EXCHANGE - Center to stay open, with new leader

Trying to project an air of certainty, officials of the Center for Cultural Exchange told members of the local media that the organization will stay in its Longfellow Square building, with a new executive director, while couching their message in carefully worded hedges.

The center will run at a "subdued" level of activity this year, and will not have a 2006 version of its Festival of Cultural Exchange, which began in 2004 (see "Rate of Exchange," by Sam Pfeifle, August 6, 2004) and generated controversy with local merchants in 2005 over access to a busy section of Congress Street (see "CCE Schedules Meetings to Clear the Air," by Sara Donnelly, September 2, 2005).

In 2003, the center ran into trouble bringing international performers to its events, learning that US customs and border bureaucracy were keeping artists out pending terrorist-screening background checks. (See "Artists Without Borders?" by Alex Irvine, November 28, 2003.)

"Our board has been hard at work" determining the future of the organization and the building, says Jay Young, president of the center's board of directors. The group will up its fund-raising efforts, and work to expand its staff and its programming in future years. "This is going to be an evolving situation," Young says.

Young says the group decided to keep the building because it is "a very important asset" that was "a huge accomplishment some years back" to acquire and renovate. He admits that "financially we have our work cut out for us to hang onto this building." Based on support the board has heard from the community, the group is "taking the leap of faith," Young says.

Its new executive director, Lisa DiFranza, brings "boundless energy" to the job, Young says.

DiFranza, a 1979 graduate of Bates College with a theater major, was artistic and executive director of the Children's Theatre of Maine for seven years, founded the Arts Academy at Portland Arts and Technology High School, and was literary and education manager at Portland Stage Company, has also worked at New Dance Studio, the Stage at Spring Point, Maine College of Art, and Portland Symphony, according to a bio of her provided by the center.

She teaches at the University of New England, with the International Writing Program at the University of Iowa, and has also taught at the Juilliard School and the Bangor Theological Seminary.

DiFranza, who praised the legacy and vision left by center co-founders Bau Graves and Phyllis O'Neill, says she will take on her new job and continue to serve as the director of Portland Stage Company's production of Arthur Miller's "The Price," slated for an April run.

She says the center will continue to focus on cultural understanding through the arts, and will seek broad corporate and private-donor support to stay open.

She will work in concert with former program director Ryan McMaken, who now serves on the board, to plan arts programs.

Its school-related programs in Portland have continued through the transition, DiFranza says, and will carry on into the future.

The news was praised by several Portland dignitaries, including former Maine College of Art president Roger Gilmore (who said the news DiFranza will focus on "exchange" is something that "augurs well" for the organization); state senator Ethan Strimling (who has known DiFranza for 20 years, since both were at Juilliard, and who offered DiFranza his help and that of Portland West, a community non-profit of which he is the executive director); and Portland mayor Jim Cohen (who said "the arts and cultural aspect of our city creates an important backbone" for its public life).

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