Wednesday, January 30, 2008


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!

Wednesday, January 16, 2008


A lot of people had fun last Friday morning. Sixteen organizations receiving Cultural Facilities Program funding sent representatives to our grant awards ceremony in the State House’s Cedar Creek Room. They were met by 11 Arts Council staff, two trustees, the Governor, and more than 20 of their elected state representatives and senators.

It was a party. Or, as is usually the case in the State House, it was a “multi-party.” For about an hour Republicans, Democrats, Independents, and Progressives set aside their differences over health care, property tax reform, transportation funding and other big ticket issues and celebrated the core of Vermont’s Creative Economy—its theaters, concert halls, libraries, historical societies, grange halls, town hall auditoriums, and even a church facility.

Grants totaling more than $200,000 were awarded for physical improvements that will expand facilities’ capacity to support more varied cultural programs and serve broader audiences. For most, grants will be used to improve physical access for people with limited mobility. Thanks to the Governor, however, one grantee will have a special charge.

In his remarks to the recipients, the Governor registered two eye-popping, hand-clapping moments. The first was his suggestion that some of the grants awarded “weren’t exactly sexy” and referred specifically to the Brandon Town Hall’s grant to fund the installation of a state-of-the-art fire suppression system. When the Brandon contingent stood to receive their award they promised (to lots of laughter and applause) the Governor that theirs would be the first ever, state-of-the-art, sexy fire suppression system.

Hardened State House observers, including the WCAX reporter covering the event, assured me that this was the first time ever that the word “sexy” was bandied about so freely in a formal State House ceremony involving so many elected officials. It is further evidence that, in Vermont at least, the “culture wars” of the early 1990s are truly over.

The Governor’s second eye-popping, hand-clapping moment was towards the end of his remarks when, with no prior indication, he took advantage of the moment to express his commitment to the Cultural Facilities program by publicly stating his intention to recommend continuing to fund the program at its $200,000 level in the FY 2009 Capital Appropriations Budget.

To the untrained ear, this may sound like a non-event. The program is already on the books at $200,000 so what’s the big deal? The Governor is recommending status quo, right?

The big deal is that two years ago the Governor’s recommendation was $0; last year it was $50,000. In both years it was the Senate Appropriations committee that led the charge to increase the program to its current $200,000 level (thank you Sen. Phil Scott and Rep. Alice Emmons). With the Governor’s support at the front end of the appropriations process, not only are the late-session, high-tension negotiations between the House and Senate greatly mitigated (if not eliminated), but we are now able to consider ways to expand the program to include non-traditional venues like farmers markets and other municipal spaces where the public gather. Check out H. 185 submitted by Reps. Botzow, Stephens, et. al. regarding farmers markets. It gained some traction last year, but it will get a lot more if it gets attached as an additional funding stream to the Cultural Facilities bill. Stay tuned.

In the meantime, the Cultural Facilities Program came of age last week and sixteen grantees whose programs and activities serve as the glue that keeps Vermont’s communities so vital, were on hand to celebrate. Congratulations one and all!

Friday, January 4, 2008


As Jimi Hendrix said on his live recording with Buddy Miles, “Happy New Year first of all!”

In the spirit of the moment, I have put together a wish list for the coming 12 months. Some of them are large in scope (global, even), and some are more intimate—suitable for a state the size of Vermont. Please share with me your own wishes, but above all else, have a safe and pleasant New Year!

I wish …

… to wake up sometime in January 2008 and learn that the proposed increase for the National Endowment for the Arts (NEA) was a typo and that the real figure is $200 million, thus bringing NEA closer into alignment with its 1992 appropriation. For now, we are all well-satisfied with $20 million! Thank you, Rep. Welch, Sen. Sanders and Sen. Leahy. Your hard work and support for the NEA and for the arts in general are well-appreciated.

…to convince, by the end of the 2008 Legislative session, the Governor and a 2/3rds majority of both the House and Senate that the Arts and Cultural sector in Vermont is a profound income-generating sector that far exceeds the cost of the state’s investment in it through us. Not only will the $20 million NEA increase directly impact our program support, but any grant from the NEA comes with a matching state requirement—which for Vermont could mean a significant increase in our state appropriation. Over the years, our own studies have shown consistent, 7-to-1 returns on our own investments in Vermont communities: for every dollar the Arts Council invests in programs throughout the state, the organization receiving our funds generates seven dollars from local and private resources. We are an “income center” to the State of Vermont, not a “cost center.” We need to get better at explaining this to all of our legislators so that they really understand it.

…policy-makers in Vermont allow local investment in the Creative Economy to occur primarily (though not exclusively) in the Arts and Cultural sectors. We already have large state agencies that support (or easily could support) innovation in Agriculture and Commerce/Community Development. Sure, “improvements in technology,” “sustainable and clean energy production,” “affordable housing,” and “affordable health-care” are all crucial to Vermont’s vision of itself in the 21st Century, and established systems already exist to facilitate investment in those areas. However entities that support individual creativity, like our museums, galleries, and performing arts centers, only have us and relative to the growth of the rest of state government in the last 15 years, our budget is 30% smaller.

…the School Boards across the State would recognize that learning in the arts, and learning about the arts are not just words in the No Child Left Behind Act, but crucial investments that not only help kids with certain types of learning disabilities or “engagement issues” stay in school and become productive, but they offer a safe, time-tested means to practice being creative, collaborative, and focused on achieving positive outcomes. As Liz Lerman once said, if anyone in the Bush White House had done theater in high school or college and used the skills they picked up in rehearsals as part of the planning process for invading Iraq, they would have learned very quickly that their script lacked a coherent ending. Arts Education should be the last thing on a school’s chopping block, not the first.

… for Vermont’s creative sectors to seek out the Vermont Council on Rural Development’s "Council on the Future of Vermont" meetings all over the state and play a very visible role in these important, once-in-a-generation discussions. We all have to figure out how to confidently manage Vermont’s unique natural, cultural, and economic assets so as to not destroy them even as we exploit them. Call me biased, but if it’s a conversation about innovation, creative workforce preparation, building community and social capital, improving public transportation, creating more affordable housing and health care, improving access to fiber-optic technology, and managing our energy and environment so that there is some of both in the coming generations—artists MUST be at the table. After all, history has shown that artists’ creative output is consistently the most thoughtful and honest reflection of the human experience. And what is needed most is creative thinking, right?

…Vermont would listen to Sen. Bill Doyle and the Snelling Center for Government and consider a proposed four-year election cycle for the Governor and other statewide elected officials seriously. It helps create better long-term policy and, as an added bonus, makes us pay more careful attention to who we vote for.

…every man, woman, and child in the state of Vermont will participate in Art Fits (our next planned statewide community arts project like Palettes of Vermont), and as a result of their incredible experience, will be inspired to contribute $1 to every one of their local arts organizations, and then—after thinking about how little that is, contribute another dollar! That $1.24 million will sure do a lot of good in communities all over Vermont!

Does anyone out there have any more to add?

Happy 2008 to all of you!