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!