Wednesday, December 16, 2009

What comes from Nothing?

Our extended family gathered over the Thanksgiving holidays and like others, ours represents a broad political spectrum. Conversations among us all are spirited, and at times tempers flare. But deep down we all know that the things we share transcend the occasional fissures that appear in our relationships.

A couple of my in-laws have committed themselves to improving the lives of civilians in war-torn countries. Each has a post-graduate degree in a field related to human services, and both have extensive experiences ranging from the Peace Corps to other US AID-funded projects. They have served in South and Central America, Thailand, Bosnia, Uzbekistan, and--more recently--Iraq and Afghanistan.

In general, they argue in favor of non-military solutions to problems that affect the interests of the United States--in stark contrast to several of my other in-laws who feel otherwise.

But when I asked them what the U.S. should do in Afghanistan, their immediate response was "finish the job." This was not what I expected, so I asked why.

"Imagine a region the size of California and Oregon with a population of less than 30 million. Now imagine what this region would look like after nearly 40 years of continuous war. Imagine that there are only two crops that grow in enough abundance to establish an agricultural toe-hold of which the largest provides the raw materials for a drug that the rest of the world would love to see eradicated.

"Imagine that for the past eight years this region had born the brunt of constant military strikes from the world's most powerful country that has left the habitable landscape almost completely barren of any civic infrastructure.

"Now imagine that this powerful country picks up its marbles and goes home. What does it leave behind? 28 million people with no functioning government, no civil authority, no infrastructure, no raw materials to build houses or schools or to feed the populace, no culture, no advocates in the international arena, and no hope.

"With no hope, there is nothing. And what comes from nothing? Chaos. Chaos scares human beings. We crave order and rules of behavior.

"So into this chaotic mess will step the very insurgent forces that, since 9/11, we have been trying to face down: the Taliban, al-Qaeda, and who-knows-how-many-other organized criminal elements. These insurgent forces will become the de facto civil authority in our absence. To us, that is a far worse outcome than the U.S. staying the course in Afghanistan."

This left me to wonder anew about the purpose of art in our lives; of song, of dance, and of storytelling. While bells on bob-tails ring in this country, drones seek out "targets of opportunity" in Afghanistan and the media reports on the gruesome results.

Are we building schools? Are we building hospitals? Food markets? What about community centers where people can gather to learn, to sing, and to share joy? Would the U.S. military and the UN ever consider seeking out different "targets of opportunity" like Oprah or Bob Geldof or Bono to to help it create positive change in a country in need?

If the answer to any of these questions is yes, then where is the media? Tiger Woods fills our newspapers and weekly rags. But where are the stories about successful encounters with Afghanis whose lives have been changed for the better by our presence?

It has been said often that a civilization is remembered not for its conquests but by its art and culture.

What if we created a national policy that dictated that out of every $100 spent on waging war in a place, $5 must be spent on waging peace?

What if, of the $1 trillion spent on wars in Iraq and Afghanistan during the last eight years, we had spent $50 billion on schools and theaters, market places and safe housing; on teaching people how to appreciate each others' differences, not be scared of them; on helping the region learn to explore each others' cultures without being offended by them?

What if we started doing that today in Afghanistan? What if we also did the same in this country?

What if achieving peace on earth and goodwill towards all was just that simple?

Tuesday, December 1, 2009

Tribute: Bess Lomax Hawes

We should all be so lucky to live to the ripe age of 88; luckier still to live a rich, full, and varied life; and luckiest of all to have a loving family, countless friends and associates who admire and respect us and our work, and yet still retain our compassion for other people and our zest for life.

Bess Lomax Hawes, who passed away a few days ago, was such a person.

For starters, she is arguably the single most important reason there is a comprehensive network of folk and traditional artists and organizations in the U.S. As founding director of the National Endowment for the Arts' Folk Arts Program, it was largely due to her vision that every state has a folk arts program, that the Smithsonian Institution holds its annual Folklife Festival on the National Mall, and why we recognize folk and traditional artists with the National Heritage Fellowships. This last program is so prestigious, and Bess's role in its creation so pivotal, that the awards themselves were named for her.

But all this barely scratches the surface of who she was as a person.

Growing up as the daughter of John Lomax (whose early recordings of largely self-taught blues and folk musicians throughout Appalachia and the deep South remains one of our greatest cultural treasures), and sister of Alan Lomax (who who continued and expanded his father's work) it was no fluke that Bess was drawn to folk and traditional artistic expressions.

