Tuesday, June 24, 2014

An Appreciation: Rebecca Blunk





Rebecca Blunk

Shortly after joining the Vermont Arts Council’s staff in early 1997, I became aware that the position also came with a perk: a seat on the board of the New England Foundation for the Arts.

This vibrant regional arts organization (one of six across the country) serves its six namesake states with a particular emphasis on touring, dance, jazz, and now theater.  At the time it was under the leadership of Sam Miller and it wasn’t until I had attended a few meetings of the six NE state arts agency directors as well as the full board, that I became aware of a quiet, thoughtful presence in our midst: the deputy director, Rebecca Blunk.

Although ill for most of the past year, her passing last weekend was sudden and unexpected. The email I received left me feeling sick to my stomach.  No.  Not her.

Much will be written about Rebecca’s accomplishments at NEFA, which she led starting in 2004, all of which are considerable and impactful. What I admired most about her though, had very little to do with her programming expertise, her managerial skill, or her quiet and deft management of a diverse and high-powered regional board of directors. What I admired about her most was her willingness to be vulnerable.

So many in our field enjoy posturing; pretending to be knowledgeable in the face of the unknowable,  taking a stand on an issue even though all the facts are not yet in, or deciding that it’s better to be wrong with gusto than be right with a whimper.  Rebecca, as long as I knew her, never did any of these things.  If she didn’t know the answer she said so.  If she felt more information was needed, she would delay a decision. And as far as I can tell, I never knew her to be wrong about anything.  But I did catch her one day in a moment of deep inner turmoil.  I don’t even remember the issue, just that someone was giving her a hard time for something NEFA was alleged to have done.

“I just don’t understand how…” she tailed off, struggling to maintain her composure.

“…people could be such jerks?” I offered, trying to elicit a smile.

“No, …people could so completely misunderstand what we are trying to accomplish,” she finished.

Brought almost to tears, Rebecca refused to make it a personal issue, to turn that person into the proverbial bad guy. That was her way, and I loved her for it.  Rest in peace.

Thursday, January 9, 2014

Arthur Williams -- A Tribute

It would be hard to imagine an individual more instrumental to the shape and development of cultural life of Vermont in the past 50 years than Arthur Williams. To be sure there are several institutions, some that pre-date Arthur's arrival in Vermont in 1958, that have secured Vermont's reputation as a prime cultural destination: Marlboro Music Festival, the Vermont Symphony Orchestra, Southern Vermont Arts Center, Weston Playhouse, Flynn Center for the Performing Arts, and Shelburne Museum to name a few.
Arthur Williams

But it was Arthur's appointment in 1965 to serve as the first executive director of the Vermont Council on the Arts that signaled an important shift in how the arts were supported and, in turn, perceived by elected policy-makers.

I asked Ellen McCulloch-Lovell, now the President of Marlboro College, who was hired by Arthur as the Council's first arts in education coordinator, to provide a few (eloquent, as it turned out) paragraphs about Arthur's impact on the arts and on her.



"I first met Arthur and (his wife) Hanne in 1970 when I received my teacher's certification after a practicum in the two-room Fayston Elementary School, which his three children attended. My husband had known the family since 1964 through the early ski industry in the Mad River Valley. Not long after, Art was on the search committee that selected me as the first arts in education coordinator of the fledgling arts council; I was VAC's fourth employee. Art, I believe, was its first, but never wanted to be the leader, although he served twice as interim director. Instead, he exerted his enormous influence through his imaginative projects, ability to connect to anybody, acute perceptions about power and how to get things done, and absolute integrity. 

"By 1970, he had already masterminded the "Art Out of the Attic" project, identifying and exhibiting gems in private collections, and had administered the innovative Sculpture Symposia, which placed works on the Interstate rest stops. Later in that decade, he advocated for the Council's attention to the Vermont State House as the exemplar of public art in the state. His work led to a scholarly study, renovation of the famous Civil War painting, The Battle of Cedar Creek, the formation of Friends of the State House, which he co-chaired with Barbara Snelling, and the position of State House Curator. These actions led to the beautiful restoration of the State House chambers and much of its important art collection. The citizens of Vermont should thank him for this treasure


"Art was instrumental in the early success of the Council and also it's later stability. I became director in 1983, trusted him completely with any assignment, and always appreciated his individualism and humor. Arthur put my foot on the path that led to a fulfilling life in the arts, politics, and now higher education. I will always think of him with love, admiration, and deep gratitude."

A few years ago we asked him he would allow us to name our Citation Award for Meritorious Service to the Arts after him.  His face lit up with joy and without hesitation--and being the humble servant--he acquiesced and in the same breath asked, "are you sure?"

