Tuesday, December 30, 2008

The Good, The Bad, and The Ugly

My family used to play Charades for hours at a time. My all time favorite clue as a child was "The Good, the Bad and the Ugly," the title to one of Clint Eastwood's early spaghetti westerns. Tugging on one's ear to indicate "sounds like" was considered, if not actually cheating, certainly not in the spirit of the game. It was clearly more fun--and expected by all--to act it all out, even if it was more more bad and ugly than good.

Of late I have caught myself reverting again and again to odd bodily ticks and facial expressions, including a head shake, an eye squint, and a pretend Colt .44 being quick-drawn and fired. I most often do this as I read the paper or watch the news and learn about new budget rescissions, massive layoffs, Wall Street Ponzi schemes, and Detroit bail-outs. It suddenly dawned on me. The bad and the ugly are getting to me.

I need more good.

I need the security of my childhood when we were still a great nation respected by all other nations. I need to be sure that the world my children inherit will be worth the effort it will take to save it. I need to be sure that the arts sector would survive the recession. I need to be sure the air we breathe and the water we drink will be untainted and potable forever and ever, amen. I need to be reassured that with all the bad that's happening, from shoes flying in Iraq to airports closing in Thailand, my kids' basketball games will take place in orderly six-minute quarters, that my other kids' recitals will be free from earthquake, war, or pestilence, and that college and health-care costs will somehow take care of themselves before my kids turn 18.

One thing that has struck me during the past couple of weeks is how almost everyone I speak to about the future is holding his/her breath until after January 20th. Even the Vermont Legislature is considering "staggering" its start so that it doesn't end up doing a lot of work during its first two weeks only to have to change everything around (presumably for the better) once Obama takes office.

Since when have Vermonters ever given over responsibility for solving their problems to a flatlander? That's sort of like our ski areas waiting for a new weatherman to take over at WCAX and find out from him what solutions might be available to counteract poor skiing conditions.

I suggest we stop focusing on all that is wrong with our lives and pay attention to what is right. A lot of things are working well. Some things are only okay, and with a small amount of attention could be made much better. This is true on the micro level of our own personal lives (think of all the things in your home that work well, and of all the things with just a little attention from you could work so much better), as well as on the macro level of our state.

They may not be perfect, but our public schools are pretty good. So is our health care system. Even though our roads and bridges (what most people immediately think of when they hear the phrase "infrastructure") are in great need of repair, how many of us have been seriously inconvenienced by bridge closings? A few thousand? Less than one percent of our population? And all because they have to drive an extra eight or ten miles?

Come on people. Get some perspective. Read about the attacks on Hamas in Lebanon, or truck bombs exploding on schoolchildren in Afghanistan and ask yourself: are things really so bad here?

The truth is, for some Vermonters, yes it really is that bad. Whether it's due to the economy, a lack of education, the insidious nature of alcohol or drug addiction, or any number of conditions that derail some people's lives, a growing number of Vermonters are falling through the fissures. The chances are, though, that if you are reading this post, you are NOT one of them!

It seems to me pretty simple. Everyone deserves a warm, dry place to sleep at night. Everyone deserves at least one hot, filling meal a day. Everyone deserves access to an education and to a job that is within his/her capabilities. Everyone deserves access to basic medical care by competent medical professionals.

Let's focus on these issues most of all. And with all that is left over after these problems are addressed, let's focus on rebuilding those things which will best help Vermonters help themselves.

Government cannot, except in a limited way, "create jobs." All it can do is provide incentives that encourage the private and non-profit sectors to create jobs. So lets focus on creating more incentives--or at least improving on the incentives that are already in place.

Here are a few thoughts, all of which are important to people deciding to locate to and create jobs in Vermont:

Improve our schools
-Create a whole new Art and Culture-based curriculum that breeds international understanding and curiosity even as it teaches the basics in history, science and math
-Hire teachers that teach math, science, and history in Spanish, French, Arabic, Japanese or Chinese during the elementary school years when kids' language receptors are at their strongest. Math is math; science is science and I can't be the only one who believes that learning those two disciplines in another language is just as effective as learning them in English.

Infuse our public infrastructure with Vermont-based design standards that are accessible
-See my last post for how this would work for bridges
-Apply the same logic to light rail/bus stations; over/underpasses, trail-heads, lean-tos, composting toilets, salt-sheds, garages, and land-fills. No structure, not even prisons, that lie in plain sight, should be excluded from these design standards
-Ensure that all buildings that welcome the public are equipped with state-of-the-art access tools and programs that set a new standard for welcoming people with disabilities to our great state. Remember, Las Vegas is the most accessible city in the country. Ever wonder why?

Expand the support for Vermont's core cultural institutions
-Whether large or small, cultural institutions collectively employ nearly 15,000 Vermonters, and generate at least three times the amount of economic activity in their communities than is invested in them. With a budget of $5 million, the Flynn Center for the Performing Arts generates a $20 million impact. In Brattleboro, the collective impact of the cultural institutions' activities is more than $12 million--on a combined budget of less than $4 million
-Tourists flock to Vermont to attend Mozart and Marlboro Festivals, Studio Tour Weekends, Warebrook Contemporary Music Festivals; Bread and Puppet Circuses; They stay longer to visit our historic sites, our General Stores, our Farmers Markets. They spend significantly more, per capita, than people who go just about anywhere else in the country
-In most cases, our significant cultural institutions provide significant educational and community "service learning" resources to a broad geographic swath. In the Flynn's case, the outreach is signifcant in at least six of Vermont's 14 counties (Chittenden, Grand Isle, Franklin, Lamoille, Washington, and Addison)
-They are a significant factor in attracting new businesses to the state--especially "clean, green businesses"

I could go on and on. But I'd like to hear from you. What are your ideas?

Until next time, I'll be holding my breath and practicing my squint and quick-draw...

Tuesday, December 16, 2008

See Change

In order to figure out how to respond to significant reductions in our state appropriations during the next three to four years, we need your help. Even as our country is going through a real estate market cataclysm, an investment banking disappearing act, a Wall Street melt-down, and an auto industry catastrophe; all this on top of our mounting debt to China, India, Japan to pay for our two overseas wars, the stunning increases in our unemployment statistics, the degradation in our physical infrastructure especially in the areas of public transportation and communication technologies, and the startlingly huge lack of investment in education for our younger generations, it is important, still, to do everything one can to improve the condition of those things over which one has some control or influence.

Just (re)reading the previous paragraph is enough to send many into a deep depression. The so-called "big picture" is pretty bleak these days--the election of Barack Obama notwithstanding. Therefore, I'd like to suggest that we stop obsessing over the big picture and look at the scenery from a more local perspective; from a level where you can actually "see change" rather than experience a "sea change."

Most of us are already starting to do the obvious stuff, like buy a smaller more efficient car, shop locally, convert to solar/wind power, and snuggle under a blanket rather than crank the thermostat.

But for the arts and cultural sectors there are other things to start thinking about. For example, everyone knows the state has a huge road and bridge infrastructure problem that will cost many millions of dollars to fix. Is there a role for the arts sector in this work? I think so.

Here's the vision:

All bridges directly under the control of the state of Vermont should be covered bridges, made from Vermont forest products, milled in Vermont mills, designed by Vermont engineers collaborating with Vermont artists to reflect the history and culture of the community in which the bridge is located, and built by Vermont craftsmen.

For spans that are heavily trafficked or require extra support (due to heavy loads or spanning long distances) add a steel I-beam or two purchased from our friends in Pennsylvania. In other words, let's solve these problems our selves and make the whole thing be Vermont designed, engineered, and built.

Here are the benefits of doing this. First, it would employ artists and craftsmen in ways that would both reflect and add to local community values. Second, they would require little in the way of maintenance (you don't have to plow or salt a covered bridge, right?). Third, when and if they need maintenance or replacement, they usually can be repaired or replaced in a matter of days, not months. Fourth, and perhaps most significant, they would add to the picturesque brand identity of Vermont and draw even more visitors to Vermont to experience the unique and innovative way we Vermonters address our infrastructure problems. Tourism, are you getting this?

And this is just one idea...

The same approach could work for wind towers, cell towers, public transit centers (formerly known as multi-modal transfer stations), and the like.

There are great models for this kind of work. Models that have been developed right here in Vermont. It's time we started to dust them off and make them happen.

Call it the VCCC (Vermont Civilian Conservation Corps) or the VWPA (Vermont Works Project Administration); call it the Creative Economy; or just call it what it is--good common sense.

We can't wait for Washington. We have the means and the methods. Let's just make it happen.

Monday, December 1, 2008

Giving Thanks

I took the family to the coast of Maine for a quiet Thanksgiving. Right before I left, I dropped my first ever online survey (courtesy of zoomerang) on 139 of Vermont's finest arts and cultural organizations in an effort to ascertain how the current economic situation is affecting the folks most directly responsible for maintaining Vermont's cultural infrastructure.

Although the New York Times officially informed me in a breaking news alert just this morning that in fact, we are in a recession and have been in one since last December (!), I am pleased and quite a bit relieved that, so far anyway, the impact of the economic downturn has not yet been felt too badly in Vermont.

The stats so far indicate that between 25% and 35% of respondents are so far only slightly worse off this year than last; about a third are about the same; a sixth are actually doing a bit better, and about a sixth can't really tell yet because it's too early to draw meaningful comparisons.

