the part I can affect directly is Portland. Art has the power to regenerate communities. The first step is to get Portland to value the arts. We’ll start in Portland, yes, but a rising tide lifts all boats.”

Portland Color | 14 Industrial Way | Portland | portlandcolor.com | 207.774.2689

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