Friday, December 15, 2006

The Vermont State Budget and the Arts

In my last column I tried to contextualize the National Endowment for the Arts budget in ways that might amuse or even shock readers. I promised to do the same for our own State General Fund and Arts Council appropriation in this column. So here goes.

The average taxpayer shells out $3,485 to fund the Vermont General Fund of $1.07 billion, of which about $530,000 supports arts activities, institutions and education throughout Vermont. Of the $3485 “average taxpayer” bill about $1.73 goes to support the programs and services of the Vermont Arts Council. Expressed as a percentage, the Arts Council’s appropriation is 495 ten-thousandths of 1% of the total State General Fund appropriation.

So here we are again—impossibly small percentages of impossible-to-imagine amounts of money. Let me make it a little more real for you . . .


* an eight-hour school day, the Arts Council’s appropriation would represent 14.26 seconds of arts activities. Coupled with its share of the Federal dollars (reported in my last column), the total amount of time available for the arts in this “school” would be 16.82 seconds per eight-hour day; barely enough time to sing the first line of the Vermont State Song. If the state were to budget “one minute” for the arts in this eight hour school day, the Council’s budget would jump to $2,229,000—slightly more than four times its current investment. For the record, this is unlikely to happen in our lifetime.

* a $30,000 per year salary, the amount of money available for the arts would be $14.85 per year—or about 57 cents out of every biweekly paycheck. If the legislature were to increase that investment to $1 every two weeks, the Council’s budget would make a more modest jump to $928,000. This might happen in our lifetime.

* equivalent to the annual budget of Montpelier, and the legislature were to apply the same percentage of its budget towards the Arts as Montpelier does (.066%), the State appropriation to the Arts Council would increase even more modestly to $706,200. If our economic development policy makers embrace Bill Schubart’s recent column in Seven Days, this might happen in the next couple of years.

Sadly, early indications are that we will be lucky if our budget stays at its current level. But I don’t like “lucky.” I’m the kind of guy who will go for the “one-minute of the eight-hour school day” and settle (reluctantly) for 30 seconds this year—more than doubling our appropriation—and going after the next 30 seconds next year. I’m the kind of guy who likes to point out that if we just charge each of the 46,000 tax payers who earn more than $75,000 a year the price of one family sized pizza with four toppings, we could triple the State’s investment in the Arts. (Now there’s a good idea!!)

But here’s the rub. I’m not going to do that. I can’t. It’s not because the cause isn’t noble and worth at least a pizza or two.

It’s because advocacy, in the end, is NOT about the money. All I’ve done is give you a sense of proportion when thinking about arts funding. None of us in the arts have enough money. Probably, we never will. Therefore, arts support is about something bigger. Something better.

I’ll clarify what I mean in my next column. In the meantime, go to a concert or two. Buy your loved ones gifts that someone you know, or know of, made by hand. (Palette note cards, anyone?) Support your local creative economy. And above all, be safe.

Happy Holidays.

Friday, December 1, 2006

The Federal Budget and the Arts

The election is behind us and now it is time to consider the arguments we have to make to all our recently elected officials that make the case for more arts support. The next few messages from me in this space will try to do this from the Council’s perspective. Feel free to give me your feedback and offer your own analysis, present your own findings, and include your own reasons for strengthening funding for the arts.

One of the most important first steps is to set a context.

The Federal budget is about $2.3 trillion (11 zeroes after the 3). The National Endowment for the Arts’ budget is $125 million—or about 54 ten-thousandths of a percent of the federal budget (.0054%). Since it’s hard to conceptualize what these numbers mean literally, I’ve made a few comparisons that you might find helpful as you talk to Congressman-elect Welch (Senator-elect Sanders and Senator Leahy have both heard this material before):


an eight-hour school day, then students would have just over 1.5 seconds to spend on artistic pursuits. But if the Congress were to budget just “one minute” of this eight-hour day to the arts, the NEA budget would become $4.8 billion.

a $30,000 per year salary, the amount of money available for the arts would be about $1.62 per year—or just over six cents out of every biweekly paycheck! If Congress were to budget just one dollar every two weeks to support the arts, the NEA budget would be $1.99 billion.

equal to the annual budget of Montpelier, VT (the smallest US capital city) of $15 million, then Montpelier would only spend $810 a year supporting the arts. BUT! Montpelier actually spends $10,000 per year supporting the arts—or about 66 thousandths of one percent (.066%) of its annual budget.

to devote the same percentage of its budget to support the arts that Montpelier does, then the NEA’s budget would equal $1.33 billion (.066% x $2.3 trillion) which would represent a 1226% increase over the current level of NEA support of $125 million.
Every year lobbyists like me descend on Washington (in March) to increase the NEA’s budget. Every year we are told to be happy with a five or 10 million dollar increase.

Well…I’m not happy. I want that “minute” of the arts in the school. I want that dollar every two weeks in my paycheck. I want Montpelier to set the tone for the US Government’s priorities where arts support is concerned. It seems reasonable—especially given the scale of what we are talking about. The impact on tax payers? Well, if each of my fingers represented a dollar, you could count the impact on each taxpayer on the fingers of my right hand.

My next column will do a similar analysis of the Vermont State Budget….

Friday, November 17, 2006

The Fourth "A" - Asia

Several years ago I proposed that, as a society concerned about educational quality, we should do away with the “three Rs” and replace them with the “three As.” I proposed this for several reasons: one, only one of the three R’s is an R; two, there is so much more to basic learning than reading, writing, and arithmetic; and three, schools who want to sacrifice the arts on the budgetary altar don’t need the added incentive implied by not mentioning them in the three R’s.