Without having done this particular survey before, it is impossible to know if these basic stats are different from any other year. My gut tells me they aren't.

Some organizations are always going through a fiscal hardship of one kind or another, and others (usually fewer) are doing okay. This is not news. What is news is what is brewing in Washington DC under the new administration.

The former chair of the National Endowment for the Arts, Bill Ivey (he brought us the wonderful Challenge America Program in the late 1990s), is among those advising the President-elect on all sorts of matters, not the least of which is returning the NEA to its inflation-adjusted, 1992-equivalent appropriation level of $319 million, which would slightly more than double the support coming to all 50 states from Washington. He is also advocating for a cabinet-level position whose primary function would be to elevate the arts, humanities, and the other small-but-crucial agencies in the minds of those crafting broad public policy mandates around housing, employment, economic development, diplomacy, commerce, transportation, and so on.

There is clearly a new wind blowing in Washington DC, bringing fresh ideas, new collaborations, and new perspectives to the fore.

Thus, despite our second rescission which further lowers our state appropriation by about 12% compared to last year, there is reason for giving thanks.

Artists and arts organizations tend to be survivors. Artists are often the first people to move in and start the process of turning marginal neighborhoods into thriving communities. Arts organizations can often retain their core mission values and continue to operate during economic downturns. We're good at doing more with less.

In six weeks a new President takes over. That's a blink of an eye for us, thank you!

Thursday, November 20, 2008

Art of Giving; Art of Buying

I purchased my first work of art from my aunt a couple of years after I graduated from college. At the time I was earning about $7500 a year slinging hash at Tommy's Lunch and managing a couple of small chamber ensembles in Boston. I split a two-bedroom walk-up in east Cambridge where the significant land-mark denoting my street was a sign that read "Live Poultry Fresh Killed." My share of the rent: $57.50/month and although I was self-supporting, sort of, I was desperate for something to improve my outlook on life.

I visited my grandmother in the summer and my aunt, recently returned from an opening somewhere, had stacked 20 or so paintings in the front hall. Out of politeness I flipped through the stacks, and was arrested by one canvas in particular. A rough-hewn view of the bay with the Camden Hills in the background, a small lobsterboat in the distance. It was titled "Toward Home" and I simply knew that painting had to be mine.

The catch was that even with the "insider family price" I really couldn't afford its $1000 price-tag.

I asked if I could pay in installments, and my aunt looked at me with a bemused expression. "Sure, how about $50 a month?"

So for the next 20 months I got to know my aunt a little better than ever before. She was in her 30s and married. I wasn't. She lived in Maine. I didn't. She had been quite close to my oldest sister growing up. But not to me.

Nevertheless, each month along with a check for $50 I sent her a short note describing what I was up to and how the painting still resonated. A week or two later I'd receive an equally short note thanking me for making the payment and catching me up with her life. We slowly got to know each other and after 20 months, with great regret, I mailed my last payment.

When she received it she contacted me and asked, so is this it? Does our letter writing come to an end? As it turned out, yes, kind of. I have never been a big letter writer and it was very hard for me. But we did succeed in establishing a bond that was both personal and professional. I have gone on to become an Arts Council Director and she become a very well known painter in Maine (and beyond).

Toward Home hangs in a place of honor in my home (along with additional works of hers I have bought or been gifted over the years) and every time I see it, I am reminded not just of the condition of my life at the time I purchased it, but of the unique connection that it brought to me and my aunt.

Buying art can represent an important personal journey for some. For others, it's nothing more than an investment. And for anyone curious about "doing our pART," it can also be an act of charity.

There are a lot of wonderful works--of art, music and much much more--available on our first-ever online auction. Best of all, the proceeds from the auction will benefit the Vermont Foodbank.

That's one thing I learned while slinging hash at Tommy's Lunch. Art might feed the soul, but the stomach HAS to come first.

We look forward to your generosity and please have a Happy Thanksgiving.

Tuesday, November 11, 2008

Election Reflection

It was an annual rite of passage in my family. Whoever was celebrating a birthday had to endure a bit of friendly teasing about the anticipated flavor and texture of "this year's bowl of yummy delicious prunes." My mother, after making sure everyone had been properly fed at the birthday party, would say blithely, "well, I think it's time to get the prunes," and off she'd go to the kitchen for a few minutes. She would return not with a bowl of prunes, of course, but with a chocolate cake with lit candles, and on cue, everyone would sing Happy Birthday and the festivities would recommence.

On my seventh birthday everything changed.

In front of Jimmy Kelly, Russell Cartwright, Eddie Gaylord, Joe "Buster" McPherson, and Wayne Drown, the five best friends a seven year old ever had, my mother actually returned from the kitchen with a big bowl of steaming prunes.

I burst into tears.

My mother had a "Plan B" which she immediately called into play. The cake that was waiting in the kitchen was brought in and served up. The tears dried. The gifts were opened and at the end of the day I was left wondering about two things...

Would I ever live down the fact that I had burst into tears in front of my best friends on my birthday (answer: yes of course--they were my best friends!); and Where was my father?

For some reason he wasn't there that day, and while he might not have had the foresight to stop the prune fiasco before it happened, he might have had some useful words of wisdom with which to comfort me.

I turned seven in 1965 and like many white Americans, I was largely untouched by the civil rights struggles of the 50s and 60s--although I remember reacting with equal horror to the assassinations of John F. Kennedy and Martin Luther King, Jr. I had black friends in my hometown growing up; I had black friends at schools, and a black roommate for three years at college. I was certainly aware that the civil rights struggle was ongoing--the last documented lynching took place in 1981 in Alabama, the year after I graduated from college, but the slow and steady infusion of African American culture into my own "cultural mainstream"was exactly that--slow and steady and continuous, even to this day.

Two things happened in 1992 that gave me a fresh perspective on what was then the current state of African American relations in this country, and on my own historical connection to the civil rights movement.

The first was I was in Atlanta for my final interview with the Centennial Olympic Games Cultural Olympiad when an all-white, Los Angeles jury found the police officers who beat Rodney King nearly to death were acquitted. I left for the airport less than 20 minutes before all hell broke loose in the downtown neighborhood where the Olympics were headquartered. I had never before been that close to a situation that got that out of control. We had all come so far, and still had so far to go.

The second was a few months later when, as a senior staff person for the Cultural Olympiad, I had the occasion to attend a ceremony at the Martin Luther King Memorial just up the street from the Ebenezer Baptist Church. I walked through the doors of the Memorial gallery and started up and down the displays of photos and memorabilia that documented Martin Luther King's extraordinary life.

One particular poster-sized photo stopped me dead in my tracks. It was taken during the final day of the "voting rights march" from Selma to Montgomery by the Pulitzer Prize-winning photographer, on assignment for Ebony Magazine, Moneta Sleet, Jr. and shows Martin Luther King and Coretta Scott King singing in the rain as they cross the city line into Montgomery. Marching to their right is an "unidentified man" (according to the caption at the King Memorial Center) who I knew had been one of only 13 white people allowed to march the entire 54-mile distance from Selma starting four days earlier.

That man was--is--my father. The date was March 25, 1965 and within a few hours of that photo being taken, I would be reduced to tears in front of my best friends by a steaming bowl of stewed prunes.

I grew up knowing my father had participated in that historic march. I have a copy of that photo with a short letter from my father, documenting the importance of that photo to him. I knew he had stood on the steps of the Lincoln Memorial as King gave his "I have a dream" speech in the fall of 1963. I further knew that three short years after he marched, he entered the Ebenezer Baptist Church, went down to the basement, passed under the nave, and climbed a small staircase to the altar and thus became probably the only white man to view King's funeral from the altar standing among what he claimed were a heavenly host of black angels (they were, it turned out, the Supremes).

It is almost impossible for anyone who has lived for half a century or more to not have felt the emotion of the moment when, at 11:01 pm on Tuesday, November 4, 2008, the United States of America elected its first African-American President.

I have long ago forgiven my father and my mother for not being there for me (one literally, the other figuratively) on my seventh birthday. I was nothing more than a victim of the pressing pace of history (in my father's case) and staggeringly poor judgment (in my mother's case). And however small my drama is by comparison, it is my link to the much greater moment that has just occurred.

This drama, the one with two centuries' legacy that frame it, has been and will continue to be documented for generations to come. For each of us who voted, for each of us who has experienced even the smallest part of the struggle that African Americans have had to endure in this country, and for each of us who has felt at times moved, and at times provoked by the lyrical strains of Martin Luther King's voice, or the images of fire hoses and tear gas and bared fangs attacking black flesh, Tuesday November 4th will come as close to a singular moment of glory as is possible to imagine.

My father has lived to see this moment. Despite being a Republican, he voted for Barack Obama. And although he is now 80 years old and he has been told it should be a regular part of his diet, stewed prunes are his least favorite food.

In that, too, we have something in common.

Wednesday, October 22, 2008

Chicken Little: a Reinterpretation

Chicken Little got a bad rap. A couple of acorns hit her on the head and she made the assumption that the sky was falling. It’s a cute story for kids about the importance of proper scientific observation, right?

