Wednesday, December 19, 2007


A cultural terrorist by the name of Marcus Westbury dropped a bomb on the morning of October 18, 2007.

The Sydney (Australia) Morning Herald published an article by Mr. Westbury that has essentially challenged the entire notion of supporting the performance of western classical performing art forms, from symphonies to operas and beyond. His thesis is that organizations that perform works by Beethoven, Mozart, Verdi, Bach, Brahms, etc. are little more than glorified “cover bands” and why should such entities suck up so much of the available resources that are provided to support the arts?

“My argument isn't about form and it isn't an extreme one. It's about scale, equity and magnitude. I do think it would be a loss if Australians were to lose all connection with our vast and glorious European cultural heritage.

“But Opera Australia receives more than $10 million a year from the Australia Council. Sure, opera is lavish, expensive and glorious but I simply cannot think of a single sensible, logical or sane reason why one opera company is valued roughly on par with more than 400 separate organisations supported by the music, dance, literature and inter-arts boards of the same organisation.”
Wow. KaBOOM!
This thesis opens up a pretty large can of worms and challenges those of us charged with “supporting the arts in all its forms” to define what exactly we mean by that phrase.

Back in the mid-1960s it was pretty clear. “Supporting the arts” to us mostly meant providing resources to schools and arts organizations that would perpetuate art-forms of and educate audiences in western classical art forms. In America, this definition expanded over time to include distinctively indigenous forms of art—such as jazz, the blues, and musical theater—all of which represented a blending of cultural influences that, initially at least, used the instrumentation of western classical art forms.

But with the opening up of the world’s cultures through the internet, and with our increasing exposure to so many extraordinary nonwestern art forms from India, Asia, Oceania, South America, and Africa that have influenced several generations of creative people, the ascendancy of art created by “dead, white, western males” has been challenged, to say the least.

And that’s just for starters. The very nature of experiencing art is undergoing a massive shift. Those of us above a certain age (50?) expect performances to be in halls that seat large numbers of people so that the art provides an embracing communal experience. The latest trends are tracking this common experience to be dissolving to the point where performers and creators are creating works of art to engage “gen-aught” audiences of ONE. Even more perplexing, the timing, location, and media used in the presentation of the work are determined not by the creator/presenter but by the audience through its I-pod, computer, or other multi-media device.

I am not insulted at the notion that a symphony orchestra might be nothing more than a cover band. Those words are meant to be inflammatory and rile every self-respecting symphony manager, conductor, musician, and audience member out there. But all they make me want to do is to articulate why these art forms are important to support and maintain.

I believe that in order to understand other cultural experiences one must have a solid grounding in one’s own culture—which, in America, is still dominated by western-European influences.

I believe that we support opera companies and symphonies today because they have withstood the test of time and offer valuable insight to all citizens of the world (including those of us from “the west”) about western culture and values.

I believe that nothing builds social capital more effectively than sharing a profound arts experience with other members of one’s community. Theater, dance, opera, music deliver the goods again and again. They have proven their worth.

I also believe this conversation is far from over.

What do you believe?

Wednesday, December 5, 2007


I admit that despite majoring in English and American Literature and Languages, and spending a great deal of time stumbling and mumbling through “the classics,” poetry usually succeeds in eluding my comprehension. But every now and then something triggers a bizarre “poetry recall” in my brain. Then it’s up to me to figure out the relationship between the experience and the poem and draw some kind of essential life-lesson from it.

anyone lived in a pretty how town
(with up so floating many bells down)
spring summer autumn winter
he sang his didn’t he danced his did.

Women and men (both little and small)
cared for anyone not at all
they sowed their isn’t they reaped their same
sun moon stars rain

When I first read this e.e. cummings poem in high school I thought it little more than a lark—a tour de force—written by a clever man who eschewed all literary and poetical conventions, and whose evident purpose in life was to frustrate my academic aims, such as they were.

But recently I read a story on titled Subprime Losses, Slashed Bonuses Threaten Funding to Nonprofits and phrases from this poem started bubbling up in my head. I needed to know why.

children guessed (but only a few
as down they forgot as up they grew
autumn winter spring summer)
that no one loved him more by more

when by now and tree by leaf
she laughed his joy she cried his grief
bird by snow and stir by still
anyone’s any was all to her

According to the article, many charities, including arts organizations, depend on significant year-end contributions from corporations and their employees to close the income gap of their annual operations. For some, this year-end bounty amounts to as much as 40% of their annual contributed income. This year, the “subprime mortgage situation” (which might be more accurately referred to as The Big Swindle) is resulting in massive “write-downs” (losses) by financial juggernauts like Citigroup and Merrill Lynch.

How much, you ask? $40 billion and counting. These losses will not only affect those corporations’ charitable capacity (Merrill Lynch will most likely cut way back from its 2006 level of $40 million), but it will also mean that the year end bonuses of the management staff who got our money into this mess will be cut by five to fifteen percent. Five to fifteen percent of what, they don’t say. But I think we can assume at least eight figures…

someones married their everyones
laughed their cryings and did their dance
(sleep wake hope and then) they
said their nevers they slept their dream

stars rain sun moon
(and only the snow can begin to explain
how children are apt to forget to remember
with up so floating many bells down)

Something is out of whack here, isn’t it? I am the director of a $1.5 million dollar a year not-for-profit agency in the public trust, and can barely afford cost-of living increases for staff much less a year-end bonus—and that’s in a year when we end up with a positive fund balance. That other people, managing billion-dollar portfolios into a negative balance, can expect a year end bonus at all, much less one that is smaller than last year’s by a mere 15% is nothing short of criminal.

Our expectations, our values, our SOMETHING have all gone topsy-turvy on us—sort of like the language of this poem. $40 billion vanishes with a few strokes of a pen, and charities are made to suffer the consequences...!?!

The wishful-thinking-adolescent me used to think that maybe the poet was under the influence of a controlled substance when he wrote this poem. Now I’m not so sure. In the context of cummings’s verses, this whole subprime mortgage scandal is making a whole lot more sense…

one day anyone died I guess
(and noone stooped to kiss his face)
busy folk buried them side by side
little by little and was by was

all by all and deep by deep
and more by more they dream their sleep
noone and anyone earth by april
wish by spirit and if by yes.

Women and men (both dong and ding)
summer autumn winter spring
reaped their sowing and went their came
sun moon stars rain.

[anyone lived in a pretty how town by e. e. cummings reprinted with permission of Liveright Publishing Corporation]

Monday, November 12, 2007


For the past several years a foundation has been set up to oversee the fundraising for and design and construction of a memorial to Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. on the Mall in Washington DC about halfway between the Lincoln Memorial and the Jefferson Memorial.

The foundation is well on its way to its $100 million goal, and it recently announced the selection of the artist who would design, construct and oversee the installation of the centerpiece of the memorial—a 4-to 5-ton monolith made of granite on which would be carved images of the civil rights struggle that was Dr. King’s life work and which ultimately transformed America. So far, so good.

Lei Yixin, a well-respected stone carver, perhaps best known for his numerous larger-than-life statues of Chairman Mao Zedong was announced as the lead artist. And the granite that the monument would be made of? Also from China.

If you’re like me, this doesn’t sit well with your sense of the importance of place, of community, and of paying attention to things like symbolic acts. And if you’re like me, you’ll want to do something about it. Something like writing a letter to John Castaldo of the Barre Granite Association and telling him how much you support his efforts to get an American artist using American granite to create this American monument. Better yet, go to the Martin Luther King Memorial Foundation website and where it says “contact us,” and do so. Let them know your thoughts.

The point here is NOT that Lei Yixin is a bad artist. Nor is the point that Chinese granite lacks some essential qualities that can only be found in American—especially Barre—granite. I recall from 9th grade geology that igneous is basically igneous wherever it’s from.

No, the point here is symbolic, which is why it’s become such a cause celebre. Do we believe that Martin Luther King’s monument should be crafted by an artist best known for his representations of one of history’s most repressive dictators? Should five tons of stone be pulled from the ground, carved, and then shipped 10,000 miles because it’s cheaper? What about the carbon footprint of that little task?! What about the insult to all granite quarries and workers throughout the country, of which some of the most notable are literally in our own back yards?

Most important, did anyone think for a moment about what Martin Luther King might have thought of this decision? Or was it purely a “how inexpensively can we get a good looking monument made out of granite” kind of a business decision?

Last week, along with the Governor and many other notables, and as the final act of a two-year “Art in State Buildings” project, we re-dedicated the 133 State Street State Office Building—the big marble one on the west side of the State House Lawn that used to be the headquarters of the National Life Insurance Company. Several people remarked that “they don’t make buildings like this anymore.” There was a time, early in the last century, when we built buildings and erected monuments that mattered simply because of what they represented. National Life was the most important private employer in the State for decades, and their headquarters was built to show off that stature. No expense was spared in building it, and the detail of the ceiling friezes and other decorative touches are matched only by the overwhelmingly solid construction values that allowed the state to occupy the building for more than 40 years with virtually no maintenance. Our 20-year old program added significantly to the interior work spaces with significant works of art commissioned from Elizabeth Billings, Andrea Wasserman, Nick DeFrieze, Emily Mason, and Eric Aho.

Built more than 80 years ago, 133 State Street is a monument to American industry, a monument to the effort of state workers who deliver as best they can on the promise of good government, a monument to the Vermont work ethic, and the visual cornucopia that makes Montpelier a great place to visit. It was built by private industry to last. It will be maintained to serve the public for the foreseeable future.

