Every day we’re hearing somber newscasters forecast dark days ahead. There appears to be much to be concerned about: the “pending recession,” the bizarre global weather conditions, the wars-without-end to which we appear committed, to name a few. A few columns ago I wrote about the Orton Foundation’s “Heart and Soul Community Planning Movement” as a way to provide perspective to individuals wondering what, if anything, could be done about all these huge “macro” issues. In this column, I intend to get even more specific because I believe we are on the threshold of great things here in Vermont.
For the next six months or so, the Vermont Council on Rural Development (with whom we have partnered for the last several years on the Creative Economy/Creative Communities projects) has undertaken a once-in-a-generation challenge: to capture what Vermonters envision for their future. This Council on Vermont's Future has been charged with developing a thorough and accountable way to draw people from all over Vermont into a discussion, a “statewide town meeting” if you will, to discuss critical issues such as the use, protection and preservation of Vermont’s natural and cultural resources, how to responsibly develop Vermont’s economy while protecting and improving its social and educational infrastructure, and a myriad of other issues of concern to Vermonters and their families.
It is IMPERATIVE that you engage in these discussions. In the same way that no one outside your town or village is in a better position to know how to improve the quality of life in your community than you, it follows that the same must be true for the state as a whole. Although we can look to other states for good ideas, it’s up to us to consider them in the context of our unique circumstances.
And while this is going on, an even more specific planning process is under way.
The Arts Council believes that the strongest communities are those in which the cultural sector is actively engaged in collaborating with town planners, local schools and social service agencies on projects that infuse town life with art and art-making. I’m not just talking about gallery tours and music, theater, and dance performances in local venues (although for many that is the heart of it all). I’m talking about designing our public places so that they aren’t just “cheap and practical” but “beautiful and welcoming;” I’m talking about creating opportunities for student performers to “plug and play” at their local farmers markets on a covered stage that will protect their instruments and costumes from the elements; I’m talking about creating opportunity for recent immigrants from Somalia or the Philippines to share their culture in ways that are authentic and respectful, whether that means in a local church, grange hall, or town park.
The Arts Council has begun planning its second statewide community arts project called “Art Fits Vermont.” We’ll give away thousands of wood and paper puzzle pieces for folks to decorate and communities will create exhibits, parties, auctions, and other community-building/fundraising opportunities using the resulting artwork. It’s essentially the same type of project as the 2006 Palettes of Vermont but with a few nuances. First, it is occurring at the same time as the lead-in to and celebration of the Lake Champlain Quadricentennial. For many of you this means there is a ready-made theme to exploit if you want. Second, we intend to create an arts exchange with Quebec, France, and New York using the puzzle pieces as the vehicle. And finally, it is our intention to allow a lot more lead time and (are you sitting down?) financial resources to local arts councils throughout the state, to allow them to create plans that locally engage their artists, their town planners, their selectboards, and other community folks in this wonderful activity.
During Palettes of Vermont, a significant number of local arts agencies were unable to shift the momentum of their programs enough to incorporate the opportunity presented by the project. For “Art Fits Vermont” you will have time to plan, and up to 18 months in which to present your local projects (Spring of 2008 through Fall 2009). We hope this will allow our local arts agencies to demonstrate just how varied, talented, and fun their communities can be!
Best of all, among all the gloom and doom coming out of Washington these days, there is one bright star. The recent budget passed by Congress and signed into law by the President includes a $23 million increase for the National Endowment for the Arts. Due to the funding formula, this means the Arts Council can expect up to $103,000 more from the Feds this coming year. Best of all, this new money will require a one-to-one cash match from the state legislature. The Governor has already recommended a $13,000 increase to our budget for FY 2009. We are asking the legislature for the remainder: $90,000.
This combined Federal-state funding will fuel the “Art Fits Vermont” program—with direct cash grants to community arts organizations, and with enhanced marketing and promotional tools that will encourage visitors from in-state, out-of-state, and abroad to stay and experience Vermont in a whole new way.
We need your help, so don’t be shy about dropping a note to your own state legislator or Senator (a phone call will also do just as well), saying how much you support the Council’s request for a $90,000 increase. Don’t be shy about participating in Art Fits Vermont. The official kick-off is in April. Until then remember—even as we head into the dark days of February the days are getting longer. It’s not all doom and gloom!