The sky has served as a source of great story ideas since the ancient Greeks. Remember Hercules' seven labors--the one where he holds up the sky for Atlas while Atlas goes to pick some apples from the gardens of Hesperus? Hercules simply had to hold up the sky for a few days. Chicken Little's fate was much worse and, therefore, her story a much more appropriate morality tale for today.

A fable is a metaphor for life writ large, so the lesson we draw from the tale of Chicken Little is not just about the importance of proper scientific observation, but of making good assumptions. Just because Ms. Little got hit by acorns and not, as she assumed, by pieces of the sky, does not mean that the sky wasn't falling or couldn't fall. After all, we used to assume (those of us that grew up in certain cities in New York and the Midwest) that a river couldn't catch fire. Our grandparents after World War One assumed that there would never again be another "war to end all wars." Democrats in November of 2004 assumed there was no way Dubya could "win" Florida again.

"The fundamentals of our economy are strong." Thank you Mr. McCain. You may be right, but to me, the "fundamentals" are like Chicken Little's acorns. They are the tangible evidence that we use to determine, scientifically, whether our economic "sky" is falling or not. Looking at the evidence it’s pretty clear the stock market IS falling, employment IS falling, gross domestic product (GDP) IS falling, and the country IS in a recession.

[Paradoxically, Exxon/Mobil earned more than it ever has in its most recent quarter--something along the lines of 58% or nearly $15 Billion. I say thank GOD for oil companies. Someone has to be obscenely rich or at least be the exception that proves the rule!]

Here's what happened in a nut--or acorn--shell. A bunch of foxes sold a bunch of homes to a bunch of people who couldn't afford them. Then the foxes bundled these high-risk mortgages and sold them as investment opportunities to quasi-government suckers named Freddie and Fannie--and a few others. To sweeten the pot, these foxes also created a new kind of insurance called debt-swap debentures (?) that made these high-risk, mortgage-based investments even more palatable. This attracted 401(K) mangers, hedge-fund operators and lots of other investor-types who decided to get into the act just in time for the house of cards built on these risky investments to collapse. And when it collapsed, it took down an entire industry (investment banking) with it.

At times like this we are all Joe the Plumber—you know, the guy who is neither. But it gets worse.

Pouring salt in wounds of this economic misery, we the tax-payers, in order to stabilize our more perfect union, have been forced to cover all this bad debt to the tune of $2,350 per person for every man woman and child alive in this country today, which means that all those things that the public dollar used to support like health care, education, and the arts and humanities are going to have to suck wind for a lotta years.

And all of this means what, besides being stuck with the tab…?

If you run a not-for-profit, it means your corporate contributions, including sponsorships and in-kind services, will start to dry up. It means your annual campaign (the one you do at the end of the year for that important "second" contribution) will be significantly lower. It means your fundraising dinner-dance and silent auction extravaganza will not sell enough seats, and your overall fundraising goals for the years will not be met.

There is a lot of information available on the web about what you, as an NFP manager, should be doing to prepare yourself for the coming recession. Sadly, or perhaps more pointedly, much of it focuses on what you should have been doing before now (but most likely weren't) to prepare for these times. But I say...who could have prepared for these times...? These times weren't supposed to happen. Our administration should have been looking out for the public interest right? Didn't they swear an oath to do that, or something?

Let’s get back to our friend, young Ms Little. Her story (the version I grew up with at any rate) ends with she and all her friends (Henny Penny, Drakey Lakey, Goosey Loosey, Turkey Lurkey, Ducky Lucky, and Cocky Locky) being turned into a barnyard feast by—you guessed it—Foxy Loxy.

I'm hoping like hell that isn't the fate of those of us in the arts and cultural sector. It's not that we don't like being special; nor that we don't consider the work we do to be special.

We just don't like being tonight's special.

Monday, October 20, 2008

Stompin' with Artists

You probably know most of these homilies:

"You can't raise money without first raising awareness."
"If you want money, ask for advice; if you want advice, ask for money."
"You can do anything you want in your life as long as your willing not to receive credit for having done it."
"Give, Get, or Get Off."
"If you want to build a ship, don't drum up people together to collect wood and don't assign them tasks and work, but rather teach them to long for the endless immensity of the sea."

To these quotes (and yes, the last was from Antoine Saint-Exupery) I'd like add the following "Aldrich Original":

If you want to do anything meaningful in life, involve an artist.

What, besides the fact that I direct the Vermont Arts Council and have a vested interest in this happening all over the state all the time, would compel me to say this right now?

Two things. The first is the fact that, despite a dismal economy, and significantly greater challenges facing us as we seek sponsors and ticket-buyers for our second annual "Stompin' with the Stars" benefit extravaganza and dance competition, the participants, half of whom are "Vermont Celebrities" and the other half of whom are professional ballroom dance instructors, are pulling out all the stops to make this an incredibly lively, entertaining and quintessential "Vermont" event.

Some have issued challenges to their competition and email-blasted their friends to get them to start voting now and not wait for the competiton. As of this morning nearly 70 votes have been cast. Others, not content to dance to pre-recorded music are hiring (at their own cost) live musicians to add a certain "je ne sais quoi" to the proceedings. And virtually all the contestants are purchasing additional dance lessons from their instructors to make sure that they have every possible advantage as they each--as contestant Gerianne Smart of Vergennes so delicately phrased it--"dance for money!"

The celebrities, many of whom are artists in a field other than dance, as well as their instructors are, more than any other group involved, making this event a happening. Their efforts MUST NOT go unrewarded. I have already filled a table and I hope, if you are reading this, that you will consider filling a table as well. Your friends, family, clients, etc. will thank you for months!!

The second reason I say you should involve an artist to make an event (even more) meaningful is because it's true. Whether you are a city planner trying to improve traffic flow and "livability," or an eighth grade teacher trying to make Renaissance come alive to a bunch of students, or a civic volunteer trying to find a way to attract more tourists to your community (I could go on and on but I'll stop there), involving an artist in your plans will vastly improve your chances at succeeding.

Look at it this way. We make "artistic" decisions every day, from what to wear, to what color and make of car to buy, to how we want our hair cut or our garden to look, or the color of our house to blend in with the neighborhood, or not. Some people are perfectly capable of designing their own home, their holiday greeting cards, their wedding, their funeral, their landscape and so on. But most of us need help.

Whether you work with a designer, an architect, an artist, a dancer or, for you really brave types, a circus performer,* I guarantee you will have a more meaningful outcome. Your plans will be more vibrant, your choices more daring and true to your personality, your intentions more clearly stated and contextual.

Face it. Artists (performing, visual, theatrical, film/media, and applied) are creative, fun people--even, or perhaps especially, the self-styled curmudgeons. They poke, prod, challenge, and often make us laugh in the process. They communicate with tools that are far more adept at focusing on emotional connection than mere words.

Whatever you are doing, involving an artist will add zing to it; will make it a savory memory, or a fantastic success beyond your wildest imagination. It might even make you get up out of your chair and come Stompin' with us at the Burlington Hilton on November 1st.

We all...our communities, our state, and our country...could use a little of that kind of magic about now.

* a wink to our recent Governor's Award Recipient Rob Mermin, founder of Circus Smirkus.

Wednesday, October 8, 2008

Who supports whom?

In my last post, I referred to a recent column by Geoffrey Norman who, upon reviewing cuts to the Vermont budget, indicated he had little sympathy for proposed cuts to arts organizations. His argument closed with the following: "If we don't do something soon about promoting some job growth and economic activity, we may have to take up a collection and hire some musicians to play a funeral march.

"Meanwhile, let patrons support the symphony. Worked in Mozart's time."

Sorry Geoffrey. You're wrong.

Remember the famous John Adams quote?

"I must study politics and war that my sons may have liberty to study mathematics and philosophy. My sons ought to study mathematics and philosophy, geography, natural history, naval architecture, navigation, commerce and agriculture in order to give their children a right to study painting, poetry, music, architecture, statuary, tapestry, and porcelain."

Why did he write that? What made him think that the arts were a pursuit more worthy than politics and war, more worthy, even, than philosphy, geography, etc.? Was he an intellectual snob? Was he a social climber? Or was he someone who maybe recognized that what a civilization leaves behind, ultimately, is not its war record, nor its list of who was President when, or how well his economic policies worked, nor the size of its geographic footprint after conquering its enemies.

What a civilization leaves behind are its cultural artifacts--its art, its music, its poetry and prose, its great architecture. And all John Adams wished for was for his grandkids to be a part of that legacy.

That alone convinces me that there is a role--even a mandate--for government support for the arts. But let's pull the discussion back to today...as the stock markets worldwide are melting, as credit is disappearing, as China, Japan, and India absorb more and more of our debt, and as our current President reels from one massive crisis of his (and his party's) own making to another.

Why support a symphony, or any arts organization or arts education?

First, let's remove any doubt you might have in your mind. Patrons in Mozart's day WERE the government. Or, more accurately, a combination of nobles and the Church (remember the Holy Roman Empire?).

In most Western European countries (whence the bulk of our cultural antecedents in America come from) the combination of a few wealthy nobles working in league with their Church counterparts called virtually all the socio-politico-cultural shots. And their support then was as fleeting and will o' the wisp then as it is now--if not more so.

Mozart, remember, died in poverty and was buried in an unmarked pauper's grave. Given his popularity at the height of his creative career, this is a damning indictment on the funding structures in place in his day.

