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.