My mantra for the past eight years has been for schools to develop learning plans for their districts, schools, and individual students that focus on Academics, Athletics, and the Arts. A school that places appropriate emphasis on the knowledge of and appreciation for excellence in academic pursuits, athletic pursuits, and artistic pursuits will, I believe, consistently churn out better rounded citizens than those that don’t.

But lately I’ve been curious about what else might be done to create an optimal learning environment in our schools and for lack of any originality on my part, have come up with a fourth “A.”

Asia. Okay, I’m stretching things a bit. What I’m really talking about is China, but “three As and a C” doesn’t roll off my tongue as easily as “the Four As.” So for the sake of argument, let the fourth A equal C.

Besides several million Chinese-Americans who live in some of our more populated cities, how many Americans know anything about China other than what they have read on the menu at the local Chinese restaurant? How many of us know how much of our debt China now owns, or how many of the consumer goods we wear, drive, listen to, or talk into, are made in China?

If you’re like me, you know next to nothing about China, and since the purpose of this essay is to tie it back to educational opportunities in Vermont, here’s an idea:

We should find a way to encourage school systems in the state to develop K-12 programs that immerse children in the Chinese language and, as language skills reach appropriate levels, starts teaching other subjects (like reading, writing, arithmetic and—yes—art!) in Chinese!

Oh sure, our educational bureaucracy would never stand for such a thing, but bear with me for a moment. Think of the possibilities. First, regarding our under-populated school system, think of the interested parents from out-of-state who would move here in order to have their children exposed to this kind of learning environment. Second, think of the university matriculation rates of Vermont high school graduates who just happened to speak and write Chinese. Think of the employment opportunities for those high school graduates with such skills.

And on a bigger picture, imagine how much greater world understanding there would be if an ever-growing population of young Americans—Vermonters all—were to reach out across the Pacific, reach out across what is right now an enormous cultural divide, and learn the language(s) of what is still the most populous country in the world—the country that owns almost as much of our debt as Japan, the country that makes the computers I write these essays on.

If this model works for you, but you don’t want to pursue Chinese, then feel free to apply the same approach to Spanish, or Arabic, or any other of the worlds great languages! For the moment, however, I’m sticking with Chinese. Here’s why.

On November 28 and 29, 2006 the Chinese Ambassador to the United States, His Excellency Zhou Wenzhong, will visit Vermont on a trip sponsored by the Vermont Chamber and the Vermont Council on World Affairs. The Vermont Youth Orchestra (planning a tour of China next summer) will play at a special Culture and Arts Breakfast. I plan to be there and meet His Excellency. I’m curious about him. I’m curious about his country. I’m curious for me. And I’m curious for my children.

I also like the symmetry of the Four As.

Monday, November 6, 2006

The Creative Economy

Among the most common questions I am asked is “What’s this I hear about the Creative Economy?” Since 1998 the Arts Council has slowly and steadily tracked the network of towns, villages, neighborhoods, and people all over Vermont who, through their own experience and hard work, are looking at ways to re-invigorate themselves through this “new” sector.

Depending on whether I’m chatting with friends or close colleagues, giving a lecture at a school, or talking to community service organization members, I have three different definitions of the Creative Economy to suit the moment.

The simplest definition is based on one that Robert McBride of Bellows Falls uses. His basic point is that the Creative Economy is the result of fun, creative people sitting around a table thinking up fun, creative stuff to work on together. The implication is that the more fun and creative it is, the more it will be valued by those who experience it (neighbors, local business, etc.), and the more people will be attracted to do more of it.

The most complex definition is that which was created by the New England Council. It identifies Creative Industries (private and nonprofit sector entities whose services and products are the result of creative activities); Creative Workers (the individuals in any industry who are the originators of creative output—they don’t necessarily work for a creative industry, but their creative output certainly has value: think chip designers for IBM); and finally, Creative Communities, which are the geographical locations where fun, creative people tend to congregate (live, work, play) and attract entrepreneurs and start-up businesses.

The definition I like to use most often is in between the two. It is those economic and social conditions that have to exist in a place in order for that place to support a thriving network of cultural institutions and activities. It is also the economic and social result of what happens to a place when a thriving network of cultural institutions and activities is encouraged to move in and, simply speaking, set up shop.

The creative economy, therefore, is not something new. Nor is it something necessarily unique. In fact it isn’t really a “thing” at all. It is a dynamic process that tracks the ebb and flow of human life and returns it with interest to the people that are working to improve it.

We in Vermont are blessed with a multitude of places that are ripe for generous, even copious applications of “the Creative Economy.” The Vermont Council on Rural Development has a statewide project underway that, when complete, will have provided significant technical support to 14 towns who have expressed a desire to explore whether it will fit into their long range community/economic development plans.

And by now everyone knows of the informal Creative Economy “Poster Towns” of Vergennes, Brandon, Brattleboro, Bennington and Bellows Falls. But don’t forget White River Junction, St. Johnsbury, St. Albans, Rutland, Bennington, Hardwick, Morrisville. I even hear murmurings from Manchester, Springfield, Bradford, Newport/Derby, Enosburg Falls, the Islands, Waterbury, and dozens of others.

The list could go on and on. Why? Because the Creative Economy is what Vermont is all about—and has been for generations. Think about the Precision Economy at the end of the 19th Century. Think of our landscape. Think of heritage—those historical and human artifacts that keep “drawing us in close.” It’s too simple to say that the Creative Economy is just about arts and cultural institutions, because it’s not. Nor is it just about jobs or schools or faith or recreation. It isn’t even about skiing and maple syrup and fall foliage and cheese and ice cream.

(Okay, we’ll talk about ice cream separately, shall we?) It’s really about all of those things. And we get to choose, community by community, town by town, how to make it matter to us. Because, trust me, it does matter to us. All of us.