But more important than that, let's cut to the nub of the issue. What does society "get" for its investment in "the arts?" Even more to the point, let's ask the question this way, Do the arts, in any way shape or form, contribute to the generation of jobs and the improvement of our economy? Isn't that, really, what Geoffrey Norman, needs to know?

Well I know the answer to that. And so do the owners of galleries and restaurants in Brattleboro and on Church Street in Burlington. So does the CEO of Chroma Technologies in Bellows Falls, and the founder of the Center for Cartoon Studies in White River Junction. In fact, if you ask any business owner who depends on foot traffic what, besides the fleeting period of "fall foliage" and the Christmas Holidays, has a positive impact on his or her sales, the answer will absolutely include responses like "whether the Flynn (or any other performing arts center in any town) has a show that night."

Create jobs? You bet we do--not only in the arts sector itself, but to a significant degree in the additional momsandpops that sprout up around our cultural centers.

Sure, the restaurant, hotel, gas station, and shopping mall "sector" is where a lot of the transactions occur that the state uses to measure our economic health. As a result, those industries receive lots of support in the form of advertising and marketing support (yes they do, just pick up Vermont Life Magazine, or look at any ad campaign put out by the Dept. of Tourism and Marketing).

But go one level deeper and ask THIS question: what causes people to go to restaurants, stay in hotels, buy gas, go shopping? A big part of the answer will be skiing, hiking, camping and all the other traditional "Vermont" activities. But right up there with those will be things like Shelburne Farms and the Vermont Symphony, the Mozart Festival, The Marlboro Festival, the Warebrook Festival, Yellow Barn, the New World Festival, and on and on and on.

And that's just job creation. I haven't even mentioned the impact of the arts on giving our kids skills and practice in educational settings that are directly related to 21st century workforce needs, like creative thinking, collaborative problem-solving, cultural and ethnic tolerance, and (for those who find themselves onstage), public speaking skills.

That's a one-two punch that is well worth the State's investment. And the dividend? Quite often it's some really great art!

Wednesday, September 24, 2008

Art and Mass(ive) Consumerism

Seattle artist Chris Jordan was the featured speaker at our National Assembly of State Arts Agencies final plenary session last week in Chattanooga, TN. His work documents the monumental consumerism of our society in a way that forces each of us to consider our personal impact on earth’s environment. It is troubling work because he fools you into thinking what you’re seeing is beautiful, when really it is terrifying to behold.

For example, one work, titled simply “Plastic Cups,” is a silver, gray, and white image of a post-industrial Tree of Life made up a million plastic 6 oz. cups (stacked) which is equal to the number used by airlines every six hours. One can only wonder how many of those are recycled…

Another (my personal favorite) is called “Cans Seurat” and reproduces in exquisite detail the Seurat work “A Sunday Afternoon on the Island of La Grande Jatte” only instead of Seurat’s pointillist technique rendered in oil paint, Jordan has rendered it in aluminum cans—106,000 of them, representing the number consumed by Americans every 30 seconds.

In his lecture, Jordan was quick to point out how easy it is to become stupefied by such staggering statistics. 1.14 million is just a number. 1.14 million folded and stacked brown paper supermarket bags, however, presented to look like a primeval forest, barren of all life--now THAT makes an impression. Then consider that what you are looking at is what is consumed in just one hour in the United States.

I’m almost embarrassed to admit that as soon as I could find a calculator I found out this means we “consume” nearly 10 billion paper bags a year, a depiction of which would have required Jordan to use a canvas as tall as the UN Building but nearly three times as wide.

What keeps humans from becoming numb; what enables humans ultimately, to process such staggering statistics, is art. Or as Jordan put it (and I paraphrase since I’m quoting from memory), “Art enables us to comprehend and come to terms with ideas that, intellectually, we are otherwise unable to process.”

Put in even more political terms, the saturating effect of these statistics on our brain simply numbs it. The more numb we become, the easier it is for us to accept things like a disappearing ice shelf or a 700 billion dollar Wall Street Bail-out. According to Jordan, we have never needed the arts more than now. The arts give us time and the internal resources to reflect on and, perchance, change our self-destructive behaviors.

* * * *

One who would probably never accept this line of thought is Geoffrey Norman, a writer and founder of Vermonttiger.com (a “non-partisan, nonprofit advocacy and media enterprise”) whose recent opinion piece in the Times Argus "Stop the music, already" (9/21/08) was little more than a fluff piece advocating paying for everything that eight years of Bush Administration policies have wrought by among other things, taking away funding from so-called non-essential services like the Vermont Symphony.

There are so many ways to kick this sad, tired argument in the teeth that one almost doesn’t know where to begin. So give me a couple of weeks to organize my response.

Stay tuned…

Wednesday, August 27, 2008

Vermont Value

It's official.
For the first time in my eleven plus years as director of the Vermont Arts Council a study conducted for the Vermont Council on Rural Development by The Center for Rural Studies (the same folks that conduct the annual "Vermonter Poll") has shown unequivocally that 89.2% of Vermonters believe that Vermont's creative communities are valuable to the state.
With a confidence interval of 99% and a margin of error of +/- 5%, the top seven values were:
  • I value the working landscape and its heritage (97.2%)

  • I am proud of being from or living in Vermont (93.6%)

  • I value Vermont's spirit of independence (93.1%)

  • I value the privacy I get in Vermont (91.0%)

  • I believe Vermont's creative communities are valuable to the state (89.2%)

  • I value the small size and scale of the state (87.9%)

  • I trust my neighbors (86.2%)

If, at the end of each of these statements, one adds a connective word like "because" and then finishes the sentence, you will create a series of statements that might look like this:

  • I value the working landscape and its heritage BECAUSE "homegrown" products and services have a special cache that consumers value.

  • I am proud of being from or living in Vermont BECAUSE it was the first state to outlaw slavery, the first to embrace same-sex unions, and civil rights are very important to me.

  • I value Vermont's spirit of independence BECAUSE I don't have to explain to my relatives from away why my political views are so different from theirs.

  • I value the privacy I get in Vermont BECAUSE living in Vermont gives me the perfect excuse for not answering my cell phone, checking my email, or otherwise being in a constant state of connectedness.

  • I believe Vermont's creative communities are valuable to the state BECAUSE they attract "cultural tourists" and bright, energetic, entrepreneurs to return to Vermont to start their businesses and raise their families.

  • I value the small size and scale of the state BECAUSE it means my political voice is louder than it would otherwise be.

  • I trust my neighbors BECAUSE they know when to pay attention when not to.

If you remove from the top seven values the five that are oriented towards the self, you are left with two values that have to do with things that are intrinsically valuable to Vermont: the first one (Working Landscape and its Heritage) and the fifth one (Creative Communities).

This is significant because the impulse that drives us to value the land and our heritage is the same impulse that drives us to value our creativity. This impulse might be caused by the presence of art, artists, and arts organizations in a community. It might also be caused by something more subtle like that which happens in a place when smart, creative people from any field put their minds together to get something exciting to happen (like vertically integrated, value-added farms that produce world-class award-winning cheeses or soy products). This "value" is essentially human-centered, built on relationships that sometimes go back generations and always built on a person's respect for his fellow man. It is creative, and it requires constant nurturing.

What is perhaps not so surprising is that it has taken so long for this value to be documented in a formal study. Six or eight times a year I attend a monthly meeting of a group of Vermont State marketing and promotional professionals and at the most recent one, we suffered through yet another presentation of the latest, greatest ad campaign exhorting people to come to Vermont.
There was not a lot of new material.

It was a case of the same old skiers and snowboarders, same old snow; same old fall-foliage walks down a country lane, same old trees; same old beautiful mature couple sipping warm cider and noshing on some of Cabot's finest, same old B&B; same old kayakers, same old lake.
Where is Vermont's culture? I asked. We only respond to what's in the data related to Vermont’s brand studies, was the response.

Well now. Here's a new study and a new thing to showcase...Vermont's Creative Communities. Nearly 90% of Vermonters believe them to be of value.

So get cracking, people. There's a whole new brand attribute for you to explore and a whole new group of players to involve. Start in Brattleboro or Bennington and work your way up to North Hero or North Troy. You'll have more creative material to entice people to visit Vermont than you'll know what to do with. You won't be disappointed.

Neither will the state economists who are charged with forecasting state tourism revenues. And neither will our elected leaders who are charged with creating a working environment that is conducive to business development.

Tuesday, August 26, 2008

The Word on the Street

The Word on the street is…


In response to deteriorating economic conditions, the State of Vermont has exacted its first “pound of flesh” from government agencies and is telling us to expect a second round of cuts in another month or two. The state is doing this because it is anticipating significant economic dislocation and social unease during the coming winter season. The state is encouraging municipalities and other "units of local control” to put in place emergency plans that will encourage neighbors and families to move in with each other, to purchase food staples in bulk, to car-pool, and even prepare to have sheriff’s deputies and/or the National Guard accompany heating oil delivery trucks on their rounds in case they are hijacked! Zoicks! Zounds! Is it really that bad? Evidently…

I appreciate the foresight it takes for people working in the public interest to cut costs and manage expectations in the face of a Vermont winter. But what I don’t get is why an administration that gets so specific with the “cost” side of the state’s budget is so frequently wrong about their revenue forecasts. I get frequent emails from the administration touting the fact that “income for the month exceeded forecasts by X million dollars.”