An early member of Pete Seeger and Woody Guthrie's band, she is probably known best among folk musicians as co-author of the song made famous by the Kingston Trio, "Charlie and the M.T.A."

I worked quite closely with Bess during my time at the National Endowment for the Arts. She was pushing 70, had a flock of acolytes circulating in and out of her office on the 7th floor of the Old Post Office Building. She never raised her voice. She never said a mean word about anyone. And her smile, which was always a half-breath away, could light up a room.

There was something very "Aunt Bee"-like about her; a warm, trusting soul who with a recognizable voice and a ready laugh, packaged in a matronly figure with gray hair pulled back in a bun. I always expected, hearing her talk in staff meetings, that if Bess couldn't convince people around her to view things from her perspective, that all she had to do was make a call and Sheriff Andy Taylor and Deputy Barney Fife would gently show you the error of your ways.

It never happened. Bess always knew the best way to approach people; to get projects off the ground; to share credit; and most of all, respect the many artists whose work, without her efforts, might otherwise have remained largely undiscovered or unappreciated.

It's been about 10 years since I last saw her. She attended the Nancy Hanks Lecture at the Kennedy Center as part of National Arts Advocacy Day, and although it had been years since we'd been in touch, her face lit up in that warm smile of hers when I stopped by her seat to say hello.

Bess lived a long, full, rich, and rewarding life. Like I said, we should all be so lucky.

Monday, November 16, 2009

Share the Knowledge

Our attention is turning relentlessly towards the holidays. I keep wishing it were last April and that I still had a good eight or nine months to complete all the things I set out for myself this year, but no. It's coming on late November. Thanksgiving is around the corner. And I am as far behind as ever.

In truth, the things I am behind in are personal rather than work-related. I still haven't gotten to re-roofing my porch, or losing 15 pounds, or fixing the floor under the freezer in the basement. I haven't ordered next year's firewood or put the winter tires on our cars.

But at work, looking back over the year, I can honestly say there have been some amazing accomplishments.

Though it seems but a distant memory now, it was only a few months since we finished our last commitment to Art Fits Vermont (the Puzzle Project) which, like its predecessor Palettes of Vermont, engaged thousands of Vermonters, and several dozen New Yorkers and Quebecois on a creative, shared, exploration of the cultural ties that bind us. It was only 10 months ago that we selected the 10 artists whose creative output, combined with Lyman Orton's generosity, gave us the 103 works known collectively as "The Art of Action." Similarly, we have enjoyed keeping track of the "Art of Vermont" as it coils its way around the state showing Vermonters in all parts of the state a significant portion of the State's accumulated art collection. (All of these projects are easy to find by noodling around on the Arts Council's website).

But to be honest, one of the most heart-warming things we are doing is going to launch in about two weeks. As of today we have nearly 90 works of art and craft donated to "doing our pART"--the Council's auction to benefit the Vermont Food Bank.

It has been so great to meet so many artists as they bring their works in to the Council; to talk to them about their experiences and to hear how nice it is for them to be able to share their work to support a good cause.

Listening to their stories, it seems like an appropriate time of year for us all to share some of our stories. Please consider this posting to be an invitation to anyone reading this (especially if you are in Vermont) to share some of the great things you are doing/or have done over the course of this past year. It can be an organizational or personal story; it can be about something you have participated in directly, or something you know is happening in your community. Or it could be a really cool idea that simply should be shared.

Scroll down, leave a comment, and depending on the response, I'll revisit some of your highlights in a future post.

In the meantime, Happy Thanksgiving!

Monday, November 2, 2009

Eight Places to Visit in St. Johnsbury

The Arts Council held its fall retreat in St. Johnsbury recently, and if our experience there is any indication, people living in or planning to visit the Northeast Kingdom have a lot to look forward to in the coming years.

I've mentioned a few times in this blog about the efforts all over the Kingdom to collaborate on marketing and promotional efforts. Trying to develop a single-themed message about such a huge and diverse area of Vermont presents many challenges. There is the sustainable, value-added agricultural movement whose focal point appears to be Hardwick. There is the Nulhegan Basin (surrounding Island Pond) whose primary industries are wildlife recreation and (value-added) wood products. There are the two major ski resorts--Jay Peak and Burke Mountain-- and some world-class mountain biking to be had at Kingdom Trails. There are three colleges: Johnson State College (I know, technically in Lamoille County), Sterling College in Craftsbury and Lyndon State College that provide excellent post-secondary education experiences across a broad spectrum of disciplines that build on and feed the cultural and recreational sectors. And all through the Kindgom are located hundreds of artists and artisans--all of whom create a variety of works that can be found by visiting their studios, farmer's markets, or fairs and festivals.