In a hundred years, what will we say about the Martin Luther King Memorial? That we were too cheap to honor one of the towering Americans of the 20th century with a work created by another American using American materials? I for one, believe that spending a few extra hundred thousand dollars to ensure that its done right, would be a most worthwhile investment.

Wednesday, October 31, 2007


A few evenings ago I succeeded in traumatizing my children for the second time in less than a week. First we watched a PBS documentary about the latest theories on global warming. By the time my kids are my age, the seas will have risen 25 meters, their Grammy’s house, like the rest of Florida, will be under water, and the resulting dislocation of the hundreds of millions of souls who live less than 50 feet above sea level world-wide will have paralyzed the economic and social structures of our planet.

Then, several nights later, we watched another PBS documentary, this time on the global disappearance of honeybees. No one really knows why, but last year one-third the total population of nature’s “pollinating army” literally disappeared. This phenomenon, known as colony collapse disorder, is apparently the result of a combination of pesticides, starvation, and disease. What was traumatic was learning that, while most grains (corn, rice and wheat) are wind-pollinated, virtually all fruits and vegetables, including nuts are pollinated by honeybees. As the narrator put it, without bees we might all have to learn how to subsist on gruel.

For my kids, that last comment was the kicker. Having been cast this past summer in a local theater production of “Oliver,” subsisting on gruel was the scariest thing anyone could have said.

By way of comforting my kids, I tried to think of how best to put this information in perspective. I thought about buying the best ten acres of arable land and having fun learning with them how to defend it against all comers during what will surely be a brisk period of Armageddon. But none of us wants to leave Montpelier, and none of us likes guns. Then I thought of ignoring the problem and hoping I die before being held accountable. But where does that leave the kids? Then I thought as a family perhaps we should join some radical “earth first” movement. But that won’t work because life has taught me that radical attempts to “fix” large problems often create newer, more complex ones. Finally, I thought of a very neo-conservative solution and decided to join the American Family Association’s effort to remove all public funding from PBS since they’re the reason my kids are now so miserable. You heard me. Kill the messenger.

Okay, so none of the options was particularly attractive.

In between viewing documentaries one and two, I attended a three-day conference in Burlington sponsored by the Orton Family Foundation on community planning, and among many important sessions and conversations with caring, intelligent people, a desire was expressed to capture the essence of and motivation behind the Community Heart and Soul Planning movement. By the end of the conference a manifesto of sorts had been drafted and was circulated for signature among the 300 plus participants.

The first paragraph of the Declaration of Heart and Soul Community Planning reads as follows:

“We the undersigned believe that every community must explore and express what makes it special—its Heart & Soul elements—and with specificity describe those tangible and intangible elements that if lost would fundamentally change the character of their place (emphasis mine). Once articulated and acknowledged, community Heart & Soul serves as the “Bill of Rights and Responsibilities” for citizens as they make decisions about the future.”

The declaration goes on to lay out several guiding principles for what community Heart and Soul stands for, all of which speak to such things as core values, social capital, and a positive vision for the future.

Now it might sound suspiciously like I am advocating for the radical “earth first” fix. That may, in the end be true. But I prefer to call it what it is…embracing the Heart and Soul movement by taking a page out of the Honeybee Playbook.

Honeybees basically do one thing…and do it well. They collect pollen, return to the hive, drop off their pollen load, do a little dance to communicate where the best pickings are, and return for more pollen. They repeat this cycle many times a day, every day until they die. On the occasions that the hive is attacked (by a bear, say), they throw themselves into the fray with a vengeance until the marauder is driven away—sometimes at the cost of the hive, but usually at the cost of several large honeycombs and a few hundred bees.

The Heart and Soul movement gives us humans a way to model this bee-havior. It requires us (the worker bees) to determine, within our own communities (the hive), what we care about. We do our best to provide for our community (collect pollen); to protect it from its enemies (bears); and to make sure that all that is good (the honey) gets passed on to feed future generations who repeat this cycle. [It should be pointed out—with amusement I hope—that male bees do practically nothing except, when necessary, fertilize the queen. Any socio-political lesson to be learned from this, of course, I leave to the imagination of the reader!]

I certainly have no comforting answer for my children about the global problems facing us in the coming fifty or 100 years. But I can help them, teach them, and set an example for them about how to do what’s best for our own community from within.

I think, ultimately, that is what will be our salvation. Each of us, in our own way, will turn to what we each know to be important within our own communities whether “Community” is defined as a place, a region, or people bound by common practice. We must learn how to place a value on that which is important, nurture it, protect it from external attacks, and by doing so, allow it to survive into the future.

Bees don’t think about global politics. They don’t think about moral issues or economic interdependencies. They basically do one thing, and in doing it, set in motion a chain of events that, among other things, results in the food chain at the top of which we sit. We have to imitate their behavior and bind it to the tenets of Heart and Soul community planning with intention, determination, and integrity. We can do this. We must. One person, one community, one hive at a time.

Wednesday, October 17, 2007


In an October 1 Opinion piece published by the Los Angeles Times, former Clinton Secretary of Labor Robert B. Reich showed to the world just how quickly someone once at the center of American political life can lose touch with reality. He proposed cutting the tax deductibility of contributions to universities and arts institutions in half because…”let’s face it: These aren’t really charitable contributions. They’re often investments in the lifestyles the wealthy already enjoy and want their children to have too. They’re also investments in prestige—especially if they result in the family name being engraved on the new wing of an art museum or symphony hall.”

He particularly focuses on Harvard University’s $30 billion plus endowment and a Lincoln Center Gala supported by hedge-fund leaders who make up to $1 billion a year.

He goes on to propose the following “modest proposal. At a time when the number of needy continues to rise, when government doesn’t have the money to do what’s necessary for them and when America’s very rich are richer than ever, we should revise the tax code: Focus the charitable deduction on real charities” (ones that, according to Reich, actually serve the poor).

Wow. This thesis just cries for a reasoned response. But where do I start?

Maybe I should ask first what could possibly have caused the government to not have the money to do what’s necessary “for them” (the poor) or to have made America’s very rich “richer than ever.” But, nah, that would be too cheap a shot and WAY too political.

Maybe I should point out that three years ago Harvard completed the transition to need-blind and legacy-blind admissions and furthermore, because of its endowment, is now able to cover the entire tuition, room, and board cost of any student whose parents are unable to contribute towards those costs. How’s that for a response to Reich’s assumptions about Harvard serving only legacies of wealthy donors and not serving the needs of the poor? On second thought, that might lead him to accuse Harvard of being the exception that proves the rule--despite the fact that Harvard’s actions are not, at this point, all that exceptional.

But wait, there’s more to Harvard (and other “elite institutions of higher learning”) than money and legacies: what about the research it does that the government can’t do and the private sector won’t do without a sufficient profit-motive? Shall we “just say no” to all that?

So let’s take the argument to a local level. Should we (the public) stop supporting River Arts in Morrisville through a combination of public funds and tax-deductible contributions simply because the services it provides to everyone in its community are arts-based? How about the services of Vermont Arts Exchange, Rockingham Art and Museum Project, the Chaffee, the Chandler, NEK Arts, and countless others? Why stop there? How about pulling the plug on all public and tax-deductible support for community economic development that involves the arts: destroy the Creative Economy in Vermont right at its source?

I could run us all through a quick review of all the great programs and services currently at work in Vermont communities, including Head Start programs, health care, identified schools, corrections, recreation and scores of others, each of which is arts-based and each of which would blast Reich’s thesis to smithereens. But that would still avoid what I believe is the most important question that we should be asking of ourselves and each other:

What exactly do we want our generation’s legacy to be, as framed by the actions of our government and the uses to which charitable contributions from our wealthy citizens is put? Put another way, what do we want—as a citizenry—the direct and indirect impact of government funding to result in?

My personal opinion is that our government should be a reflection of how we want to be governed. It should manage our public safety. It should regulate industries that have a tendency to pollute our streams, our air, our airwaves, etc. It should provide for those who can’t provide for themselves. And (here’s the kicker) it should support those institutions who serve as beacons of hope, of innovation, of creativity, of knowledge and understanding—because it is they who inspire us and who lead us forward into the future. Their work is more often built on a dream or a vision, and not on a well-documented market need. Their inventions and services belong to all of us because their work tends to be in “the public good.” Thus, their work depends on direct (tax support) and indirect (tax deductible contributions) from our government.

In Robert Reich’s world-view, there appears to be no room for all the positive things for which the government can and should take some responsibility. Is he really that cynical? Or is he that out of touch with what is really happening. Mr. Reich…before you write another opinion piece, please come to Vermont. I’ll be happy to show you a lot of government-supported, arts-based activities that will surely change your world-view just a little.

Wednesday, October 3, 2007


A few years ago, Ellen McCulloch-Lovell, President of Marlboro College, told a group of arts presenters that it was likely going to be the artist community who first finds the courage to ask the difficult questions about the state of our world. As I recall, she was referring to the conflicts in the Middle East and Southern Asia. But drilling for oil in the Alaskan Wildlife Refuge—an environmental issue if there ever was one—was also big back then as was the No Child Left Behind (NCLB) education act and the National Endowment for the Arts’ (NEA) budget.

I have no problem sharing my negative opinions about NCLB and my positive opinions about the NEA because those things directly impact the arts. But until now, I have felt it inappropriate to share my opinions about global economic and political issues. What has changed?

Vermont’s foliage, that’s what.