How does this happen? Don’t the budgeting pros know that every budget has an expense side and an income side? Don’t they know that some agencies’ impact is almost entirely on the income side of the budget, and that cutting their costs is, in effect, hurting the state’s ability to enhance its revenue? When are the Budget and Finance “experts” going to understand the relationship between the work that, say, the Tourism Dept., Parks and Recreation, the Film Commission, and the Arts Council does to market Vermont (including its products, services, culture and creative industries) and the State’s revenue?

A large portion of the state’s revenue comes from income tax. So what, you might ask, does the Arts Council have to do with job creation? If you ask people like Paul Millman of Chroma Technology who located his business in Bellows Falls, it was because the community was on the rise with a strong cultural sector and relatively low-cost housing. Entrepreneurs decide where they want to live first, then build their businesses there. The cultural sector is one of the leading “attractors” of business development and job creation in any community.

I think it goes even further.

I believe that the health of a community’s cultural sector is the best indicator of a community’s economic health and quality of life. The quality of schools is another great indicator. And if you have schools with great arts programs, you have achieved the “Quality of Life” trifecta because all three (schools, arts sector, and economy) are mutually dependent.

All of these attributes attract and retain businesses. And even when some businesses fail, these communities tend to weather it well enough to enable workers to reorganize, and create new businesses out of the ashes of the old.

It seems a bit short-sighted to me to be looking for a few thousand dollars here and there from these “revenue-enhancing” engines of state government, when the only sure result will be lower State revenue.

The next time the state’s revenue exceeds expectations by a significant margin, I’m going to suggest to the revenue forecasters that they find out why. I would love to know, once and for all, just how much does our state’s revenue depend on the health of its arts and cultural sector. I suspect it’s a lot more than people think. If that realization holds true, then maybe next time there is an economic downturn, the administration will actually INVEST money in the arts and cultural sector, not take it away!


Tuesday, August 12, 2008

Bring on the “Bad Years,” Rutland!

Bruce Bouchard at Rutland’s Paramount Theater is onto something big and important.

Recognizing that Vermont audiences in the summer are too often saturated with an extraordinary outpouring of high-quality art, both visual and performing (including film!), from Mozart Festivals to Balloon Festivals, to Folk Festivals, to Open Studios and Gallery Walks, and even farmers’ markets that showcase local talent, Mr. Bouchard has initiated a whole new project aimed at developing new audiences and bringing the Paramount into the center of Rutland’s ongoing renaissance.

He wants to make Rutland, and in particular the Paramount, a “destination for the development of new American Musicals.” His first project is "Tales from the Bad Years" from Larson Award-winners Kait Kerrigan and Brian Lowdermilk and stars several tried-and-true Broadway pros.

This effort is important for a lot of reasons.

First, it is an important first step in taking advantage of Rutland’s unique position as Vermont’s “New York City/AMTRAK Gateway.”

Second, it provides a relatively inexpensive place to work out the kinks of a new musical theater experience before it reaches the fabled footlights of forty-second street and New York's highly critical reviewers.

Third, it establishes Rutland as a place where audiences will come from all over to see new works in development which means they are either producers looking for the next “hot” cultural property, or they are sophisticated cultural tourists looking for a great place to experience great art before anyone else.

Fourth, it’s a seriously big feather in Rutland’s cap. Imagine a Broadway playbill two years from now—“having been significantly revised during its run at the Paramount Theater in Rutland Vermont back in 2008, "Tales from the Bad Years" tells the gripping story of …..”

From such small sentence fragments come big dreams. Rutland’s dreams.

It’s a shame that Bruce Bouchard wasn’t around 30 years ago to place this project at the Paramount back in the 70s. But, as we all know, getting into this game late is far better than never getting into it at all. Just imagine what Rutland could be like 30 years from now if this program works as Mr. Bouchard intends it to.

If any one reading this has time, head to Rutland on the 21st and 22nd. You’ll be in on the ground floor of something really important, I promise.

Tuesday, July 22, 2008

Tell the Truth

A couple of weeks ago the Vermont Arts Council "soft-launched" a new commissioning project which will unfold during the course of the next 15 months. The project, "The Art of Action: Shaping Vermont's Future Through Art" is funded by Lyman Orton and seeks to build on the body of work being collected during the Vermont Council on Rural Development's "Council on the Future of Vermont." The "CFV" has been holding public meetings all over Vermont in an effort to uncover the major issues, concerns, and opportunities facing Vermont and Vermonters for the foreseeable future.

"The Art of Action" asks artists to reflect on what is coming out of these meetings, and then create work that reflects or responds to the CFV data and serve as a call to action on the part of Vermont citizens and policy-makers.

This is a pretty tall order, even for artists from Vermont!

But here's why this effort is so important. Day after day I come into work having read in the paper and listened on the radio to an ever-increasing litany of bad news. I've spent the last three or four of these blog postings enumerating the many economic, environmental, educational, social, and political problems we all face.

In my last post, I grabbed onto David Budbill's four-word explanation of the role of an artist ("They tell the truth") as if for dear life (just scroll down, you'll find it!). And now I'm ready to issue my own challenge to myself and to anyone reading this:

Once a day, act like an artist and tell the truth.

Telling the truth is becoming a lost art. It might be because there are so many truths that we don't want to hear that we tend to shut out all truths, except for the few that make us feel good. It might also be because there are so many truths (or at least points of view) that our minds quickly get cluttered with things that, although truthful, may not be all that important.

For example, the following excerpt is a truth offered up by Senator Robert Byrd on March 19, 2003 as America swept towards war with Iraq:

"We cannot convince the world of the necessity of this war for one simple reason. This is a war of choice.

"There is no credible information to connect Saddam Hussein to 9/11. The twin towers fell because a world-wide terrorist group, Al Qaeda, with cells in over 60 nations, struck at our wealth and our influence by turning our own planes into missiles, one of which would likely have slammed into the dome of this beautiful Capitol except for the brave sacrifice of the passengers on board.

"The brutality seen on September 11th and in other terrorist attacks we have witnessed around the globe are the violent and desperate efforts by extremists to stop the daily encroachment of western values upon their cultures. That is what we fight. It is a force not confined to borders. It is a shadowy entity with many faces, many names, and many addresses."

This truth appeared during, and was lost amid, all the clutter of a great nation girding for war. Had it been listened to by enough people, we might have avoided pursuing a course that has caused great suffering across this land. Borrowing $10 billion a month for five years to pay for a war without a cause (and for the record, I'm only talking about the Iraq War; Afghanistan I believe is a very different story) guarantees that the suffering will be visited upon our children and our children's children.

This generation's legacy will never be forgotten. It will be remembered as the generation that took all the goodwill built up by "the greatest generation" (the generation that defeated fascism and communism) and squandered it for reasons that have yet to be fully brought to light.

Truths always seek the light. They always get revealed. They always defeat lies.

So back to the "Art of Action."

We're not interested in truths about humanity or global warming or international diplomacy, or the lack thereof. We're interested in truths that are about Vermont and its future.We are interested in Vermont's role as a leader in conserving energy and developing renewable resources; pushing towards affordable public transportation; developing greater local food production and storage capacities; designing attractive affordable housing that complements our downtown and rural working landscapes; preserving and protecting habitats for at-risk species; providing state-of-the-art recreation facilities so that future generations will enjoy the same access to fishing, hunting, canoeing, camping, and hiking as we; valuing creativity so much so that entirely new schools are created that promote the arts, languages, and cultures of other people; and developing a sense of curiosity in our youngest citizens so that they become avid, life-long learners, explorers, and seekers-of-knowledge.

I contend that, pound for pound, artists are the greatest problem solvers. They see and experience things in a different way. Their point of view is uncommon. They value the differences between people because those differences provide new opportunities to build bridges. They live for blank canvases, for silences before the downbeat, for the raw, uncut stone or lump of clay. They can read and write in languages our brains understand but they are attuned to the languages that can only be interpreted by the heart. Invention and intuition are their livelihood, and creativity is their currency.

I've worked closely with artists for 35 years. I know what I'm saying is true.

The Art of Action will prove it.

Wednesday, July 16, 2008

Why do we need artists?

A few weeks ago I was on Vermont Public Radio talking about the state of the arts. I was joined by a couple of other guests--among them poet/writer David Budbill. The first question the host asked was Why do we need artists?


In my experience, when someone asks a question like that, what she really wants to know is Why do artists deserve our support? Even more specifically, Why should artists get cash money from the government? This is a seriously loaded question, and I thought of several ways of responding all of which, I realized in the space of about a second, would sound a little disingenuous coming from me.

The fact is, I'm not entirely sure that I agree with the implication behind the question--that artists, simply because they are artists, deserve compensation from the government. I've worked in many parts of the arts sector in my career, and I've never met a single artist who, because he or she didn't get a government grant (or any other kind of grant, for that matter), stopped "being an artist."

Face it, as successful as some applicants appear to be in getting grants, no one is going to live on a diet of cash from government agencies and foundations. Even if you win a $500,000 MacArthur Fellowship (the "genius" grant), and are smart enough to invest it all in tax-free munis that throw off at least 5% per year, you're only going to earn $25,000 per year. In that case, God help you if you have a family or a car to feed.