The Northeast Kingdom Travel and Tourism Association serves as a collection point for all kinds of information about "things to do" in the Kingdom, from outdoor recreation, to agritourism, to cultural and heritage tourism. From North Troy and Jay to St. Johnsbury; and from Canaan to Hardwick the Northeast Kingdom is diverse, quirky, independent-minded, and--as our experience in St. Johnsbury proved--generous to an extreme.

Our meeting was held in the "new" Catamount Arts Center--the former Masonic Lodge next door to Catamount's old location. (sidebar: the old Catamount site has been bought and being converted to a studio recording house by Neko Case. Check her out!) Catamount Arts now boasts two cinemas, showing independent and foreign films daily--and even the latest digital performances from the stage of the Metropolitan Opera (the next one is Puccini's Turandot, airing November 7th). They also have a cabaret room in the basement (where we held our board meetings) which, along with a few other smaller utility rooms, serve as classrooms for people of all ages. They have a gallery just behind their ticket office which, during our meeting, was showing the Art of Vermont, an exhibition featuring works that are part of the State's significant art collection. Best of all, however was the incredible spirit flowing throughout the building--no doubt caused by the excitement generated by the performance and outreach programs put together by Jody Fried and his staff . Metaphorically speaking, Catamount Arts is one of the Northeast Kingdom's significant sources of renewable energy.

Within a stone's throw of Catamount are new fewer than seven other community/cultural institutions--almost all of which, over the years, have received significant facility or program support from the Council. The Fairbanks Museum and Planetarium (Charlie Browne, Director) is a "must stop" for anyone visiting St. J , as is the St. Johnsbury Athenaeum, the public library donated by the Fairbanks family which contains one of the great examples of Hudson River School Art, The Domes of Yosemite, by Albert Bierstadt, in its very accessible gallery.

The day after our Board meeting ended, I returned to the Athenaeum to attend a concert by Helena Baillie who performed the three Bach Partitas for violin as a benefit to raise money for the Athenaeum's new Steinway grand piano. It was a tour de force and I can only hope that Minnesota Public Radio, who recorded the event, will allow its Vermont affiliate to air the program. The Athenaeum's director, Irwin Gelber, is doing for the Athenaeum what Jody Fried is doing for Catamount. The energy and excitement in both places are palpable.

Across from the Athenaeum is the Caledonia Courthouse which has wonderful public art by photographer Michael Sacca and tapestries by Elizabeth Billings--installed about 10 years ago with Art in State Buildings funding when the Courthouse was significantly renovated.

Practically next door to the Courthouse is the South Congregational Church--a venue used by many arts groups looking for world class acoustics and significant seating capcity. Like the Catamount Center, The Fairbanks, Athenaeum, and Congregational Church have all received significant funding from the Council's Cultural Facilities Program over the years--as well as frequent program support.

And while we're still "on the hill" it hardly bears mentioning that the St. Johnsbury Academy is one of the preeminent secondary educational and cultural institutions in the New England. It boasts significant programs and instruction in the visual and performing arts--comparable in quantity and quality to such storied New England boarding school as Exeter, Andover and Milton Academies--and its guest artists' performances are almost always open to the public.

Just down the hill from Catamount Arts on Railroad Street is the new visitor's center (home of the NEK Chamber of Commerce in the old Railroad Depot)--again, a facility that has benefited from the Council's Cultural Facility program, and in the middle of the next block heading east on Rte 2 is the Northeast Kingdom Artisan's Guild, a gallery and store chock full of high quality arts and crafts. Those are the seven (eight, including Catamount) I know about--there probably are more.

I realize that this is sounding a lot like a travel writer's diary, but before I leave you to discover your own favorite part of St. Johnsbury, I have to mention the hardware store across from Catamount Arts where you can purchase just about anything you could possibly need for your home; the outstanding Elements Restaurant which had no problem accommodating the Council's board, staff and guests for dinner; and--perhaps the biggest surprise of all--the incredibly well-appointed Comfort Inn where several of us stayed.