For years my wife and I have looked forward to September; kids back at school, crisp mornings, warm afternoons, great hiking, and of course, the foliage. Almost nothing beats September in Vermont—except possibly October. For the last couple of years however, we have noticed that the colors haven’t been as vibrant as they once were.

At first, I thought it was yet another symptom of middle age—the rods (or is it the cones?) on my retina must not be as responsive as they once were, surely. Perhaps my own increasingly faulty memory has imbued past fall seasons with far more resplendent chromatic displays than they deserved.

This year, however, I finally have to come clean. I am a musician by training, but as the Executive Director of the Vermont Arts Council I am viewed by many as a spokesperson for all the arts. But the artist in me has to admit, at long last, that the colors are bad; dull, brown, and crispy.

What is going on?

Last week the Times Argus wrote an article on a leaf fungus called Anthracnose, a blight that evidently has been around for ages. This year is supposedly “good” in that Anthracnose levels are far lower this year than in recent years. Okay. I’ll accept that on its face, but if Anthracnose is the culprit, why are the leaves worse this year than ever? Could it be something else? Acid rain? Warm temperatures? All of the above?

The obvious threats to our environment and our collective reluctance to call crispy-fried foliage by its true name—a nightmare—has at last awakened the sleeping beast in me. Now it is my turn to enter into this fray because if I don’t, I will not be able to stare at myself in the mirror every colorless morning for the remainder of this pathetic fall season.

I am not a scientist. I am not even a native Vermonter. But I am somewhat observant, and I listen to my friends who are sugarmakers. I hear their stories of dying sugar maple trees. I see the evidence myself—there is one on my block that can’t be more than 30 years old (shouldn’t they live to be 150?). I’m really not trying to make a political statement here, after all dying maple trees and dusky brown leaves have been creeping up on us for at least a generation and impact all of us, regardless of whether we vote red or blue (or orange or yellow).

Are we going to have to wait until the oceans are lapping at the steps of the Metropolitan Museum or drowning the Old North Church before the masses wake up and do something? It doesn’t matter whether it was Shakespeare or some other playwright who made the phrase “sound the alarums” famous. We just have to get busy and start sounding them…

The environmental decay, of which this fall’s foliage is but a symptom, affects us all—regardless of your position on global warming. Al Gore and Bill McKibben are not the issue. Your own senses are. Trust them.

It doesn’t take a lot of courage to stand up for fall. If you’re like me, you’ll do it because you miss the colors.

Wednesday, September 19, 2007


Since the beginning of our fiscal year (July 1) the Arts Council has awarded 52 competitive grants to artists, arts organizations, schools and community groups. These awards were made at the recommendation of several panels who were gathered by staff from around the state to sit and review applications and make their recommendations to the Council’s Board of Trustees. Fifty-two applicants have thus far received good news. They are, for the most part, happy. But what about the 59 applicants who were not recommended for funding? How are they feeling?

Disappointed, to say the least, and in some cases angry. But the most prevalent reaction is frustration. Most people contact us when they don’t get a grant to find out why. (It’s interesting to note how many successful applicants do the same!). Inevitably they ask how many were funded out of how many applications. The answer is almost always a smaller percentage than seems possible.

What happens in the Arts Council panel meetings? Who actually chooses which applicants get funded, and which do not? These are just two of many questions about the Council’s grant process that we field every year. Some are based on assumptions people have about art, about the Council, and about people who appear to have a special “in.” Others are based on the disappointment of not getting funded at all, or getting only partial funding.

So let’s deal with some of these questions and assumptions.

Assumption: “If you know someone at the Arts Council, you’re far more likely to get a grant.”

Fact: The most influential people in the competitive grant decision process are the “peer-panelists.” These are people who are gathered for the various panels based on their availability, their expertise, the fact that they have no conflicts of interest with people applying, and their general knowledge of the arts and of Vermont. We also pay attention—all else being equal—to geographic and gender diversity whenever possible.

The role of a panelist is to familiarize themselves with the applications, understand the review criteria, and apply Council policies (such as no conflicts of interest) where appropriate in making their recommendations. Council staff’s role is to keep the panel on task and on time, to take notes of the discussion for applicant feedback, and to make sure trustees receive panel recommendations in a timely fashion. The trustees’ role is to ask questions if anything seems out of the ordinary and to direct staff in those rare instances where a panel recommendation is not taken. In my 10 years at the Arts Council, trustees have overturned only one panel recommendation and that was because the organization in question went out of business between the time the application was reviewed and the trustees met.

So, to be clear, the Arts Council staff doesn’t make grant decisions; panelists and trustees do. Having said that, however, I admit that there is one way that knowing our staff will help your application quite a lot.

Someone who has called the Council's program staff (Michele, Sonia, or Stacy or even, God help them, me!) for advice on what program to apply for, or how much to request, or what kind of support materials to include will no doubt fare better in the review process than someone who hasn’t. Does this mean that our word is gospel? No. It means that we see a lot of panel discussions and we have a sense of what tends to be important to a panel and what tends to be not so important. Someone who asks questions is more likely to fare better than someone who doesn’t or who, worse, makes an assumption and acts accordingly. In every case, whether you don’t get funding or not, we encourage you to ask for the panel’s feedback. It’s a key part of becoming a better grant writer

Assumption: “The same people get funded every year so there’s no point in applying.”

Fact: While it is true that some arts organizations' and cultural organizations' grants tend to crop up again and again, this is not so much a reflection of the review process as it is a reflection of the consistently high caliber of these particular applicants—arts institutions whose names come readily to everyone’s lips. I’d even go a step further—it is because of their consistently high standards that they have become institutions worthy of our funding.

As for educational grants, while there are many great artists who would like to teach, there are still relatively few artists who have achieved a level of mastery in their art form AND an understanding of the issues that all Vermont public school educators deal with in the “Vermont Framework of Standards…” and “No Child Left Behind.” But if a school can demonstrate how an artist fits perfectly into their curriculum, then—yes, you probably have a better chance of receiving funding than another school that doesn't have that level of preparation.

But getting back to the accusation that underlies the assumption: that there exists a cabal of arts-funding decision makers who have their favorite group of “go-to” grantees. The truth is that even those institutions that seemingly get a grant every year don’t! Instead, even they fall victim to the biggest problem the Arts Council faces: a lack of funding.

Reality: Lack of funding is by far the most significant reason why more grants aren't funded or funded in full.

The legislative appropriation the Arts Council receives for our grant budget has stagnated for 10 years while the rest of state government has grown 30%.

How can you help change this? Become an advocate! Contact your legislators and let them know you care about the health of the arts in Vermont. Invite them to be your guest at a concert or a play in your community that has received Council funding. Or, perhaps more notably, take them to an event or visit an organization that would have benefied from receiving grant funding.

The Council will thank you and, more importantly, so will all those folks that didn’t get funding they hoped for.

Wednesday, September 5, 2007


In Vermont, we have a very strong and independent-minded Congressional delegation whose legacy includes being among the staunchest supporters of our tiny Federal Arts Agency. During the darkest days of the early 1990s the Vermont delegation was among the small minority that stood up to the powers trying to eliminate the NEA.

This was not true of the delegations from many other states. Although the NEA’s detractors are diminishing in numbers, there are still quite a few who, despite all our best efforts to educate and inform them, still have residual feelings of ill-will towards the agency, feelings that are even more misplaced now than they were during the worst of the culture wars from 1988 to 1996.

In the decade since it was “punished” by Congress and its appropriation cut 40%, the NEA, like the field it serves, has transformed itself. It no longer simply responds to requests for support from artists and arts organizations, most of which thrive in our major population centers. It actually reaches out and cultivates the arts in all corners of our country. In the last couple of years it has finally made good on its promise to award at least one grant to a constituent in every one of the 435 Congressional districts throughout the country—including the District of Columbia, Guam, Puerto Rico, the Marianas, the Virgin Islands, and American Samoa.

More importantly it has built on the “grassroots” legacy of former NEA Chair Bill Ivey and greatly improved its “brand identity” under the leadership of its current Chair, Dana Gioia. As a former brand manager for General Foods (word has it that he was responsible for introducing Bill Cosby to Jell-o Pudding Pops), Gioia has taken the NEA to a new level of participatory art-making and engagement. Projects like Poetry Out Loud, American Masterpieces, and The Big Read have made the arts more accessible to a much broader segment of the American populace than they ever were before. Sure there is probably not as much money going to symphonies, or opera houses as there was in 1992. But then, how could there be? The NEA’s budget is $50 million less now than it was then ($130 million if you factor in inflation)!

But the tide is turning back in the Arts’ favor. The House of Representatives wants to increase the NEA’s budget by $33 million—not because “punishment time” is over, but because the NEA and its network of regional and state partners (which includes the Vermont Arts Council) are, through the arts, making a positive difference in the lives of people throughout the country.

I have a request for everyone reading this column, and especially to those who are from out-of-state.

We need the Senate to follow suit and support the House’s recommendation. Right now the Senate has recommended a $10 million increase. That’s not a bad amount in the context of previous small increases, but it’s nowhere near $33 million. If the House version gets passed it means an increase to state arts agencies of at least $200,000. If the Senate version passes, it’ll mean an increase of about $70,000. I say the House version looks better.

In Vermont, we’re pretty confident that our two Senators understand the importance of supporting the arts in our communities and our lives. But what about the rest of the country?