My response, which was a little tongue-in-cheek was "Yes of course.  Your commitment to Vermont, to the arts, to the State House, to the Arts Council, they are all important.  But the truth is, how could we NOT name an Arts Council award after someone called Art?"

Arthur Williams was, as the saying goes, "both a gentleman and a scholar," to which I would only add, "a painter, a polo player, a philanthropist, a public servant, and a cultural activist." Art, we miss you mightily.  

Requiescat in Pace.

Wednesday, December 4, 2013

A Season of Giving



A few weeks ago my daughter, out of the blue, said “You know Dad, Vermont is a really great place to grow up. I’m glad we live here.”

I was curious as to what prompted this unsolicited comment from a 16-year-old girl whose current mode of communication is primarily a variety of cold-shoulder shrugs and eye-rolls. “I mean,” she went on, “I’m fully expecting to leave the state for college and probably for a while after that, but I can’t imagine a better place to have been raised.”  

Her three older brothers are all in the process of applying to college. It has been a roller-coaster ride of standardized testing, last-minute forays onto the “common app,” frightening conversations with financial aid professionals, and anguished pleadings with teachers. My daughter has quietly watched these proceedings with little or no comment. But I can tell it has given her a real-world perspective on what lies ahead for her when it’s her turn to leap into the vast, unknown arena called college.

I have the joy of doing a lot of travelling around the state, and while I am most familiar with Montpelier and the surrounding Central Vermont area, I can attest that there are many communities all over Vermont that share the same qualities and characteristics that have embraced my family—particularly my children.

Anyone reading this blog can imagine for him or herself what makes Vermont a special place. It’s probably the combination of ready access to the great outdoors, the opportunity to discover where your healthy food actually comes from, the joy of encountering creative people from all walks of life on a daily basis, and boasting rights for “hosting” Ben & Jerry’s as well as Heady Topper. The list is endless.

For me it comes down to what matters for the children. Not just MY children. All children.
And here’s the rub…even in Vermont, with all its beauty and access to wealth and food, an extraordinary number of children are going to bed hungry, waking up hungry, and wearing triple hand-me-downs that no longer keep out the cold. They are unable to keep up with their homework, unable to stay late at school for band or chorus or soccer practice because their parents have no way to get them home except by the bus that leaves at 3 pm.

I had the privilege of participating in the Governor’s Early Childhood Summit in mid-October. It was eye-opening. Depending on the issue, anywhere from 20% to 40% of Vermont schoolchildren are suffering from the lack of SOMETHING—food, transportation, parents with parenting skills, after-school activities, counseling, creative play, joy, inspiration. Art.

At one point during the Summit, the 200 attendees broke up into groups. We were asked to share who we are and what we bring to the summit. Listening to the 30 or so people in my group describe their jobs (teacher, counselor, health-care provider, truant officer, program administrator) and what they need in order to provide a barely adequate amount of service to kids in real need, I realized how truly blessed my family is.

When it came to my turn, all I could do was quote Antoine Saint-Exupery. “If you want to build a ship, don’t drum up people together to collect wood and don’t assign them tasks and work, but rather teach them to long for the endless immensity of the sea.”  I suggested that the arts field is always available to help people explore their dreams and aspirations. It is not enough simply to provide a prescription or sessions with a counselor or a probation officer. We have to find a way to inject a sense of wonder, excitement, and curiosity in our young people. If we fail at that, they will never learn, never discover themselves, never live up to their innate potential.

My children are lucky. They have grown up in a community that offers the Adamant Quarry Works theater in which they performed as 9- and 10-year olds (friends performed with Lost Nation Theater, let’s not forget them!). They also had the privilege and luck to grow up in a community that valued chorus and band as much as soccer and field hockey; where the fall musical is as well-attended as the boys’ basketball playoff; and where the community cinches its collective belt a little tighter each year to make sure that the school budget -- the annual investment we make in our kids -- gets passed at Town Meeting Day. But each year the vote is closer, the money tighter, the number in need slightly larger, the news more sobering.

Somehow we have to refocus our attention away from systems that only reward individual achievement and towards activities and people that serve the public good. Vermont’s non-profit sector embraces education, medicine, social services, the arts, and much, much more. As a whole it is THIS sector that makes Vermont truly stand apart from other states.

I submit it is Vermont’s nonprofits—all of them—working diligently, collaboratively, and effectively to improve everyone’s quality of life that makes my daughter want to live here. In the context of its nonprofit sector it actually is possible to imagine a Vermont in which no child is left behind.

In the spirit of the season, then, I encourage you to be generous with your tax-deductible contributions. Together, we can continue to move Vermont forward; investing in our kids and in our future.

Happy Holidays! 