St. Johnsbury--you really should see it for yourself. It's a great way to start your visit to Vermont's Northeast Kingdom.

Friday, October 16, 2009

Spray-feeding the Cloud

So a few days ago this gem pops up on my Facebook page from my kid brother Will, VP of Product for Tripit:

Will Aldrich is spray-feeding my URL in niblets open-face to the skein, maxing out the wiki snarls of RSS feeds (less jamming at the Google scaffold).

Will is having some fun at his nOOb older sib's expense. To his ilk, this makes perfect sense. To the rest of us it's more like a wake-up call.

Social networking. Facebook. MySpace. Twitter. RSS. These things that sound so easy and safe and yet probably are not, are everywhere. They lurk on our home computers, our laptops, our hand-helds. Their use may be part of the intellectual DNA of my four children (No, I'm not going to show them this post, but they'll probably learn about it soon enough), but not mine.

What the Html does all this mean? Less than five years ago I was fluent in the English language. Now I need lessons in a whole new vocabulary, sentence structure--and worse--a complete recontextualization of what it means to be a player in the world of ideas, imagination, and communication.

If you're like me you're probably getting desperate. I'm told social networking, viral marketing, and p-to-p are to this decade what email, listservs, and b-to-b were to the last decade. I'm just not ready for it yet. I liked the 1990s. Now I've got to navigate this new stuff. How do I start? What do I trust?

Someone on my own staff said to me last week, "I hate how you're using Twitter." Ouch. I had tweeted to my twibe a gwand total of five times. (What, am I seriously a twibe-tweeter? Oh how totally Elmer Fudd of me.) "You're the director of the Arts Council. I don't care whether your son remembers his soccer cleats."

Hmm...actually I thought I had posted that gem on Facebook. It turns out I had. But what I didn't know was in my zeal as a nOOb, I had conflated Facebook and Twitter by linking them so that what I posted to one also appeared in the other.

Yeah. Conflated. There's a word my brother Will will probably never use in a tweet. (Now, of course, he surely will. That's what brothers do.)

But getting back to the issue at hand.

One has to start somewhere. So here's where I'm starting.

Here's a guide to how to give yourself some privacy on Facebook. And here's an article that describes 12 ways to use Facebook in a business setting. Both the guide and the article were shared with me by another person on my staff through our listserv. How very 90s.

(Thank God!)

Monday, October 5, 2009

Looking Forward

The Times-Argus recently printed an article which gave a pretty bleak assessment of state budget woes in the coming years. According to the article, this recession is "different from the three previous recessions...[because] employment and consumer spending aren't expected to bounce back as quickly."

Among the measures states will have to use to balance their budgets are to increase college tuition, reduce funding for the arts and other cultural programs, and push costs for employees and repairs into the future.

Thomas Friedman predicted this back in a June 2003 NY Times column. The federal government is out of money. The $789 billion it borrowed last spring will stave off some things for a while. But the budget crunch is, according to how I read Friedman, the result of services that used to be paid for with federal dollars (that, as taxes, are significantly less for you and me) now being paid for by the individual states (which, especially in a low population state like Vermont, are considerably more expensive for you and me).

I'm neither an economist nor an educator, but it seems strange to me that every time our government (federal, state, or local) gets into trouble financially they look first to the arts and to education to start restoring some sort of balance.

I can just hear the conversations around federal and state policy-maker's cabinet-room tables.
"What?! We have a deficit of 4 trillion dollars?!"" Shocking!!" "We must do something!" "I know, let's take away all funding for the arts at the federal AND state level. That will save us a solid $500 million. $350 million for the states, and $150 million for the feds." "Oh, good show, that should keep the middle class distracted and at bay for a few more years." "Well done!"

Trouble is, when the national debt is pushing $12 trillion and growing by nearly $4 billion a day, the problem will not be solved by cutting arts and education.

In fact, picking the arts first as a place to cut seems a little disingenuous...

Employment and revenues are the biggest problem (if you're a glass-half-full kind of person) or health care, interest payments on the debt, defense spending, social services, and corrections are the biggest problem (if you're a glass-half-empty kind of person). Either way you look at it, the arts sector and the education sector are a significant part of the solution to what is or is not in the glass.