If you are reading this in Vermont, please do two things. First, contact Senators Leahy and Sanders and politely remind them that you are counting on their support for the House version of the NEA appropriation, but more importantly to thank them for their leadership and support for the NEA over the years. Also, thank Congressman Welch for actually voting for the $33 million increase! Second, please contact everyone you know in other states asking them if they would consider writing a personal email to their Senators to support the House version of the NEA appropriation.

If you are not a Vermont resident and you are reading this, or it has been forwarded to you by a friend who is a Vermonter, please take a moment to contact your Senators and help them to understand just how important the arts are to your life and to your community. It doesn’t matter whether you are in northern Maine or southern California. The arts reach everyone, everywhere, all the time.

Over the years, I have witnessed many conversations on Capitol Hill in Washington, D.C. One bears repeating. A Congressman (not from Vermont) said, “I walked back to my office and checked to see how the letters were running on this issue. There were a grand total of three: two in favor, one against. I returned to the Chamber and voted in favor stating for the record that my mail was running two-to-one in favor of the bill!”

Your email WILL make a difference, especially if it’s from you and unencumbered by a lot of excess verbiage that our wonderful lobbyists in D.C. like to make sure get included in such messages. All you have to do is say "Please support the House version of the NEA appropriation, because . . ." and then tell your Senators a story about why the arts matter to you or to your community. The more personal the better.

Some need a lot of education, some simply need reminding. Either way, they deserve our personal thanks and best wishes, and our communities deserve more art.

Wednesday, August 22, 2007

On Art

In the space of a few short months the world, and especially Vermont, lost several of its brightest lights: John Engels, poet and teacher passed away in June; Lillian Farber, photographer, philanthropist, and activist and Louis Moyse, flutist, teacher, and co-founder of Music at Marlboro in late July, and then Rusty Jacobs of Woods Tea Company just this past week.

When even one luminary dies, the initial surprise and dismay is followed by several moments of contemplative silence during which you think about your own life and wonder what more you could do to make it have even a fraction of the meaning or impact of the life of person who just passed. Losing four is a shock to the system.

It is not for me to improve upon the impressive and beautifully written testimonials, editorials, and obituaries that have been written about these four artists by family-members, friends, former students, professional colleagues, and newspaper editors. Their passing, however, has inspired me to share a brief reflection on the role of art and art-making in general.

* * * * *

Since the mid-20th century our society has become increasingly disconnected from its cultural roots and has even dissociated itself from others who are culturally, ethnically, or religiously “different.” Television, personal computing, Game Boys and Blackberries, if not the root cause of this situation, have certainly exacerbated it—immunizing us to sometimes terrible images and sound bites because we no longer have time for the leavening influence of family or community to provide a vital context for those images and sound bites. Paradoxically, our increased connection to the world has left us more isolated within it.

The decline in quality of our public schools, the increased drop-out rate among adolescents, the increased sensationalism in our mass media, the perceived loss standards in our popular art forms, the disturbing upward trend of men under the age of 21 whose lives are now controlled by our corrections system are all related symptoms of a general lack of commitment to our community and to each other.

For me, the most powerful antidote to all of these problems is the arts. There is a transformation that occurs in a person when a work of art, a piece of music, a play, a dance, or a poem speaks to him/her for the first time from a place that our language centers are unable to process. Art is a language; a form of communication that uses different “alphabets” (sound, movement, color) to communicate common and uncommon aspects of our humanity to each other, regardless of our backgrounds.

The arts MUST be in all schools, preferably integrated into core curriculum so there is little opportunity for people to establish a belief that art is “for others.” When the arts are cut from a school budget, student engagement will decrease and truancy and delinquency will increase. The three “Rs—(and their offspring “STEM” (science, technology, engineering, and math)—ignore the arts. So I insist that the way to engage kids in schools is by focusing on the three “As”—Academics, Athletics, and the Arts. Every district, every school, every student should have its own plan for how it will pursue excellence in these three areas. Kids will naturally find their own areas of comfort, expertise and belonging. For some, the arts will only be an academic pursuit; for others the arts will be as physically demanding as a varsity sport. And for still others, the arts will be an end unto itself that at the very least keeps them engaged in school.

The arts MUST be central to our community life. As mass media, pop culture, Game Boys, and worse (drug abuse, divorce) challenge our community fabric to the point where locked gates and barred windows become a necessity, the arts can provide a nucleus around which shared values and concerns may be explored. The whole “creative economy” movement is, I believe, a recognition of the role of the arts in this revitalization process. Artists must be at every planning/zoning table, every chamber of commerce meeting, every public affairs policy debate, and every school funding discussion. The creative mind promotes aesthetics and good design in our public spaces. It also develops solutions to issues that sometimes perplex those of us who tend to only value rationality and measurable returns.

Finally, the arts MUST be a part of the image we project as a nation to the rest of the world. Cultural diplomacy is probably the single most effective tool we have to understand other cultures and reverse societal trends towards isolationism. The arts offer meaningful paths to building relations with people of different faiths and citizens of different races.

The arts are not just for the privileged few, the “elite.” They belong to us all because they come from us all.

Wednesday, July 25, 2007


On July 18th the State House hosted a gathering on Vermont’s Creative Economy, attended by 200 people from all walks of life. As part of the day’s activities, the Speaker of the House, Gaye Symington, spoke and during her speech offered these words: ”the Creative Economy is not just about decoration.”

With all due respect, Madam Speaker, I disagree.

I’m sure most people have heard the story of Prime Minister Churchill’s famous response, at the height of the blitz, to a ranking member of Britain’s war department who proposed closing the theaters and all other “non-essential” businesses in London. “Good God, man, what are we fighting FOR, then?!”

I take Speaker Symington’s remark about decoration as a metaphor for the arts and culture in general since yes, literally, she’s right—the Creative Economy is not just about “decoration.” The most compelling aspect of the Creative Economy is that it offers clear targets to policy makers who are trying to figure out how to best make strategic investments in areas that benefit the public. The Creative Economy forces the public at large to discuss with each other how they want their communities to function. Part of that functionality has to do with housing, streetscapes, and job-creation; part of it has to do with schools and how well they prepare our children; and part of it has to do with recreation and art and culture and the opportunities to build “social capital” in a place.

I maintain that one of the clearest indicators that a place is primed for investment, for job creation, and for raising a family, is the degree to which its cultural life is supported locally. In order for a cultural life to thrive, there must be opportunity, recreational outlets, good schools preparing kids for jobs and for life, and other attributes that attract entrepreneurs and young marrieds and provide them with the wherewithal to call that place “headquarters” or “home.”

Where most or all of these conditions exist, there you are most likely to find a thriving cultural life, (this is key) and vice versa! It has become accepted fact that in so many cases, art and culture has led the way to the revitalization of the community. Artists discover a community, and move into its marginal structures especially if they are large and cheap. After a while, collectors and “groupies” show up, followed soon after by restaurants, galleries, and other community service providers (like laundromats and hardware stores). Following these come more infrastructure and “business development” investment, including better schools. Soon you have a thriving, integrated community.

From Soho to North Adams; Santa Fe to Burlington, Savannah to Brandon, we in the cultural community have seen this pattern over and over again. To us, metaphorically speaking, it IS about the decoration.

But that is only part of why I disagree with Speaker Symington. The other part is a little more mundane. The arts and cultural community need new funds for investing, for marketing and promoting its products and services, for developing its future leaders and sustaining its core institutions. As a sector within the Creative Economy, Art and Culture is far more sophisticated than it has ever been. We are creative collaborators. We are problem-solvers. We are trained to look at the unknown and revel in its possiblities. For us, a blank canvas, a blank score sheet, an empty, dark stage is an opportunity to try something new—to explore new cultures, new ways of communicating. And where the engineer is creative in that if you have a problem he/she will find a way to solve it, an artist is creative in that he/she will look at the engineer’s solution and say, “Cool—what else will it do?”

That approach is what sustains our popular culture today. Robert Moog took the contraption that created electronic tones and made the first functional synthesizer. But it was Walter (now Wendy) Carlos who created Switched On Bach and spawned a mega-industry that remains the United States’ number one export—popular culture.

But we have one problem…our history of marginalizing our artists and our culture because their outputs are considered “a luxury” by policy makers. Why is this? Is it because we have allowed the debate about the value of the arts to be centered on “how expensive it is” instead of “how many benefits are reaped as a result of investing in it?”

Value-added and niche-product Agriculture has a champion in Vermont in the multi-million dollar Agency of Agriculture. The money is there to be invested in ways that support “creative economy approaches to agriculture.” All it takes is a little political will.

But not so for the arts and cultural sector. We are historically under-resourced, and forced to compete among ourselves for an ever-dwindling supply of corporate and individual contributors. I for one am tired of this approach. We have solutions that can help our prisons, our state hospital, our schools, our communities, and our souls. If nothing else, the Creative Economy HAS to be about Art and Culture.

It’s like the social worker in South Bronx said 10 years ago: “We have all the money we need to fix the drug and homeless problem. What we are lacking are the aesthetic things that make life worth living—that make a community care enough about itself to make a difference. How about a garden with beautiful flowers? How about some art?”

For him, it is all about the decoration. For us too.

Wednesday, July 11, 2007

Welcoming the Creative Economy

A little more than 9 years ago I had the pleasure of representing Vermont at a small conference at the Tanglewood Center for the Performing Arts in Lenox, Massachusetts. The keynote speaker was John Williams (perhaps the most respected and successful composer/arranger/conductors of all time, especially for films) and in the course of his talk he introduced the phrase “creative economy” to me and the 50 or so other attendees from all over New England. Mr. Williams was surprised that at a reception earlier he had overheard a member of the economic development “establishment” in the Massachusetts State House wonder why, despite all indicators elsewhere in the state that showed the Massachusetts economy tanking, Berkshire County seemed immune. “Wasn’t it obvious?” asked Williams. “It’s because the Arts Organizations in Berkshire County have formed the backbone of what I refer to as its Creative Economy.”