Tuesday, November 5, 2013

Guess Who Came to Breakfast?



A week or so ago, nearly 200 artists, arts educators, administrators, and other interested parties gathered in the Vermont State House for the 2013 Arts Summit.  The theme for the Summit was Connect, Animate, Lead; an exhortation for those in attendance to network with each other, to explore new ideas and new opportunities, and come away with a sense of purpose and fulfillment that will carry them even further forward.

Before the day even got going with a plenary keynote address from noted artist and educator Eric Booth, a group of nearly 60 early risers made it into the largest State House committee room to hear a moderated discussion on... (wait for it!)... tax reform.

Wait…don’t click the back button.  This “breakfast conversation” was among the most important conversations our field has participated in in years.  Capably moderated by WCAX Senior Political Reporter Kristin Carlson, the four-person panel consisted of Flynn Center Executive Director John Killacky, Common Ground VT Executive Director Lauren-Glenn Davitian, Senate Finance Chair Tim Ashe (Burlington), and House Ways and Means Chair Janet Ancel (Calais). 

I can’t improve upon the great summary of the session that was penned by Lauren-Glenn Davitian.  I can, I hope, impress upon those of you that have read this far why you must be part of this conversation!!!

It appears as if, in Vermont, the arts are the only part of the nonprofit sector that has so far awakened to the significant possibility that the mechanisms that have been in place for more than a century to fund social service agencies, medical institutions, educational institutions, and cultural institutions are at risk.  In a post leading up to the Summit, John Killacky set the stage for what would happen to the vital network of nonprofits whose activities in Vermont generate nearly 20% of Vermont’s gross domestic product.  Citing Hawaii, which limited the charitable deduction in 2011, Killacky pointed out that its governor recently signed legislation undoing the 2011 law since the resulting $12 million in revenues generated had “cost” the state some $60 million in services from the nonprofit sector.

No one in the room during the Summit faulted members of the legislature for looking at reforms to the Vermont tax code.  It is clear there are inequities, loopholes, incentives, and other challenges that have evolved over the years that are collectively draining the State Treasury. 

But what needs to happen now is people representing social services, health care, higher education AND culture need to organize together to make sure that any steps the Legislature proposes during the next few years minimalize, if not eliminate, damage to the fragile network of public-benefit agencies like hospitals, rehab facilities, senior centers, and cultural institutions on which Vermonters depend.  Tax reform must lead to efficiencies and equity.  It must not result in a wholesale diminution of services that address problems.

The Arts Council will continue to follow and report on this issue as the year progresses.

Tuesday, July 30, 2013

Outstanding in Her Feld(man)



The news has hit the streets.  The bells have stopped ringing.  The sound trucks have gone back to their garages.  And life, for most people, has returned to its normal, dog-days-of-summer rhythm.

But the reality has only just now begun to sink in here at the Vermont Arts Council.  Rachel Feldman—our social- and broadcast-media queen, our communications maven, our “Chicago Manual of Style-or-else” poster child—is moving up the street, up the hill, and up the ladder.  In a few short weeks she will begin her new position as Lt. Gov. Phil Scott’s new Chief of Staff.

It goes without saying that any transition is an opportunity to (re)consider the total system of an organization: are our human and financial resources aligned in such a way to make the most effective use of them? Do the people answering questions from constituents or the media have access to the best, most relevant information? Are there issues that, in the year since we last hired someone new, have risen to a more urgent priority and thus we need to cast our net for someone with a slightly different set of skills?

I’ll be honest.  Rachel’s departure leaves a whopper of a hole in our staff.  Replacing her is not an option because, honestly, she is irreplaceable.  But two things I know for sure.

First, we will be hiring someone new to cover as much of the terrain that Rachel covered as possible, with a few changes to the job description to keep it, and us, current.  That person will be outstanding, I’m sure.  He or she will bring new skills, new ideas, and new “best practices” that we intend to make the most of. But Rachel’s tiny feet leave large footprints…

Second, Lt. Governor Phil Scott’s office is going to take on a whole new personality.  Don’t misunderstand me. There was nothing wrong with what he was doing before. But if our experience with the “Rachel Feldman phenomenon” is any indicator, Phil Scott will soon be trending on Twitter, hashtagging his public appearances, learning to keep his sound-bites to under 140 characters, (re)connecting daily with all of his Vermont voters on Facebook,  and yes, ignoring the Oxford comma.

Rachel, some cynics will complain that your time with us was way too short, and truthfully, I would agree with them.  But I’m not a cynic.  Your time with us was time well spent; for you, for us, and for Vermont!* 

We were lucky to have you for as long as we did.  Good luck and Godspeed. 


*Don’t even THINK about getting rid of that last comma!