The arts sector is a significant employer/training ground for much of what drives our high tech economy (where do you think, for example, the film and music industries get their talent from anyway?). After family, education is probably the single biggest indicator of how a person will become socialized as an adult. The longer one stays in school--or, more accurately, the longer one continues his/her commitment to learning, the more positive one's life experiences are likely to be.

Why in hell is anyone thinking of cutting these things?

Here's what I've learned over the years. With only a few brave, sometimes controversial exceptions (like Richard Florida), economists generally don't know what to do with "the cultural sector." It is a sector that has either matured in the past decade or so--usually well after most economists finished their graduate training, or it matured millennia ago and economists (and the policy-makers they advise) have lost touch with it.

In either case, today's economists and their their measuring tools are inadequate to the task. It is certainly possible keep track of ticket sales, and art purchases. But there is nothing other than the so-called "multiplier effect " that allows us to infer the kind of spending that goes on in parking lots, gas stations, restaurants, and hotels as the result of arts events. And that's just barely capturing the true value of the cultural sector.

How does an economist measure the impact of a teaching artist? Or the impact of a clustering of visual artists in run-down warehouse district? Or Beethoven's Ninth Symphony? What tools has the economics profession developed that will convincingly relate the presence of a high-quality theater company or a cartoon school to the social and economic well-being of a village? (Yeah, White River Junction, that's a big shout-out to all of you! :))

What is it going to take for the soft science of economics to develop some harder edges where the arts and culture are concerned?

It seems to me that education and the arts are the absolute LAST places that government should cut. Biases aside, it's just not worth the price of elimination. Education is all about our future--our children's future. The arts are all about creativity and imagination.

We are going to need a lot of the latter if we are going to have a hope of delivering on the promise of the former.

So...if you want to do something to put a little more in the glass, click here. And, on behalf of artists and arts organizations in Vermont whose work inspires, thrills, entertains, and challenges us all, thank you for your ongoing support.

Monday, September 21, 2009


Last week, readers of Seven Days were treated to a wonderful feature article by co-founder and publisher Paula Routly on her associations, past and present, with the The Flynn Center for the Performing Arts' soon-to-retire, founding director Andrea Rogers. (see article)

In a state like Vermont, where a sneeze in Burlington results in a "Gesundheit!" from Brattleboro, this was (is) really big news.

I knew this was coming, of course. Andrea and I have both served on the board of the New England Foundation for the Arts for quite a few years and during the few times that we carpooled to meetings and shared stories about our lives and careers, we sometimes talked about how an organization with a long-serving director might best prepare for his/her eventual transition. But it was never Andrea we were discussing, ever. She was too engaged, too in love with her work (with all its challenges) to even THINK of retiring!

No, I learned about her retirement plans in typical fashion...from Andrea herself who called me a few weeks ago to let me know as a courtesy. I guess maybe she meant to give me some time to collect my thoughts before headhunters started calling to see if I knew anyone who could replace her.

As if!

The truth is, the Flynn without Andrea is going to be like Burlington would be without the Flynn. Or like Vermont would be without Burlington. Unimaginable.

When the news about Andrea went public, however, I didn't notice at first, because my head and heart were elsewhere, absorbed by something much sadder that took place unexpectedly in Dorset, Vt.

James (Jay) Hathaway, sculptor, entrepreneur, director of the Manchester-in-the-Mountains Chamber of Commerce, and Arts Council Trustee (Vice Chair) died suddenly at the end of a bike ride with his young grandson.

One hears about such things and reacts with shock and dismay at first. But they are soon replaced by an awareness of how incomprehensibly brief one's time on earth actually is. Jay lived every day like it was the first present opened on Christmas morning. He was unfailingly positive and imaginative; always willing to roll up his sleeves and get things done. And according to the consensus opinion of the people who attended his service in Dorset last week, every one of them was his best friend, his favorite person, the one who could make his day. All 500 of us.

I'm sure there are many people who could use these two transitions as a means to draw far more deep and meaningful conclusions about how we work and how we live. All I can do is look forward, sure that just as the Flynn will survive and thrive, so too will Jay's family and associates in Dorset. While Jay's life is over, his life's story surely is not. And while Andrea is retiring to a well-deserved "life after the Flynn," I'm sure there will be much more she will add to our lives here in Vermont.

