GivingTuesday at the Franco
The Franco Center remains a symbol of a rich part of Lewiston-Auburn and New England history. We celebrate the stories of brave, hardworking immigrants who helped build the area. The Center brings together historians, artists and performers, some of them descendants of these immigrants, with a diverse audience. All who participate in our events share in the past and present day contributions of Franco Americans and others.
The creation of our cultural center in the downtown area of Lewiston has had a significant impact on the neighborhood. People attend a variety of museum, performance and education programs. They bring new life to the area. Our Center helps in the development of a thriving Cultural Corridor for the city. Tourists love us! We have seen tourists from at least four other states, Canada, and France this year.
Don’t forget that live performances are important to children and seniors!
At the Franco Center, we connect artists and audiences through diverse performing arts experiences that engage and inspire including events that are family-friendly, pop culture themed, and/or classical piano concerts.
Our original commitment upon forming as a nonprofit was to document and showcase the contributions of Franco-Americans, who represent approximately two million people in New England, including 300,000 in Maine. Why aren’t Franco-American music, cuisine and other cultural expressions more prominent in Maine and New England? The answer lies in a historic repression of Franco-Americans that even involved the Ku Klux Klan.
But Franco-American culture did not die, and it has been revitalized in Lewiston’s “Little Canada,” in large part by the group of people who established the Franco Center as a nonprofit. The heart of Little Canada is century-old St. Mary’s. The Franco-American Heritage Center, which was formed in April 2000, saved the landmark structure from demolition. Through the generosity of many partners, the building, with its Maine granite façade, European-made stained-glass windows and Frazee organ, was and continues to be restored.
The Franco Center was established as a Maine nonprofit organization in 2000 by a group of people who saved the former St. Mary’s Church from the wrecking ball with the goal of rehabilitating the building into a performing arts center with historical exhibits relating to the French-Canadian immigrants for whom the church was built in 1907. Twenty-two years after forming as a nonprofit, our organization is still connecting artists and audiences through diverse performing arts experiences that engage and inspire. We continue to provide historical exhibits and tours to our community, students, and tourists. Our building is historically significant for its Late Gothic Revival architecture, the architect who designed the church, the construction companies that built it, and the social life of the immigrants that took place within its walls and out in the community, first as a church and now as a rehabilitated performing arts center.
The Franco Center’s early board members and staff created an impressive 428-seat Performance Hall in the Upper Hall of the former St. Mary’s Catholic Church with a yearly Performance Series featuring the Maine Music Society, Midcoast Symphony Orchestra, cabaret, comedy, film and theater; art and heritage exhibits; and French language programs. A Heritage Museum with Learning Center activities continue to provide historical displays and tours to residents, students, and tourists. With this unique combination – performance hall, museum and learning center – the Center is safeguarding and celebrating Franco-American and other cultural contributions. Our Center benefits the entire population of Androscoggin County, some 100,000 people, and many more in the state and region. At the same time, the surrounding Lewiston neighborhood, which is in a federal Enterprise Community with a poverty rate of 42 percent, is experiencing a renaissance. A park was added to Little Canada and the streets were recently paved. Now we await the transformation of the Continental Mill into living and retail space.
As we curate performing artists, our goal is to instill an appreciation for live performing arts that will increase attendance at our events. We have chosen multiple tribute bands to connect the older generation who lived through the popularity of the original band/culture and the younger generation who continue to enjoy the music/culture. Pop culture has the power to start conversations and build relationships between generations and cultures. Audiences expect to be entertained but we want them to also learn from and be inspired by artists who openly share their passion and craft. One of our upcoming family-friendly performers puts on a one-person circus show using thematic, story-telling components. He invites the audience to think about what mental and physical habits lead to success and how to deal with failures and challenges in a healthy and positive way. We also schedule a Piano Series of classical music by internationally known artists.
The total number of people served at our venue annually ranged from 16,000 to 20,000 pre-pandemic. The pandemic created a shift in attendance, and we strive to grow our audience back to pre-pandemic numbers. Our venue is located near low-income neighborhoods and Lewiston’s changing Riverfront district. We are easily reached by half of Maine’s population. The ages of our patrons range from early childhood to senior citizens. The people coming to our shows include students (The Nutcracker theatrical dance performance) and underserved populations (La Rencontre which features Franco entertainers).