Fast forward nine years—past two regional studies conducted by The New England Council (a regional Chamber of Commerce), numerous regional gatherings from Maine to Connecticut, and, in Vermont, thousands of hours of community-based planning meetings held in more than a dozen towns and villages in Vermont alone, not to mention additional work done locally throughout Maine, New Hampshire, Connecticut, Rhode Island, and Massachusetts—and the phrase has finally become a movement.

We can thank Paul Costello and the Vermont Council on Rural Development for that. For all the time I and the Vermont Arts Council have invested in promoting the Creative Economy, we couldn’t have done half as good a job as putting it in front of policy makers in Vermont as Paul and the VCRD have done.

On July 18th they will showcase what the Creative Economy really is in a conference entitled “Advancing Vermont’s Creative Economy”. The daylong “summit” at the Vermont State House will celebrate models of community success and explore how Vermont can best understand and adopt policies and programs that not only improve the state’s economic situation, but do so in a way that enhances and protects the quality of life Vermonters have come to value almost above all else.

The Creative Economy is not a Thing—it’s more like a state of mind. It is the set of conditions that must exist in a place in order for there to be a thriving sense of community with all that word implies—a good school system, good jobs, accessible cultural and recreational amenities, people who care about their neighbors, and about the condition of the world at large, and so on. And it is the result of what happens in a community when all of those amenities (schools, cultural institutions, etc.) are allowed to flourish: entrepreneurs, young marrieds, wealthy retirees, social engineers, are ATTRACTED to such places. They create jobs and families, build social networks, care for each other and foster a sense of shared values that gets passed on to future generations.

Last week I got an email from the head of our National State Arts Agency Association. He wrote, “The not-for-profit arts world is engaged in entrepreneurial adapting and hybridizing … to address the always increasing relative expense of labor-intensive endeavors in a technological society, to diversify revenues, and to aggregate capital in ways that enable it to compete with for-profit leisure time providers.”

(I actually spent some time deciphering this DC-speak) He’s saying what we in Vermont already know—or will certainly find out on July 18th. We have to adapt to survive. We have to identify and welcome new partners. We have to identify and adopt new practices and procedures. We have to encourage our institutions to develop what social scientists refer to as “a culture of change.” We have to welcome new ideas and not be afraid of them.

We have to welcome the Creative Economy.

Friday, June 29, 2007

Hard Work

For the past couple of years I have had the pleasure of sharing a significant part of my summer with my children performing at a small theater company here in Central Vermont. I started out as a “child wrangler” while my three sons were in the chorus of “Annie.” Last year I graduated to a part (Lazar Wolf) in “Fiddler on the Roof” (the boys were cast as choristers/villagers), and this year my 12-year-old boys and 10-year-old daughter were cast as waifs and thieves and I as Mr. Brownlow in “Oliver.”

This could be an essay about the importance of spending time with your kids and creating lasting memories that no photo album or journal could adequately capture. It could also be an essay about the joy of community theater.

But it’s an essay on that which is often overlooked by people who haven’t worked behind the scenes to produce a theater, music, dance or other arts event. This is about the HARD WORK that goes into making these productions come to life and the valuable lessons learned in the process.

All our friends say, “You must be having such a great time doing such a great show with such great people” “Yeah”, I say, “but it’s also HARD WORK.”

Except for a half-hour break for meals, every moment we are at the theater is taken up working on dance routines, rehearsing our lines, going over our blocking, and figuring out our characters’ reasons for behaving the way they do. The fact is that as much fun as the end product is, as effortless as the choreography and singing appears to people in the audience, and as cool and self-assured as we players pretend to be—it really all comes down to those two words: HARD WORK.

All four of my children know all the songs and all the lines of everyone in the show and I think my kids get a great deal of pleasure in watching Dad stumble over the words to the fourth (or is it fifth?) verse of Food Glorious Food for the 20th time. But delightful and chipper as they feel at the beginning of rehearsal, they are stone tired and in a foul mood by the end of rehearsal. Why? HARD WORK.

At home the kids tend to be slobs…leaving their clothes (costumes) and their toys (props) in discrete piles all over the place.

Not at the theater.

At home Mom and Dad make sure they get their homework done, get to bed on time, eat food that is good for them (hahahaha!), and take them to their next play date.

Not at the theater.

At the theater, they have to learn their own lines, rest when they can, eat what is served to them (and say thank you as well), and get themselves to their next entrance, on time and on cue.

At the theater, they are on their own. They depend on each other to know who does what in the correct sequence. They have to take care of their own costumes, know where their own dance shoes are, clean up their own area after dinner, wash their hands, preset their own props and put them back at the end of the scene, say their lines in the proper order, and dance with other kids who aren’t even of the same sex (yuck)!!!

Then, when they’ve run every scene perfectly in sequence—twice—and they have demonstrated they know what to wear, what to say, what to sing, and how to dance, they have to do it all over again…“from the top.”

My daughter, for whom this is a first-time experience, looked up with a very tired expression on her face after the first week of rehearsals. “Dad,” she said, “for two years I’ve been so jealous of you and my brothers going off every day to rehearsals. How come you didn’t tell me this was such HARD WORK!?”

It’s all I can do to keep the smile off my face.

Wednesday, June 13, 2007

Believe it or not, You are a Business-Person

As Director of the Arts Council I have become used to conversations in which someone insists that arts managers and artists are “just as important” to the fabric of a community as business people. I always make the point of disagreeing with these well-meaning folk, but not for the reason you think. You see, I believe that artists and arts managers are important to the fabric of a community because they ARE business people! And many other things besides!

The following was received by us last week in reference to our Arts Calendar:

“Dear Arts Council: I am with [name withheld] from [location withheld] and I am trying to list one of our [events] which has somehow been omitted from your events calendar. When I try to list this I am told that I must be a Vermont business person!? We are a nonprofit summer [discipline withheld] festival, not a business. Will you please list our event for us? We would appreciate it ever so much...”

Let me attempt to use this as an educational moment, and ask a series of questions in return.

1) Does your festival employ anyone?
2) Does your festival sell tickets?
3) Do you, as its manager, engage the services of volunteers?
4) Do you engage the services of contractors (from musicians/artists to lawn-care professionals)?
5) Does it pay any sales taxes?
6) Do its employees pay income taxes?
7) Does it occupy space that needs climate control or lighting, and if so, do you or anyone else pay for it?
8) Do you or anyone else pay for telephone or computer connection services?
9) Do you or anyone else pay for program/brochure design/production/mailing services?
10) Do you report to the IRS using a Form 990 (or any of its variants including the about-to-be-required-of-all-nonprofits-whose-annual-operating-budget-is-under-$25,000 Form 990-N)?
11) Do you, as chief executive officer, report to a Board of Directors?
12) Does your organization have Bylaws?
13) Is your organization registered as a Vermont corporation with the Vermont Secretary of State’s Office?

If the answer to ANY of these questions is “yes,” guess what? You run a business. You are a business-person.

And this isn’t just true for you if you are an arts administrator.

If you are in individual (a so-called “sole proprietor”) who brings a bunch of friends together to create art and showcase it to an audience (who either buys tickets or buys the art), or an individual who creates art in the hopes that someone will buy it, guess what? You, too, run a business. You are a business-person.

A local Chamber of Commerce executive director even referred, just last month in fact, to individual artists as perhaps “the purest form of business person” because (and I paraphrase) “they do it all, from creating the product, taking it to market, selling it, paying taxes (reporting), and thinking long term about what they will do next.”

Isn’t this the essence of running a business? And, since you DO run a business, doesn’t it make sense to take advantage of the same services that are offered (often free of charge) by the State of Vermont and federal government to business people from the private, for-profit sector? Ever logged onto the SBA website? How about USDA’s website? How about the services provided by your local Chamber? Most have pretty good insurance programs for small businesses.

The bottom line is that the essential difference between a for-profit business and a not-for-profit sector business is that: (are you ready?)

The mission of a for-profit business is to maximize net revenues for the owner(s) of the business. The mission of a not-for-profit business is almost always a statement about the public benefits that will accrue as maximized net revenues are plowed back into programs and services designed to achieve the mission-related goals.

That’s it.

Both for-profit and not-for-profit companies maximize net revenue, but for some reason not-for-profits often to do so by, in part, under-compensating employees and skimping severely on marketing and promotion costs. One wonders why?

If you labor under the impression that not-for-profit businesses should not be paying competitive wages because providing service to the constituent is all-important, for goodness’ sake, treat your volunteers well! If you labor under the impression that anything more than 15% for administrative expenses is a waste of donor dollars and you consider marketing and promotion to be an administrative expense, welcome to the slippery slope to insolvency, in which employee burnout is exceeded only by board confusion about where it all went sour.

“But!” you say, “You’re wrong! Our overhead (including marketing and promotion) is 15%, we sell out every year, we have a healthy bottom line, we pay our people well, and we are a community institution with a great and long-standing reputation for artistic excellence.” Bravo! You may be one of those proverbial exceptions that prove the rule.

The fact is that 20% of form 990 filers in Vermont have operated with a deficit for the past three years, and 10% of form 990 filers actually have a negative fund balance. Equally scary, about 15% of form 990 filers have barely enough operating capital to survive a month should a major funding stream disappear.