In the meantime, Vermont's cultural life continues on in its frenzied pace, a pace set, in no small part, by Andrea Rogers and Jay Hathaway--two great friends of mine, two great friends of the Vermont Arts Council, and two great friends of the arts in Vermont.

Wednesday, September 9, 2009

doing our pART, too

A year ago we initiated a project called "doing our pART" which essentially created an opportunity for artists and others to convert their work into cash to support the Vermont Foodbank. We achieved our goal of raising $10,000 through an online auction of about 75 items, mostly visual art works. This figure represents about 20,000 healthy meals to hungry Vermonters.

A few months ago, the Obama administration intiated a program called United We Serve, a nationwide initiative to "create a sustained, collaborative and focused effort to meet community needs." While it might look like the feds took a page our of our "doing our pART" playbook in creating this program, the reality is this is just a plain, old-fashioned, great idea and everyone who thinks of it should get credit, even if they are not the first.

So in the context of United We Serve, say hello to "doing our pART, too."

The idea is essentially the same as last year. We are creating an opportunity for you or your organization to donate something to the Council who, in turn, will auction it off and the net proceeds will go to the Vermont Foodbank.

What is different about this year is that we are giving contributors the option of keeping 30% of the proceeds from the sale of their work product. They of course also have the option of donating the full about of the auction sale to the Foodbank. We hope that by repaying a portion of the costs associated with creating a work of art, more people will be inspired to participate.

Please go to the "doing our pART" section of our website and find out how you can do YOUR part!

Wednesday, August 26, 2009

Art of Action

The morning after driving 13 hours back from a Maryland vacation with wife, four kids, brother- and mother-in-law in the car in 95 degree heat with no air conditioning, I arrived at the West Monitor Barn in Richmond for "Bringing in the Suites" -- the official unveiling of the art commissioned for the Art of Action Project.

A cynic might say it was due to the fact that I was back in Vermont in a classic Vermont setting, or that I was not forced to sit for another 13 hours in a car with seven relatives that contributed to my good spirits. But the cynic would be flat wrong.

What was on display took my breath away. From the many small and accessible works by Susan Abbott to the exaggeratedly large comic relief-map creations of Phil Godenshwager to the pensive portraits of Janet McKenzie and so much more, the exhibition--if you could even call it that because most of the work was laid out on tables or balanced on crates leaning up against the roughed-in walls of the barn--was, simply, extraordinary.

Lyman Orton, Janice Izzi, and I welcomed the 150-plus guests and thanked Tom Hark and his crew at the Vermont Youth Conservation Corps for the use of their facility. We all talked about the genesis of the Art of Action and we watched as Jeb Wallace Brodeur photographed each work for posterity all afternoon.

It was the first and last time all 103 works created for the project were in the same place at the same time...until next July 17, 2010 when they go to auction. But that's for a later blog...

This blog is to make sure all of you see these works when they come to a town near you during the next 10 months or so. A 24-town tour (including a stop in Washington DC) is on tap for about a third of the works; and the rest will be divvied up among galleries and other alternative exhibition sites.

The first tour stop is at the Hand Chevrolet Dealership in Manchester, Vermont starting September 1 (for a complete schedule of events in Manchester, click here).

Yes, you read it right. A Chevy Dealership.

Why? you might ask.

It was always the intent of the Art of Action project to reflect back to Vermonters what their hopes and dreams and fears about the future of Vermont were. The Vermont Council on Rural Development didn't just ask gallery owners and museum curators or arts philanthropists what their thoughts were during the research project that we now refer to as the Council on the Future of Vermont. They asked 4000 Vermonters from all walks of life--from the brew-pub manager up the street, to the snowplow guy in the next town over; from students in the nearby state college, to campers in the nearby state park. They asked a HUGE cross section of Vermonters.

Where better way to showcase the art that Vermonters helped inspire than to bring it back to the center of Vermont downtowns, where commerce happens everyday, where people have to shop, or grab a quick bite to eat, or--whether they own a clunker or not--buy a car.

We really wanted to be sure that before it went off into private collections, or galleries, or museums, that as many Vermonters could share the same kind of moment that all of us felt a few days ago in the West Monitor Barn in Richmond. It was a special moment, one that had a uniquely authentic "Vermont" feel. It was, for many of us, a transformational moment.

It moves on to Brattleboro in mid-September. For a complete map of the tour click on this tour link.

A final word of thanks to all the artists for their superhuman effort to complete the works in a timely fashion; and especially to Janet Van Fleet whose curatorial skill knows no bounds.