The French Canadians who used to live in our “Little Canada” neighborhood and their descendants moved out of the low-income apartments a long time ago. Lewiston continues to have a diverse underserved immigrant population today. We are working on changing the perception that Francophones are the only culture for which we provide entertainment. Historically, we will always be known as the former church of the French-Canadian immigrants and their families. We were contacted this spring by a local TV station (WCSH6), an international TV station (TF1), and a public Maine TV/radio station (MPBN) who all interviewed our board members and French club members/La Rencontre patrons about the importance of the French language today and the early immigrants. Schools bring students for tours of our historically significant building and information about the immigrants to this community who came to work in the textile mills.
We are challenged with a new staff due to the COVID-19 pandemic. We are challenged in bringing new staff up to date on general workflow and on the use of our lighting and sound systems. At times we must contract with professional light/sound crews per event. We have been challenged by rising costs such as parking and ticket fees that we must pass on to our renters or face the loss of income that helps us keep our doors open. It takes time to research and find artists and musicians to perform at our venue. Research takes place through internet searches, phone calls, emails, and word of mouth. Networking takes place at Chamber events, our own events, and other community events where we specifically seek to connect with people of diverse backgrounds who can expand our network. We are working to change the perception that Francophones are the only culture for which we provide entertainment. The board is considering a name change for our organization. To pay artist fees for a diverse array of performers (comedians, musicians, magicians/illusionists, international, national, local) and other fees associated with them to engage our audiences and instill an appreciation for live performing arts. The Franco Center wants to offer family-friendly and student rates on some performances. We need your help with these challenges!
Goals include: Increase the number of patrons attending our live performances. Increase our audience reach. Provide affordable live performances for our community. To afford our general operating costs. We will measure, document, and evaluate the results of ticket sales and note increase/decrease. Who benefits? Performers and artists who get paid a fee (creative economy). Those who want to celebrate their cultural heritage. Paid staff. Those who simply want to be entertained. When we are viewed as a tourist attraction (architecture/history tours and performances) the whole state benefits. We involve beneficiaries and other community organizations in our planning and implementation to broaden our base of support. One way we do this is as a member of Arts and Culture of Lewiston-Auburn (ACLA). We include our phone number on marketing materials and people call us to buy tickets, ask questions about performances, ask rental questions, and more. We try to be easily reached by phone, email, during box office hours, and performances. We talk to our patrons on their way in or out of the building, during intermissions when they get up to stretch, visit the bar, or want a tour of our beautiful building. We offer volunteer opportunities.
We have built strong connections and partnerships in the cities of Lewiston and Auburn with schools, museums, theaters, symphonies, choirs, performers, musicians, and other arts and cultural organizations: Franco Collection at USM LAC for diverse lobby exhibits; Museum L-A on a cultural trail map that was part of a New England regional map; LA Metro Chamber; and France and Quebec Delegations. Our annual F.A.B event is a Bates College collaboration which represents an ongoing effort to provide opportunities for regional dance artists to present dance pieces in central Maine, as well as an opportunity for local audiences to have access to contemporary dance works. The Maine Music Society and Midcoast Symphony Orchestra both call the Franco Center their home base and bring four concerts each to our stage each season.
All board members support the Franco Center through fundraising and donations. The board meets at least six times a year, attends and volunteers at Franco Center events, and provides leadership in their areas of expertise which include marketing, accounting, facility management, performing artist curation, and event management. All board members perform outreach duties in the community. The board assesses and reviews the Franco Center’s organizational capacity every few years and makes changes as recommended by the results of their research. This was last done in October 2018 and all board members participated. The Center cut the executive director position and now operates with a paid administrator, an assistant box office manager, development/ marketing director, event manager, and production manager. Event staff and volunteers are brought in to work on events when necessary.
The important work we do at the Franco Center supports the Creative Economy in which the performing artists we hire are paid for their work. Our strategies promote economic enhancement of community through arts and culture. Ongoing funding will come through ticket sales which we hope will increase from those new patrons who now have an appreciation for live performances. We will also continue to seek event sponsors and funds from private foundations.
The arts celebrate cultural differences while connecting us through shared experiences. Our live performances provide public engagement with, and access to various forms of art for everyone, the creation of art, learning in the arts at all stages of life, and the integration of the arts into the fabric of community life. By paying artist fees, the Franco Center elevates artists as integral and essential to a healthy and vibrant society. Live performing arts offer children an opportunity to see life with a larger perspective. All this relates to providing all populations access to live performances at family-friendly rates while valuing artists by paying them appropriately for their unique talents. The diversity of cultures represented by the performing artists appearing on our stages will provide the community with opportunities to learn about other cultures.
Please donate to the Franco Center today! We appreciate your support. Warmly, the Franco staff and board members.