Remember, the true opposite of “for-profit” is not “not-for-profit.” It’s bankruptcy.

That is the lesson for the day.

So if you believe you don’t run a business (and you are an arts manager or an artist); and/or
If you aren’t making sure that your organization is setting aside a healthy percentage for administrative costs and even MORE for PR and marketing; and/or
If you experiencing what I call “employee churn” (staff stays for a maximum of a year before moving on to higher-paid positions elsewhere); and/or
If operating deficits don’t seem to bother the you because you and your board are totally devoted to your mission to the point where everything and everyone must be sacrificed to it; and/or
If closing up shop (i.e. bankruptcy) simply isn’t an option; then perhaps it’s time to start thinking about another private-sector strategy: mergers and acquisitions.

Is your organization ready for this conversation? If not, be aware of one very interesting cognitive dissonance: more and more, when talking to people in Vermont who enjoy its arts and cultural offerings, I hear “Vermont is terrific! There is so much to do! So much great stuff going on; so many terrific artists doing such great work on any given weekend, we almost don’t know where to go first! Vermont’s in great shape!”

Is it? You tell us…

We have a survey out to artists, arts educators, and arts administrators. If you fall into one of those three categories and you haven’t filled a survey out yet, please do so. I think the results will surprise us all.

Thursday, May 31, 2007


Vermont Days Home Video ContestAhhh…the long days of spring and early summer. A perfect time to get out and enjoy the beautiful natural scenery Vermont offers. Visit your local park; take a hike, ride a bike on a trail, teach your kid to fish, and wind it all up with a concert at your local historical site. Sounds like an ideal way to bond with your soul, not to mention your family and friends, right?

Actually, Vermonters do it all the time and on one weekend each year, “Vermont Days” weekend (June 9th and 10th), you can do it all for free, thanks to a collaborative effort of your friendly state agencies of Commerce, Natural Resources, and the Arts Council.

This year, however, with a lot of encouragement from Loranne Turgeon (interim Film Commissioner) we have added a new layer of opportunity to the mix. You know your favorite commercials, like most of the ones you see during any given Super Bowl? The ones that tell a story? The ones that you remember?

We want you to grab your digital video camera, go out and have fun during Vermont Days (next week!), and create a one- to two-minute film about your experience. You can think of it as being your own personal commercial. Or you can think of it as your own (2-minute) “Godfather, part 4.” (Okay, maybe “Dances with Moose” might be more contextual.)

The point is, we want you to enjoy Vermont Days (why not, since you live here?), take some footage, and share it with us. It’s a contest, but a very low-impact, low-budget contest. The rules in fact say, “Winners will receive some really cool stuff.” We mean it!

Think “America’s Funniest Home Videos goes to Cannes” and you’ll have the idea. So please, check your batteries. Bone up on your downloading skills (or is it uploading skills?), and enjoy Vermont Days. You won’t regret it!

Wednesday, May 16, 2007

Steamed and Ready to Roll: 2007 Congressional Arts Competition

Monday, May 14th, was a day of transition in Vermont. For the first time, the statewide, high school art competition came to a close and Sen. Jim Jeffords was not front and center doing what he loved most—talking to kids, exhorting them to greater heights of accomplishment, and basking in the admiration of his young cultural constituents.

That pleasure belongs now to Congressman Peter Welch who did an admirable job in bridging what the esteemed Senator started 26 years ago when he was in the US House of Representatives. VIEW PHOTOS OF THE WINNERS' ARTWORK

My role was to present the “People’s Choice Award” (to Armando Veve of South Burlington) and I used this opportunity to expound on the latest of my “soapbox” ideas. At past events, I have talked about the alternative to the Education Community’s worn “3 Rs”—the “3 As” (Academics, Athletics, and the Arts)—as a means to engage individual students, entire schools and even school systems in a more integrated and creative approach to learning. I have also exhorted students in the room, contrary to exhortations by the Governor and other members of the administration, “to leave Vermont as soon as they are able, put the great Vermont values they were raised with to the test in as many different cultural settings as possible, and only when they are good and ready to settle down, create a job, have a family, THEN come back to Vermont!”

This time I had a new soap box to stand on.

It seems that policy-makers, in particular the group that has been appointed to serve on the Governor’s task force to examine the economic development future of Vermont, chaired by Bill Stenger (of Jay Peak), have come up with a new acronym to capture the what students need to know as they prepare themselves for Vermont’s 21st Century workforce.

It is “STEM” which stands for science, technology, engineering, and math.
(You see where I’m headed, don’t you? Of course you do; you’re probably one of the so-called “cultural creatives” whose hidden talent is to see connections where others don’t!)

Like the 3 Rs (which aren’t), STEM leaves out the crucial part of student learning that allows them to access the right side of their brains. In an age where magazines like Forbes and Business Week are touting such things as “the MFA is the new MBA,” and where medical schools like Columbia are requiring students to go to art museums to increase their observational skills and learn how to better communicate about things that are subjective and interpretive, and where people like Daniel Pink (author of “A Whole New Mind”) are earning $25,000 a pop for lecturing on the value of integrating right-brained thinking into business, it is astonishing to me that our policy-makers are so slow to recognize the value of the arts.

STEM should be STEAM. All of us should make it clear to our elected and appointed officials at the state and local level (especially school boards!) that STEAM (not renewables!) is the potent force of the future.

Of course, if STEAM doesn’t do it for you, perhaps TEAMS will. Or MEATS (if it’s lunchtime). Or even MATES (if you are on the prowl or like to play chess).

The point is, it’s time for the Arts to be shared by more than just the artist community. Let’s make it happen. Full steam ahead.

Wednesday, May 2, 2007


For the past several months I have labored mightily to give birth to the Arts Council’s next five-year Strategic Plan. This is not an exercise to be taken lightly. In fact, I have come to rue the moment I thought to myself, why pay a consultant when we can easily do this ourselves. Well, I have just four words to say to myself for that thought: What was I THINKING!?

The good news is, we are now ready to share our most recent draft with all of you.

I am going to tell you what is in the document. And then I’m going to tell you how we got there. And finally I will ask you to read it and give us—me, actually—your feedback.

What’s in the document is exactly what you would expect to be in a document of this type only without any of the boring details of exactly how many people we met with over the last 12 months, where we met with them, what we talked about, the questions we raised, the questions we tried to answer. Remember, this is a draft for comment, and some of the research is still being done (surveys to artists and arts organizations, for example) which will help refine future drafts and the final product.

But for now, there’s an Introduction which explains why we plan. Then there is a brief Executive Summary which, at least on the web, will have internal links that will get you directly to the meat of the plan. Next there is a background section which gives information about the national trends and research, and work done here in Vermont around the Creative Economy, the Palettes project, and other items that will give you a kind of “environmental context” for the plan itself, including our all-important mission/vision/values statements.

And then there is the Plan with its three very straightforward goals, two of which are directed outwards towards our constituencies, our supporters, or collaborators, and our Governor and Legislature; and the third of which is directed inward towards the Council itself.

How did we arrive at this plan? I know it seems hard to believe, but it was mainly by listening. The work of the Council is always so much greater than the sum of its parts. But it is the many parts working together that drafted this plan. Among the most influential parts of the planning process was the many days spent on the road visiting about 40 communities all over Vermont in our PaletteMobile as part of the Palettes of Vermont project. Diane Scolaro, herself a former local arts agency director, had the pleasure of doing most of that work, and the kind of information that those site visits provided to us has been so valuable. These visits, combined with ongoing input from grant panelists, from our board advisory committees, and, perhaps most important of all, our public Planning Forums held throughout the state in January, gave us almost more information and input than we could absorb.

I said “almost”…!

Since February, my challenge has been to distil everything we heard, both individually and collectively, into a clear and concise document that, as the Introduction says, “is a road map describing how we expect to engage with supporters and partners who believe in the power of art to change lives and improve the fiscal and social health of our communities. Our plan makes it clear to anyone who might consider collaborating with us, applying for support from us, or giving us funds exactly what we and they should expect in return from that collaboration, grant activity, or donation.”

So what I want you to do in the next couple of days—or even right now!—and click on this latest draft. It’s about 10 pages long, but the really important stuff is on the last two or three pages. Please, read it, and get back to me with your input.

This is important. It’s only been three months of my life so far. But we’re really talking about the next five years!


“What do we do for artists besides not give them money?”

This question-with-a-twist was voiced at a recent staff meeting as we were discussing the inputs we had received during our strategic planning forums in January.

Perhaps the most troubling aspect of administering the Vermont Arts Council is the perception that “we don’t do enough” for the arts field. There is some truth to this perception in that, as Warren Kimble once famously pointed out in a board meeting, “what kind of business model is it that you think is successful by encouraging people to apply for support and then turn around and enrage nine out of every ten applicants?!”

Point well-made, point well-taken.

It is not, by any normal standard, a recipe for success: alienate 90% of your customers, and then expect them to appreciate the “valuable support” you offer to them. Yes, this is a dilemma and we are squarely on its horns. It is the challenge of running a competitive grant application program.

It is the challenge of not having enough money to award the full amount of worthy applicants’ requests (assuming a peer panel can agree on what “worthy” actually means!). It is the challenge of working in a state where our elected leaders’ (in both major parties, mind you) level of commitment to the arts sector is between one-eighth and one-tenth of their level of commitment to the rest of state government. Yes, you read right. Since 1991, state government has grown 81.6%. The Council’s appropriation has grown just 11.6% (the one-eighth factor). Since 2003, the General Fund appropriation has grown 32.8% while the Council’s General Fund appropriation has grown only 3.4% (the one-tenth factor).