Wednesday, August 12, 2009

When "Never" Comes Knocking...

In the past 10 days I have traveled throughout Vermont attending concerts, plays, openings, and community events from Morrisville to Brattleboro and Weston to Shelburne. Along the way I have visited with artists, administrators, civic leaders, legislators, and current and former trustees.

During this time I have come to understand much better one crucial element about the arts scene in Vermont. No, it's not that Vermont artists and arts organizations are without peer when it comes to delivering high-quality, engaging work. I already knew that.

It's that the Arts Council needs to continue to improve how it shares information among the sector, and connects people to each other around the state. Examples of the challenges we face are numerous and often surprisingly hard to fix.

Using the Council itself as just one example: in recent articles, and in comments to other postings in this blog, we have been accused of sacrificing artistic excellence in favor of community arts projects that, in the opinion of those voicing their concerns, "dumb down the arts."

Nothing could be further from the truth.

The fact is artistic excellence still carries as much weight in our grant decisions as it ever has. I daresay any recent grantee would attest to this fact. What has changed is that both the Palettes project and Art Fits Vermont (funded by private contributions) have added a new dimension to what we do as an agency that serves the public. We still support artists, arts organizations, arts education activities to the same degree we always have. But we now support them in new ways--ways that bring more members of the public "under our tent." Lest we forget, the bulk of the money we spend on grants and services is public money. We need the public under our tent!

Here's another example. We frequently ask people served by our grants and subscribers to ArtMail, what else they need from us. "What would be really great," they respond "is if there is a way to find out what was going on in our community or even around the state."

As hard as it is for me to imagine, it is clear that there are people out there who still haven't heard about the Vermont Arts Calendar. Clearly our work is not over. We MUST do better at communicating the breadth and depth of our services.

One of the most positive trends that caught my attention during my recent tour, was hearing of the progress being made to weave support for the arts into the fabric of local community planning and development.

For example, in Rutland and Killington, efforts started years ago, initially in the context of Cultural Heritage Tourism and more recently with the Creative Economy (efforts managed magnificently by the Vermont Council on Rural Development on whose board I sit) have begun to bear significant fruit.

Cultural organizations throughout the state are beginning to understand that sharing their knowledge, their productions, their administrative costs and simply staying in touch with each other is a very effective way to combat this economic downturn.

We must do more to facilitate this type of cross-communication. Unfortunately, sharing ideas and wisdom often runs counter to our Vermont character.

This story was related to me by a trustee of one organization who asked his fellow trustees: "have any of you ever been to a performance at the XYZ theater (in a town about a half hour away)?" "Never," was the reply "and they don't come to our shows either!"

"Why then," asked the trustee thinking quite logically, "don't we share productions?"

"Oh we couldn't," was the reply. "We never do that here."

Well guess what? "Never" is now knocking on doors all over the state, and we'd like to do whatever it takes to make people comfortable about opening up. This is our job, and this, more than anything, gives me reason to feel positively about the future of Vermont's arts sector.

Monday, July 27, 2009

Missed Opportunity

In the next few weeks the Council will announce its first round of 2010 grant awards. In addition we will announce the recipients of Art Jobs grant funding--the $250,000 in stimulus money the Vermont Arts Council received for redistribution from the National Endowment for the Arts' $50 million portion of the American Recovery and Reinvestment Act (ARRA).

The limitations the NEA at the direction of Congress placed on the Arts Jobs program are brutal. First, its focus must be on job reinstatement or retention, so supporting organizations whose service is largely done by volunteers places them at an immediate competitive disadvantage. Second, funding is limited to organizations for whom the arts are a core part of their mission thus eliminating many significant Vermont non-arts institutions who, from time to time, engage in worthy arts activities. Third, even for a small state like Vermont, it's simply not enough money. Depending on the size of their operating budgets, organizations could apply for grants of up to $10,000. We received more than 90 applications from eligible organizations requesting nearly $730,000 in funds. This guarantees that for every one applicant who benefits two will be disappointed.

State arts councils across the country are seeing similar statistics. Those that have already informed applicants of the funding outcomes are reporting a common set of responses from those who were unsuccessful. First, there is disappointment which soon turns to fear (now what do we do?) and then to anger (how dare they tell us we are not worth of funding?)

We expect Vermont applicants to have similar responses.

