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!