All of which are reasonable explanations for why we don’t have enough money to support every individual or organization that our panels feel deserve support.

But the question remains, what do we do when we aren’t giving you (or your organizations) money?

For one thing, we are vastly improving our online tools that we believe will help you market and promote your work—regardless of whether you’re an artist or an organization. The Arts Directory and its related Arts Calendar, with its new itinerary planning tool, is something that anyone and everyone with an event should be taking advantage of. It not only is the only statewide resource of its size and scope, it also is tapped by literally every member of the broadcast and print media for their own calendars.

We also offer workshops open to everyone (often at minimal or even no cost) to help them with such career building techniques in grant-writing, making your work accessible to audiences with a variety of disabilities, marketing and promotion, portfolio building, and so on.

The truth is there will probably never be enough money to satisfy the demand that artists and organizations place on us. So it’s not so much about giving away money (giving someone a fish) as it is about helping people to get their own money (teaching someone to fish) that we are turning to more and more often.

If you have suggestions for what additional “fishing” techniques we should be exploring, please contact me.

Wednesday, April 4, 2007


Why is our request of the legislature so disproportionately large?

I am asked this question daily on my trips to the State House.

As I reported in the last issue, almost everyone I talked to in the State House was surprised and impressed by the number of emails they received from our recent Arts Alert. Some were also annoyed, but frankly, everyone I know is annoyed by the noise a squeaky wheel makes . . .

. . . which is why we got a little grease last week!

The Appropriations Bill passed out of the House Appropriations Committee last week included an increase of $16,000 for the Arts Council, 11,000 more than the amount recommended by the Governor. Yes, it is a far cry from the $180,000 we had hoped for, but it is a start.

So now the discussion moves over to the Senate. The Senate also received emails by the hundreds and our testimony was as well-received there as it had been in the House. I am prepared for the debate about the merits of supporting this program, but one question that was asked during our testimony made me realize that people still don’t know why we seem to be asking for such a disproportionate amount of money at this time.

The question was whether we were asking for additional state support to offset lost funds from federal sources. The answer is no. Even with the 40% cut back in 1996, federal funds still are significantly higher than our state appropriation. No, the “disproportionality” of our request is the result of two things: we haven’t kept pace even with inflation, and we haven’t kept pace with the overall growth of state government.
Since 1991, our general fund appropriation has increased at an average pace that is far less than inflation. In 1991 support from the Council meant a lot more (in terms of cash) than it does today for those organizations who are still receiving support from us. But recent data has shown that the Arts field has grown significantly during the past 16 years—that there are many more organizations competing for these fewer dollars. Ironically, if our appropriation has simply kept pace with inflation, it would just about close that gap between the blue and red lines in the above chart. Go figure.

But it gets even more interesting. Over the same time frame, the General Fund of the State of Vermont (the source of our line item appropriation) has increased about 86%. A lot of this increase is due to the rapidly escalating costs of education and health care as well as the additional social service burdens placed on the States by the 2001 and 2003 federal tax cuts. Nevertheless, in 1991 the Vermont general fund appropriation was about $600 million. Now it is approaching $1.1 billion. Had the Arts Council’s appropriation kept pace with the General Fund, our current appropriation would be closing in on $900,000 ($480,000 times 1.86).

But hey, we’re not THAT greedy! Let’s take a look instead at the growth of the State’s General Fund during just the past five years:
In FY02 our budget was about $512,000. Had our appropriation kept pace the General Fund, our funding from the state today would be just under $681,000.

Why is this all important? Vermont is moving ever closer to understanding that creativity and entrepreneurship is at the base of our future. Whether you are an artist or a salesperson, a ski bum or a plumber, your future—and your children’s future—is going to depend more and more on how well you adapt to an ever-changing world, a world of ideas and services not manufactured goods. Our future is going to require a different world view in which Islam is no more our enemy than Buddhism, where we can celebrate Ramadan as easily as we celebrate Mardi Gras. How will we get there? How will we adapt?

It starts in the family, it continues in school and in summer camp, and crescendos in college. If we’re lucky it resonates throughout all our lives.

What is it?

It is exposure to art and culture. It is experimenting with creativity in art, music, design and dance. It is the fundamental relationship that art and culture have to community and humanity. Our cultural expressions are what we communicate about ourselves to future generations. It forms the core of learning and experience that fuels the Creative Economy, and towns all over Vermont are discovering it; discovering its power to engage new leadership, new ideas, and new community energy. We are in it up to our eyeballs. And right now it’s hungry and needs feeding. The tab for dinner next year? $180,000.

Wednesday, March 21, 2007


Ten days ago we sent out an email asking you to send emails to your legislators in support of a $180,000 increase to the Arts Council’s budget that would fund what is currently called our Local Arts Partnership Initiative.

What happened?

It worked. By the time you read this, more than 300 of you will have generated more than 1300 emails to your respective members of the Vermont House and Senate. In a state where five emails on any given topic is a cause for concern and re-evaluation of priorities on the part of legislators, this response can only be characterized by one word.


As I sat in House Appropriations mark-up last week, it was abundantly clear that I was persona non grata to many members of the committee who had received dozens of these emails. But that’s okay. I’d rather be non grata to them than to all of you. My job is to represent you to them. Their job is to listen to you and pay attention. Trust me. A few individuals may be annoyed, but there is no doubt that they are paying attention.

My job is to make sure that they know how you feel about funding priorities. Their job is to figure out how to juggle those priorities so that everyone is equally happy…or unhappy. For the last few years, our field has been made increasingly and disproportionately unhappy. Why? In part because we were nice and understanding to the Governor and Legislature when times were flush and they were replenishing the Rainy Day funds for…well…rainy days. We were nice and understanding when the dot-com boom went bust. We were nice and understanding when the President’s tax cuts began to require services that were once paid by the federal government to be increasingly paid for by the state. We were nice and understanding when the high cost of health care, education, and the war began to hit taxpayers harder and harder. During the past 10 years I have heard every year that “There’s no money. Where’s the money for this increase going to come from?”

This year is no different, except for one thing. We’re not so nice and understanding anymore. Why? Because so many of our core institutions are one or two payrolls away from closing. Because 20% of them have less than a month’s operating reserve (the standard is six months minimum). Because several of you have closed or merged or “gone dormant.” Because for the second time in the last four years, despite there being “no money” the state has managed to authorize an emergency spending bill on behalf of the ski industry for a $200 thousand plus media blitz in major east coast markets to “help offset a bad January.” And because all this time (since 1991) state government has grown 86% and the Arts Council’s budget has only grown 11%. That’s why we’re so disproportionately unhappy!

The arts are an industry, much like any other. There are nearly 550,000 arts business in the U.S., and those businesses employ 2.7 million Americans. The arts contribute $135 billion to the economy each year. To put those numbers into perspective, the arts create more jobs in our country than the steel industry. (By the way, more information like this is available on the Americans for the Arts website. Arm yourself with knowledge!)

Although we supposedly operate in a free-market system, dominated by a laissez-faire economic philosophy, business and corporate interests receive enormous amounts of government support, publicity, and subsidies. Yet when arts advocates lobby for increased government support for our economic sector, we’re told the arts are a luxury, and the field should fend for itself. Imagine the hue and cry that would go up if government told other industries like textiles, agriculture, and automobiles, that they were on their own, and that they’d better shape up if they wanted to keep their jobs.

I have been told to my face by people who should know better that “Jobs in the arts aren’t good jobs.” I simply smile at them with a pitying look on my face, and reply that they may not be “high-paying jobs but you really can’t touch them for satisfaction and enrichment and their many other quality of life features.” Then I ask them how much they enjoy being Secretary of the Agency of—well, you get the idea.

Here’s what I’d like from you next. Send me a paragraph explaining why, in three sentences or less you actually think your “no good arts job” is in fact a great job! If enough of you respond, I’ll share it with those insensitive clods who still believe that the arts don’t deserve their attention.
In the meantime, keep in touch with your legislators. If you haven’t emailed them yet, there is still time. One request: make sure to include something personal about why this budget increase matters to you. Also, changing the subject header will distinguish it from the other 1300 emails that are already out there. Have fun. You’re doing great. Thank you.

Friday, March 2, 2007


For the past several months I have labored mightily to give birth to the Arts Council’s next five-year Strategic Plan. This is not an exercise to be taken lightly. In fact, I have come to Ever since the United States started down the road of public support for the Arts in 1964 a primary driver for determining who or what gets support has been whether it demonstrates something called “artistic excellence.”

The nature of arts professionals predisposes them to assert that “artistic excellence” should always be the prime directive for public funding agencies. That way, simply by receiving funds an arts professional (an artist or an administrator) may claim that the work he/she does is of high quality and therefore worthy of (more) support—a self-fulfilling prophecy if there ever was one.

After more than 25 years in the arts (on both sides of the funding equation), I no longer buy the artistic excellence argument where public funding is concerned. Here’s why.

Public agencies (like the Vermont Arts Council) derive most, if not all, of their grant dollars from the American taxpayer. Every taxpayer, that is. Not just the one’s who prefer Pilobolus to Jay-Z, or Shakespeare to Spielberg. We therefore, as people who work for a state arts council, have an obligation to address the variety of tastes and preferences that are out there, and lead, wherever possible, everyone to as full an understanding of and appreciation for those disciplines we refer to as “the arts” as we possibly can.