Furthermore, if the paucity of grants doesn't get to you, the anger and depression that usually come with rejection probably will. It is awful to be turned down for a grant. Ironically, I know dozens of artists who have applied for and been denied funding from public agencies and (maybe as a result of this rejection) gone on to fantastic careers as artists anyway. I now call this phenomenon the "Jennifer Hudson Syndrome" for the American Idol runner-up who after losing the competition in that show's third season, went on to win an Oscar (and 23 other awards) for her portrayal of Effie White in Dreamgirls. Take that, Simon Cowell!

Sharing their "JHS moment" is one of the many things that people meeting me years after being denied a grant from us like to tell me about. Of course there is a significantly greater number of people who have told me about how getting a grant provided just the additional boost their careers needed...so I know that for the most part our money is well spent even if it isn't spent on everyone who wants it!

But when asked Why do we need artists? on VPR I let David Budbill answer. After all, HE's the artist, not me.

"Because they tell the truth" he said.

David's simple, unprepared, five-word response was just...perfect. And in its perfection his answer provided all the proof I need that supporting artists is of great societal value. Put in the form of an equation it looks like this:

Artists = Truth; Truth = Value; Artists = Value

Listening, as I sometimes do, to a lot of other programs on the radio lately, there seems to have been precious little truth-telling going on in our country during the past several years...the results of which (low US prestige abroad, failing diplomatic efforts, failing economy, failing education system, failing health care system, failing public transportation infrastructure, and failing environment) are being felt now by us all as a failure of our values.

Next time you have the chance, buy some art. We'll all be better off as a result.

Wednesday, July 2, 2008


Like the rest of state government, The Vermont Arts Council’s fiscal year starts July 1 and in just a few days I will be out on the State House Lawn with 15,000 of my closest friends celebrating the new year and July 4th weekend.

Only I’m kind of wondering what’s to celebrate…

The news is generally not good. The state is laying off people, so is IBM. The Red Sox are firmly in second place behind the Tampa Bay Rays. The Mountaineers are barely one game over 500, the Ravens have yet to win a game. There are floods all along the Mississippi and bad fires in the southwest. (I’m waiting for reports of pestilence or a plague of locusts before I start rereading my King James Bible.) Algae is doing its thing in the Lake, as is Red Tide off the Maine coast, and green algae off the coast of China where the Olympic sailing venue is.

Vermont last week issued its first-ever Amber Alert. Oil is trading over $140/barrel; gas is well over $4.00 a gallon; and I can “lock in” at a possible $4.89/gallon for my heating oil. I’ve just purchased “green” firewood for $225 a cord (and been told it’s a deal!). A perfectly ripe melon from Shaws just set me back $5.00; they have no more vegetable seeds at Agway so my two pole bean plants that managed to survive a recent attack by a couple of deer have all six poles to choose from in my vegetable garden.

There is just not a lot to celebrate.

Well okay, there’s Andrew Wheating who just became the first Vermonter to ever make the US Olympic Track and Field team. That’s pretty cool. And later this week I head north with my son Flynn to attend the Quebec 400 celebration, part of which will feature not only the Lois McLure but a sampling of some of New England’s finest folk and traditional artists playing the “Grande Place” at Espace 400 in the heart of Quebec City’s old port. That will be a once-in-a-centennial celebration, for sure.

Now that I think about it, and taking a quick scan through the voluminous Summer Arts Guide that Jim Lowe and the Times Argus folks put out about a month ago, there is a LOT to celebrate—or at least to celebrate with. Beyond the usual big name activities (Trapp Family Lodge concerts, Shelburne Farms, Mozart Festival, Marlboro Festival, Weston Playhouse, etc.) there are a host of more intimate things to celebrate: the Adamant Music School and Concert Series, Quarry Works Theater and Unadilla Theater, Music at Guilford, and—even more “local” than these—your basic weekend farmer’s market featuring street performers and works by local artisans.

Most of these events may be found on the Vermont Arts Calendar if you happen to have misplaced your Summer Arts Guide.

But even beyond all that, there are a few things I like to do that for me, celebrate the summer New Year in a way that can only happen in Vermont.

Shakespeare’s The Comedy of Errors performed in Knight Point State Park up in North Hero is one.

Circus Smirkus’s summer extravaganza is another (I see it in Montpelier but it tours the state).

And of course, the various “Art Fits” events that local communities have dreamed up all over the state is still another.

Okay, there may not be too many reasons to celebrate. But once you’ve decided you DO want to celebrate, you have options…lots of options. Best of all, a lot of those options won’t cost you a lot of money to get to from where you live. They are all over the state.

So, even with gas at $4/gallon, go ahead, celebrate the New Year.

And if you’re a visual artist, watch Artmail for a pretty amazing new commissioning project we are announcing…and celebrate some more.

Thursday, June 19, 2008


Like many people I know, I do my most productive thinking while attending to menial tasks like driving, walking the dogs, or mowing the lawn. The tenor of my thoughts tends to reflect the type of disengaged activity I am doing at the time. My most ambitious thoughts occur when I am mowing the lawn and, with each pass of the mower, my mind expands in orderly progressions until I have cleaned up and straightened out all the problems of the world.

I tend to think about how to improve community life in Vermont when I walk the dogs. Hubbard Park is a beautiful setting, my dogs bound freely through the woods and greet each newcomer as old friends, and without any effort, my mind starts to ponder how the arts might continue to build that intangible thing called “social capital.”

It should come as no surprise then, that as I attacked my moldy basement with rubber gloves, plastic bags, a respirator, and some bleach, my thoughts turned to an increasingly dark and depressing place: the state of the arts in Vermont. Or more accurately, the state of the arts sector.

The arts themselves, if you ask the average guy in the street, appear to be flourishing. A lot is happening all over the state, from world-class music festivals to folk-based arts, crafts and food fairs, to exhibitions and local farmers markets, and history expos and historical reenactments, all of which feature some aspect of Vermont's prodigious creative output. We're ranked 4th in the nation in per capita amount of artists living in the state, and 1st in the nation for writers living here.

But the sector itself, particularly the organizations that are responsible for curating, presenting, preserving, and sustaining Vermont's artistic and cultural legacy are more fragile than ever.

This is a subject that many people, including me, have written about in the past. Baumol and Bowen in the mid 1960s were among the first economists to articulate the theory behind the inevitable decline in arts organizations due to their overwhelming reliance on human labor, the cost of which, over time, would geometrically out-pace an organization's arithmetic income-producing capacity. They forecast an inevitable "Malthus/Keynes v. Arts Organization Tag-Team Smackdown on Pay-Per-Vue" only we didn't really want to believe it. Well, start believing.

In case I haven't been this clear before: the sector is due for a shake-up—which may not be a bad thing. Ours is a mature field with many mature organizations (generally considered to be organizations that are at least 25 years old ). In the for-profit sector, where maximizing corporate profits rules decision-making, industry shake-ups occur regularly, if not frequently. Whole industries have been established to support this relentless drive towards economic efficiency and profitability. “Mergers and Acquisitions” are a subset of the banking and legal sectors. Bankruptcy is a great tool for capitalists, ensuring that the weak are culled from the herd as painlessly and efficiently as possible.

But in the not-for-profit sector, where virtually all organizations are mission-driven, and the profit motive is secondary (or in some unbelievable cases, nonexistent!), M&A and bankruptcy are incomprehensible alternatives. Why? If you peel away all the motivating factors it comes down to two things. First, boards and executives of not-for-profits (the former of which are almost always volunteers) don't want to be part of what many of their peers will consider a “failure”--the dismantling or reorganization of a charitable organization. Second, there are almost always a few very vocal community-members that, when their favorite charitable organization is threatened, reach into the deepest part of their hearts and rally just enough support to avert an immediate melt-down. Organizations who have, perhaps, outlived their original mission purpose, or that are so inefficiently managed that they are unsustainable, are thus allowed to survive for yet another year, operating at reduced capacity, with an ever-increasing bank of “ill-will” from suppliers, vendors, creditors and, yes, upstart competitors with newer, more efficient ideas.

If I'm right (and remember, I'm cleaning my basement here), how do we deal with this?

First and foremost, we have to change our mindset: We have to be PROFITABLE!!!

We have to re-examine our business model. We have to do a SWOT analysis to determine who the competition is and who our potential collaborators are. We have to get comfortable with adopting many of the practices of the for-profit sector in terms of devoting a significant percentage of our operating budgets to marketing and promoting our products and services. A quick scan a few years ago revealed that only a few organizations spend more than 15% on this expense, and most spend 5% or less. Why? Because "every extra dollar must go to program" --a phrase which has to be excised from our policy mind-sets.

Boards have to think of the resignation of an executive as an opportunity not just to stop and do a massive, national search for his or her replacement, but to consider—CONSIDER—reaching out to the arts organization up the road to see if it might be a good time to think about merging your two operations together.

We have to stop letting our administrators excuse or explain away a bad year by saying “but that's how we've always operated. This year it just didn't work!” We have to insist on professional development for managers so that at the very least, they can understand what their own financial statements are telling them about the health of their operations.

