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.