The simple fact is that not everyone likes classical art forms. Not everyone likes Jazz. Or Abstract Expressionism. Or poetry. Or Shakespeare. Or Mamet.


Isn’t our job, then, to find out the breadth of what people do like, and introduce them to creative works from other cultures and, perhaps in this process, expand their world-view, and increase their opportunities to discover for themselves what art (in whatever genre or form it takes) brings into their lives?

In this eclectic, difficult-to-compare-apples-to-oranges situation, how does “artistic excellence” fit in? In my experience it really only works when artists and administrators are “doing the absolute best they can” under the circumstances they face. Context, therefore, is crucial.

Several years ago there was a great debate between Lloyd Richards of the Yale Rep. and Robert Brustein of the A.R.T. in Cambridge on just this topic. Brustein, if I recall correctly, said that art did possess an absolute standard where excellence was concerned and that the only the works of the highest caliber should ever receive support. Richards took the approach that not all producers have access to the best talent, the best facilities, and that context needed to be taken into consideration where funding decisions were made. It all boiled down to an argument in which Richards ended up advocating for a position that seemed to say that any art is probably better than none.

I agree with Richards on this one. The phrase “artistic excellence” used as criterion for funding suggests that people agree on what that term actually means. In my experience, they don’t. Most panel meetings I’ve been involved with are more like an elaborate and unspoken negotiation among smart, experienced people with definite points of view. Consensus gets reached around what should receive funding. But often, artistic excellence, by any one person’s standard, is too subjective to measure. Think about it. How often has a good friend come up to you with a new CD and said, this is great, ya gotta check this out…and you have and you say “how interesting” because you can’t find polite enough words to express how you really feel about the work. Different strokes for different folks, right?

What really determines funding decisions in my opinion is context. Context imbues a project in North Troy with the same relative urgency that a similar project in New York or Los Angeles possesses, despite the obvious differences in resources one might assume could be brought to bear in each of those different communities. The audience in North Troy may be smaller and have less opportunity to experience diverse cultural experiences, than one in L.A. The amount they can pay an artist might be less. And they most likely don’t have the kind of access to an enormously diverse and talented pool of artists in North Troy that they do in L.A.

But our question has to be, is the community is doing everything it can to get the best artists it can afford? If so, don’t we have an obligation to do whatever we can to support it? Yes.

So let’s ask the $64 dollar question: What deserves public funding?

This is easy…arts activities that benefit the public, ALL the public. Not just the stereotypical subset who think of art as that which is created to sustain the legacy of dead, European, white males. (Yes, I’m talking stereotypes here!)

And the $63 dollar question: Who makes the fund/not fund decision?

This is even easier…a “peer-review” panel is by far the best mechanism anyone has ever devised to review a varied set of applications. The panel reviews all the material, taking context into consideration, and its recommendation gets forwarded to an authorizing body (for us, our Board of Trustees elected by our membership) and in most cases they accept the panel’s recommendation. Applicants get a fair review from knowledgeable people. The public interest is served by the oversight provided by the Board.

An application for support for a symphony project in Island Pond thus gets the same contextual review as a symphony project in Burlington. It’s only fair. It’s only right.

And, if the truth be told, if it’s a symphony project that involves the Vermont Symphony it will have a whole mess of artistic excellence thrown in for good measure, too!

Thank you!

Friday, February 2, 2007


Please allow me to be the first to call for increased support for Vermont’s cultural institutions through H.3, a bill currently before the Vermont House Appropriations Committe. While needed capital improvements to cultural facilities has been generously supported in recent years through the Capital Bill, my concern is now on how to maintain the vibrancy of our core cultural institutions in towns and villages throughout the state.

H.3 would provide additional funds to our local constituents that provide programs and services in the public interest. Their work is crucial to maintaining our communities as wonderful places to raise families, start businesses, visit (often), and educate our children not just because they exist, but because they are involved in educating our children and providing key social and health care services to our citizens. Cultural institutions are an essential element of the glue that binds the Creative Economy into a powerful force for improving our local quality of life.

Imagine the Chandler Center in Randolph without its community theater programs and concerts by Midori. Imagine Stowe without Helen Day Arts Center, Shelburne Farms without the Mozart Festival, or Rutland without the Chaffee Center or the Paramount Theater. Imagine Burlington without the Flynn, the Fleming, or the South End Art Hop. Imagine Dorset, Bennington, or Weston without the Dorset Playhouse, Oldcastle Theater, or the Weston Playhouse. Imagine Brattleboro without the Museum or the Music Center; Marlboro without the Music Festival, Putney without the Yellow Barn or Sandglass Theater, or Glover without Bread and Puppet. What if Craftsbury offered no chamber music, or White River Junction no Briggs Opera House or Cartoon School? St. Johnsbury without the Athenaeum; Vergennes without the Opera House? Inconceivable! This list goes on and on. For now, Vermont is blessed with these wonderful assets. But what if these entities started to disappear from Vermont’s cultural landscape? Vermont would be like a ski resort with no snow; nice to look at, but not much to do.

It is ironic that at the same time the Creative Economy movement is infusing new life and new leadership into the community economic development activities of our towns and villages through, in large measure, the engagement of the arts community in core civic activities like planning, education, social services, and health care, that these very entities on which the Creative Economy depends for sustenance, inspiration, and leadership are, themselves, struggling to survive.

In Vermont the Arts have never been the sole property of wealthy patrons who can afford any luxury they want. Don’t let it start happening now. Please support the passage of H.3 for the benefit of all Vermonters.

Thank you.

Friday, January 19, 2007


From previous columns you’ve come to understand that in my world view, advocacy is not about money. It’s about the idea. It’s about relationship-building. All very well and good, you say. But as an arts organization, I have to pay my electric bill this week and payroll next. What are my options?

I’m afraid to have to tell you that if you are looking to state government or any other public source for funding to alleviate your immediate cash flow problems, it may already be too late. In very rare circumstances, the timing may work out and a corporation or foundation may have some “year-end” funds lying around waiting to be spent. But it’s rare and, in truth, these entities are looking to “maximize a positive outcome” not respond to or, worse, “fix” a drastic situation.

What are your options? You have three.

* Option One: Bring your Board in on the problem and help them to understand why it is theirs to “own.” All organizations have cash-flow problems from time to time, and as an administrator, you should not be forced (by your own conscience or by your board) to assume sole responsibility for the circumstance that you find yourself in. Sharing the burden may cause a moment or two of embarrassment, but doing so will be much easier than explaining why, three weeks from now, you suddenly had to close your doors and now have to explain why no one but you saw it coming. That is a mistake you want to avoid. Sharing also helps you sleep at night.

Spend a day or two developing a realistic understanding of what your three- to six-month cash-flow needs are, bundle them together and tell your board that this is what you need for them to contribute and/or raise in the next eight weeks to get you past the crisis. You might be pleasantly surprised at who steps forward to take a leadership role in this effort.
* Option Two: In addition to bringing your Board in on the problem, bring your audience and donors in on the problem. Remember, your patrons are your friends! They have given you money because, in return, you have either offered them entertainment or shown your organization to be an important part of the fabric of their community.

Make a game out of sponsorship opportunities. “For a mere five hundred dollars (above your annual gift, of course) you can become next month’s official ‘Please Turn Off Your Cell-Phone And Pager Phone Bill Sponsor’ or ‘Not-A-Cold-Seat-In-The-House Natural Gas,’ sponsor. Get three of each, and make sure that all your publicity recognizes their contributions (or not, if they don’t want the recognition!). You get the idea. As with Option One, you might be pleasantly surprised at who steps forward to take a leadership role in this effort from this larger pool of audience and patrons.
* Option Three: Tap the line of credit you were smart enough to get six months ago from your local bank sponsor when you were flush with funds. Okay, yes, I’m being a bit tongue-in-cheek with this. It’s almost never a good idea to tap a line of credit to cover basic operating expenses. A line of credit is best used when you simply have a timing issue where cash flow is concerned. For example, say you have $5,000 coming in from the Arts Council in six weeks, $1,000 of which is to cover a portion of the overhead relating to the program you’re putting on whose expense is being incurred now. Tap the Line of Credit for $1000 now, and pay it back when the grant comes in.

There are probably a dozen other things that you and your peers have thought of to move past these types of crises. The bottom line is that the healthiest organizations are the ones that spend a great deal of time looking at the big picture, looking at the long term, looking at trends, building long-term and varied relations with suppliers, vendors, local elected officials, statewide and national elected officials, patrons, and foundations.

Advocacy, ultimately, is about relationship building and education; reaching out not just to people with money, but to everyone who you think should be interested in your programs and services, and inviting them inside. You want to show them, let them experience for themselves, what the arts bring to their lives, the impacts art has on their communities.

Sometimes, this means that introducing them to cultural programs they are already familiar with (think Kronos Quartet playing works by Jimi Hendrix) and THEN introducing them to works (Mozart? Stockhausen?) you want them to hear.

If you are putting on high quality performances of Wagner in a “Bluegrass Only” community, you might want to rethink your business plan.

If you claim you are reaching 1800 people a year with your six-concert chamber series, and it turns out you’re performing in a 300-seat hall to the same 40 people six times, you’re not going to fool us (or anyone else) for long because we will hear what is really going on from others in your community. People talk. People want to do what’s right.

Use that to your advantage. Listen to them. Design your programs to address their needs first. Eventually they will become supporters and advocates for the work that you do. When that happens, you will have far fewer cash flow crises.

Thank you!