A colleague of mine in another part of the country had to tell a constituent why his operating grant had been severely reduced. In his first year as the director, the constituent had racked up a $500,000 deficit. To his credit, he had changed his management plan and for the subsequent four years, he had run a small, but positive annual fund balance (profit). To his own thinking, the director had a 4-1 record, four profitable years, and one (VERY) unprofitable year, and he couldn't understand why the grant review panel had cut his grant so much.

My colleague had to explain to him that his metaphor was wrong. His record wasn't 4-1. He was still in the same ballgame in which he had gotten behind by 500,000 runs in the first inning. At the top of the sixth inning the score was still 500,000 to 12,000. No for-profit would have carried that kind of deficit for that amount of time, and it was clear to the review panel, that this condition was severely cramping the organization's ability to fulfill its mission.

That's the mindset we need to be adopting.

And speaking of mindsets, I can't wait to be done with my basement and get back to walking my dogs and mowing the lawn.

Wednesday, June 4, 2008


It’s an “in-between” time of year. Our annual meeting is finished, and our new board leadership is still organizing itself. The legislature is done for the year and the campaign season hasn’t really started. Some kids are still in school while others have graduated and started their summer jobs or are catching up on sleep. Spring is pretty much over, but summer has not quite begun. I haven’t received my three cords of wood for next winter, but I haven’t finished paying off my latest fuel oil bill either.

During these “lull” times I like to catch up on all those things I’ve been waiting to find time to do. I’ve started a book by former NEA Chair Bill Ivey called "Arts Inc." It’s a good read but I can tell when I’m finished I’m going to want to feel good about our society, so I’ll probably re-read Dan Pink’s "A Whole New Mind".

Whenever I have the chance, I always enjoy exploring and learning about Art. I encourage you to spend some time on our website where you, too, can get acquainted with many forms of Art….

We’re celebrating the 20th Anniversary of the Art in State Buildings Program which has funded two dozen public art commissions in new or renovated state buildings over the years. Paul Gruhler and David Schutz have put together a representative exhibition of works from the AISB program as well as other works the state has collected since 1847 and brought them on tour. This tour is called the Art of Vermont and will be in venues all over the state in the coming year. Once you’ve clicked on the link, you’ll find instructions for downloading many of the images as a computer screensaver. It’s quite a collection.

Related to this exhibition is a new Art Trail built on a Google Maps platform that describes how to get to all the permanent works of art in the State collection that can’t tour (like floors, banisters, windows, and other parts of a building’s infrastructure that doesn’t hang on a well-lighted wall). The Art Trail also showcases photos, directions, and several videos of artists talking about his/her work. Let us know what you think of it.

We are currently showcasing the works of the Arts Council’s first Executive Director Art(hur) Williams in our Spotlight Gallery. His is a retrospective of all the works he has created that have been inspired by his lifetime association with the coast of Maine. In addition to the pleasure of having these small and very approachable works in our gallery, we have all been delighted to spend some time with one of Vermont’s most beloved eminences gris.

A few clicks away is Art of a different nature: (drum roll please) Art(hur) Fitz, the new mascot of our second statewide community arts project, Art Fits Vermont. Art has been pleasantly surprised by the reception he’s gotten, given that he’s the shy and retiring sort. If you go to our home page, the link to his introductory video is in the left-hand column—he’s holding a puzzle piece that says “Chittenden” on it. Art’s got a puzzle piece for every county, trust me!

Of course, if the art on our website doesn’t grab you, by all means check out what’s happening all over state by searching our statewide Art Calendar. This time of year the days and nights are filled with pretty much anything you could wish for, from food fairs to caber tosses; Mozart Festival concerts to exhibitions at the Shelburne Museum.

So to recap: there’s Art in State Buildings, Art of Vermont, Art Trail, Art Williams, Art Fitz, and Art Calendar. All good stuff, all worth checking out, and all about Art.

Okay, the lull is over. Back to work!

Wednesday, May 21, 2008


People Magazine, the Burlington Free Press, the Times Argus and a host of radio and television commercials are touting the “end of (this) season, beginning of (the next) season, MUST-SEE” television offerings.

As if basketball and hockey playoffs weren’t occupying enough of our valuable family-garden-spring cleaning-“off-duty” time, within one week we have the final episodes of “Bones” and “House”; the two-night finale of “American Idol” (Go David!), “Dancing with the Stars”, “Desperate Housewives” and “Scrubs” followed immediately by a host of New! Shocking! Exciting! Revealing! shows like “So You Think You Can Dance” and “The Bachelorette” waiting in the wings. So much choice and so little time! What is a person to do?

The answer became clear to me last Friday night.

I sat in the balcony at the Barre Opera House while Montpelier’s Contemporary Dance and Fitness Studio performed its spring showcase. Two of my children are dancers. The older one takes Hip-Hop and Jazz; the younger one, just Hip Hop.

I sat for 3 ½ hours to watch my children perform in three numbers totaling about nine minutes. If I’d had to I would have sat for twice that amount of time.

It wasn’t just that my kids performed in front of a packed and hugely supportive crowd. Nor was it just that I knew about every fifth member of the audience and their children who were also dancing.

It was one of those rare times that I suddenly realized I was at the creation of a life-long memory for at least two of my children.

At this age (11 and 12), a lot is going on. In school they are learning all the fundamental issues in math and science and social studies. They’re into things like how plants purify our air. They’re exploring intergenerational issues and problems like global warming. They’re basically kids learning to stretch their minds.

But for my daughter and son, and for the 125 other kids who performed last weekend, the one thing about this whole year that they will always remember is their performance this past weekend.

The make-up. The hair-spray. The lights, the sound, the palpable energy flowing over the stage from the audience. The hoots and applause, the laughter, the flowers and boxes of chocolate. The bottled water. The staying-up-way-past-your-bed-time. The recap of who barely made their entrance, whose costume was falling off the whole time they were on stage, the missed entrances, the awkward pauses, the final positions held until black-out.

I sat rooted in my seat, tears in my eyes. I’m fifty years old, and I was transported back to that precious time when I played a guard to the three wise men and my older brother was one of three mummers in our grammar school holiday extravaganza. I remembered the time I wrote a Star Trek play for seventh grade English class and we staged it for our school and my grandmother came to the performance dressed all in black with a black veil (we don’t discuss her wardrobe choices anymore). I remembered all the times when we kids did things together. We shared our joys and heartaches; won our championships, and lost them together—as a community.

At intermission I ran into the guy who fixes my car. I’ve known him for 11 years. He knows my car intimately. I know next to nothing about him. I asked him which dance his child was in. “The Hip-Hop one,” he replied, “She does a brief duet with a boy up-stage right.” “Funny,” I said, “my boy does a duet in the same place with a little girl.”

It turns out his girl and my boy were dance partners. And thus another shared moment goes into the memory banks.

It’s likely that most of the little kids who were featured in the beyond-cute beginners’ classes will not, by the time they graduate from high school, be involved in any meaningful way with dance. In every class, especially the beginners’ classes, there were only a few performers who stood out. By the time all the rest of those kids get to be seniors, they will have experienced a self-selection process that will push them towards soccer, lacrosse, hockey, theater, science club, or a host of other worthy activities. But one thing is certain. Everyone who participated in the program will always carry this experience with them. They will always be able to say, with increasing fondness as the years go by, that for one magical weekend they created a community’s worth of lifetime memories.

Sure, I’ll probably watch the American Idol finale. But 10, 20, 40 years from now I’ll have forgotten whether the winner was David Archuleta or David Cook, and even who Simon Cowell was. But I will still remember last week’s performance at the Barre Opera House, and so will my children and my auto mechanic and his daughter, and their 125 friends and family members.

Wednesday, May 7, 2008


Two days after Arts Achievement Day in the Vermont State House I took my family to Florida for Spring Break, leaving behind a cultural afterglow in the State House that would carry us through the end of the session. I returned 10 days later to find the legislature deep in its final discussions—full of new economic incentive plans laid on at the 11th hour, and trying to figure out how to fix education, improve health care, handle criminals, and fill pot-holes.

I also returned to a legislature that would, in the end, recommend a 2.5% increase to our appropriation and only a 10% (not 25%) cut to our Cultural Facilities Grant program. This is a success story, and here’s why:

First, more of you participated in Arts Achievement Day than ever before and left legislators with the very clear understanding of why the arts are important in our communities, our educational efforts, and in our economic development efforts. Your presence in the State House was felt strongly and very positively.

Second, the Senate had the most difficult row to hoe since the latest earnings projections for the State came out right after the House finished work on its Appropriations Bill approved an additional 2% increase over the Governor’s recommend. Thus, the Senate had to make $25 million dollars worth of cuts to the House bill. That we survived with essentially a cost of living increase is, frankly, a minor miracle.

Third, the Capital Construction Bill, in which the Cultural Facilities Grant program is located, had to absorb the bulk of the emergency transportation spending which forced a $50,000 (25%) cut on the $200,000 recommended by the Governor. The fact that the legislature put back $30,000 of this funding in the final day or two is a significant statement about the importance of our cultural facilities to our state’s economy.

So, am I disappointed? Yes and no. We did not get the additional $90,000 we needed in order to have funds to support community-based Art Fits Vermont (puzzle project) activities. And our Cultural Facilities Grant program took a 10% hit which means there will be one or two fewer cultural facilities grants awarded next fall.


We have a much stronger advocacy presence than ever before with a much clearer, cleaner message that is being heard…

We survived what several folks have described as “a bloodbath…” and will continue to press our case into the election season.

We have very good relations with the Governor, the Administration, the House and Senate leadership, and leadership on the four “money” committees: House and Senate Appropriations and Institutions Committees. This is due, in no small part, to all of you who wrote letters, made phone calls, or visited the State House this spring.

I attended a nice arts gala in St. Albans last Friday, the day before the legislature adjourned. The Governor was also there and in his remarks he was quite articulate in describing the increasingly important role the arts and cultural sector is playing in revitalizing Vermont. He clearly “gets it.”

The more important question, however, is where will he go next? Where will his opponent in the fall election stand on the arts? For that matter, where does your legislator stand? His/her opponent?

You can tell where this is going, can’t you? Our work has only just begun. We have a lot of tools to use, and resources to bring to bear on educating all of the candidates for election next fall on the value of supporting the arts. The design of our downtown spaces, our roadways and bridges; the ability of our schools to instill a sense of imagination and civic engagement in our children; the ability for our cultural institutions to serve as the “reserve bank” of creative social capital in our communities—all of these and so much more depend on a healthy arts and cultural sector. A healthy arts and cultural sector, in turn, depends so much on decisions made by people you elect. Make sure, during this election season, they have ample opportunity to “get it.”

We will be putting together information for you to use when examining the positions of your candidates for office. Remember, if the arts are important to you (and if you’re reading this, I hope I may assume that they are!) then they also must be important to your legislators.

In the meantime, “Art Fits Vermont” kicked off with all the pomp and circumstance a press conference in the State House could muster. Our funding and operational partners are all hard at work creating puzzle pieces. Keep an eye on our website for more news and information about this incredible project.

Finally, get out and enjoy the sunshine. An while you’re out there, enjoy some art…!

Wednesday, April 9, 2008


If this were a normal week, I would be guiding you towards the highlights of our April 16th Arts Achievement Day celebration in the Vermont State House. But, like many people across the country, every year around tax time I get anxious about money, and April 16th is just one day past the dreaded “Ides of April.”

About seven years ago I read an op-ed piece in the New York Times by Thomas Friedman that instructed us, every time we read the word “tax” followed by the word “cut” emanating from the Bush Administration, to substitute the word “service” for the word “tax.”

A couple of weeks ago the Brookings Institution—a so-called “left-leaning” think tank based in Washington DC—published an article on the implications of the Bush II Tax Cut legacy.

Reading this article made me understand better why there is no money in the state of Vermont. The burden of paying for everything we depend on our government for has fallen almost exclusively on the shoulders of the state. And Vermont, like a few others, doesn’t have a large enough population to support all the programs and services that used to be covered either wholly or in part by the federal government.

The state of Vermont is unable to support the ambitious plans to celebrate the 400th Anniversary of Samuel de Champlain’s arrival on the lake that now bears his name. Funds that could have been used for that purpose have been-or will likely be—diverted to shore up the worst parts of our crumbling transportation, health care, public safety and education infrastructure.

There is nowhere near enough money in the State House to replace funds that no longer come from Washington. Since 2001, as a country we have foregone $1.7 trillion (with another $1.8 trillion if the tax cuts are made permanent) in tax revenue and borrowed heavily to pay for not one but TWO foreign wars at the same time.

Every time I turn around I hear more bad news. As a result, I have come to one inescapable conclusion:

What terrorists could never have accomplished in their wildest dreams by destroying the World Trade Center in 2001, our own government has accomplished in its response to that terrible crime in less than seven years.

Our country is bankrupt, dependent on China to purchase our ever-increasing debt burden in order to stay operational. Manufacturing jobs are gone; and service jobs are next on the chopping block. We live in fear that our innocent calls to our relatives living and working overseas will be tapped and we will be put on some “no travel” list. We have to all but disrobe every time we get on a plane (jackets, belts, shoes, toiletries over 3 oz.—what’s next, dental floss?). We are, in effect, no longer free citizens living in a democratic republic.

You put all this together, and “shock and awe” doesn’t come close to describing how I feel.

For those of you that haven’t had to pay your heating bill lately, or haven’t had to pay for emergency medical services at your local hospital out of pocket; if you haven’t had to buy milk, bread or eggs in the past couple of weeks, or fill your car with gas, you might not necessarily agree with what I’m about to say. But here it is anyway.

Repeal the Tax Cuts. Put that money back into the system. Starving government for the sake of starving government is no way to establish, much less enforce, good public policy.

And next time, pay attention when someone offers you $600 in return for “a better economy.” And pay double attention if they offer you $1200 (plus $300 per kid).

Like I said, every year at this time I get anxious about money. So my advice to me and to you is to get past the 15th, and come to State House on the 16th for Arts Achievement Day. It will restore your hope and faith in the great things we can accomplish together. After all, this is the United States of America. And even better, this is Vermont…

Wednesday, March 26, 2008


I’ve been helping my fifth-grader work out some math problems during the past few weeks and doing so has provided me with even more perspective on the work we do at the Arts Council.

Some of the problems had to do with the relationship between decimals and percentages. No matter how often I said the conversion from decimals to percentages was a mere matter of moving the decimal two places “over to the right,” it didn’t sink in until I started putting some examples into play.

Starting with a dollar, I asked her how much 10% was. She immediately responded “10 cents.” And how do you show ten cents? “$0.10,” was the reply. Right, I said, so point 10 equals 10%. See how it’s the same number, only the decimal place has been moved from the left side of the number ten two places over to the right when it’s expressed as a percentage?

“Duh, Dad!” was the reply.

Okay Miss Smartypants, let’s do one that is a little more complicated. Express 546,000 as a percentage of 1,235,740,000.

After a moment of concentrated engagement with her calculator, she said (a little perplexed) “4.418e minus 4…What does THAT mean?”

It means that the result is so small that the calculator has to tell you to move the decimal point over four places to the left in order to give you your answer. Frowning in thought, she returned to the task, and said “Okay, 546,000 is 0.0004418 of 1,235,740,000 or--pausing to move the decimal two places over to the right--.004418 percent. Why this number?”

Why, indeed. Very few people besides me would recognize the ratio—44/1000ths of a percent—as being the Arts Council’s appropriation compared to the State’s General Fund budget.

Yes, our budget is a mere 44/1000ths of one percent of the State Budget. Our requested increase of $103,000 (to meet the required match from incoming Federal Funds from the National Endowment for the Arts) would increase that figure by 9/1000ths of a percent of which most would be spent in communities across the state on local community arts projects.

But it appears that even that tiny increase is too rich for our elected officials in these times of austerity. The House Appropriations Committee has done its bipartisan best to increase our request during the past couple of weeks.

But all of us who lurk about the State house at this time of year keep hearing “there just is no money.” Why, though, am I having a hard time believing it…?

I run an organization. I pay attention to the money we spend. I don’t like to waste a dime. And I don’t focus only on the expense side of the ledger. I look for ways to enhance our revenue—or at the very least look for ways to leverage revenues from other sources to provide financial benefits to our arts and cultural constituents.

Next year the National Endowment for the Arts will give us $103,000 more than it is this year. The State (appropriation) is supposed to match this increase. In turn, the Council is supposed to use this increase to provide grants and services to the field. Of the $206,000 combined increase, we have committed to putting $180,000 out in direct grants. These grants, in turn, require a one-to-one match from local municipal and private sources. When all is said and done the State’s increase of $103,000 will generate an additional federal ($103,000) and local ($180,000) match totaling $283,000. That’s an ROI of 275%!

It’s also the part of the revenue stream that is by far the easiest to measure.

The rest of the revenue stream is what happens when the combined state/local matching funds of $360,000 starts underwriting cultural activities all over the state, such as festivals, art openings, concerts, plays, performances in parks, and local events around the “Art Fits Vermont” project we are about to announce to follow up our wildly successful Palettes Project.

People travel to those events. They eat at restaurants and stay in hotels. They shop for mementos, for clothes, for works of art and craft. They come back. They bring friends and family. They spend money—a portion of which finds its way back into the coffers of the local municipality and into the coffers of the State of Vermont.

The revenue generated by Vermont’s “cultural community” (i.e. the community that tends to look to us for support) is usually captured in the tourism statistics. But that’s usually not what is most significant about our work.

The things that are most significant about our work are the relationships that people form in their communities from shared memories of evenings spent at the lake listening to Mozart, attending a barn dance, or raising money at an art auction for a local senior center. Social scientists tend to call these intangible results “social capital.” Difficult to measure, sure, but no less real than the sales and meals tax collected by restaurants on Church Street right before the Flynn has an event.

The bottom line is this…a $103,000 increase to the Arts Council will result in an immediate $283,000 increase in additional spending in Vermont’s Creative Sector. I can’t believe the State cannot find 9/1000ths of a percent lurking somewhere in some “rainy day funding pot.”

Meanwhile I continue to help my daughter with her math. She couldn’t comprehend 44/1000ths of an inch so I gave her a tangible example. According to the Times Argus, the Bennington Monument is 308 feet tall. If the Bennington Monument represents the State Budget, the Arts Council portion is not quite 1 2/3rds inches of it. About the length of my daughter’s little finger. The requested increase—add another knuckle’s-worth.

Maybe the Senate will find it. Stay tuned…