There are no responses we can offer that organizations who have been denied competitive funding in the past haven't already heard. For some reason, however, not receiving ARRA funding hits a lot harder than other grant program outcomes. The question is why?

I can think of two things: the fact that unreasonable expectations were raised by virtue of the sums of money that were under discussion; and the fact that we all missed a huge opportunity--or perhaps a better way to phrase it is that a huge opportunity missed us.

Most people don't really grasp the context of $50 million out of $789 billion. But if you do the math, $50 million is 0.000064 of $789 billion--or 64/10,000ths of one percent. (For those who still are having a hard time conceiving what that means, it's the same relationship that 6.4 cents has to $100,000. As far as ARRA is concerned, the arts might as well be lost in the sofa cushions or left in a dish at the deli counter).

Even if it turns out someone got confused and thought we were meant to have $50 million per state, the combined $2.5 billion dollars allotted to the arts would still be less than 1/3rd of 1% of the $789 billion. Either way you look at it, we are talking tiny amounts of money, even though it seems like $50 million (nationally), and $250,000 (in Vermont) is a lot. It's not. And to make matters worse, it's a tiny fraction of what might have been.

I can't help but think back to the wonderful works created during the 1930s. Art that adorned walls in public buildings, or was integrated into the infrastructure of our plazas, bridges and public places; music that was commissioned to commemorate significant events; plays that were written and produced; dances and dance companies that were formed that are still in existence today--all of this and so much more was either directly or indirectly the result of a federal policy that invested significant funds into the arts through the Works Projects Administration.

What, I have to ask, would the American Reinvestment and Recovery Act have accomplished if, instead of putting $50 million into the NEA for the support of the arts nationwide, it had instead required on every public works project funded to spend a half-percent of the total budget for that project on aesthetic interpretations and improvements, and celebratory activities in locations where the public works' impact was most immediately felt?

Or, to make it even more palatable to state and local governments, what if the requirement had been only a quarter-percent, with a challenge for local communities to match it one-to-one?

Here's how the numbers would work out: at .25 percent, $1.973 billion in challenge funds would be available for improvements at the state and local level.

With the required match in hand from private and local sources, that's $3.945 billion-worth of artistic creations and aesthetic improvements over the entire course of the Stimulus funds' impact--or nearly 79 times as much funding available for the arts than under the current bill.

Americans are comfortable with the concept of a percent for art. Even a quarter-percent for art is better than nothing. And it is WAY better than 64/10,000ths of a percent for art. What a missed opportunity.

Next time (if there is a next time) let's lobby for a percent for art and leave the decisions for how to spend money on art at the community/project level. More art will be created. More artists will be employed. And communities all over Vermont, indeed all over the country, will enjoy the lasting impact of this support for generations to come.

The question I really want answered is: Is it too late to do our own WPA-like program with the $770 million of ARRA funds coming into Vermont for infrastructure improvements like roads, bridges, renewable energy, schools, and communications? A quarter percent for Art of that amount would come to nearly $1, 925,000. Think how that would improve our land- and city-scapes...

Tuesday, July 14, 2009

Determining Impact

The Arts Council reports to five sets of stake-holders: The IRS, because we are an independent non-profit of a size that requires us to fill out a Form 990 every year; The National Endowment for the Arts (NEA), because we are one of the 56 state or regional partners that receive the bulk of its federal funds through this small independent agency; the Governor, because his annual budget process is the starting point for determining what our state appropriation will be; the Legislature--particularly the House and Senate Appropriations and Institutions committees--because they tend to be the ending point for determining our annual state appropriation; and our members, represented by the Board of Trustees, who set policy, adopt our mission and strategic plan, approve our annual budget, and provide executive oversight.

The general public is also a stakeholder, but for the sake of argument, I would suggest that their interest tends to be covered by a combination the IRS, the Legislature, and the Membership.

From time to time, there are additional stakeholders. Some are collaborators like other statewide nonprofits (Historical Society, Preservation Trust, and the Vt. Council on Rural Development) who work with us on Cultural Facilities and the Creative Economy. Others are funders--foundations, corporations, or federal agencies (other than the NEA) who have funded more specific projects like the Millenium Arts Partnership, Palettes, Art Fits Vermont, and the Cream of Vermont music sampler. And a few are state partners, like the Tourism Dept. or the Agency of Agriculture with whom we (have) work(ed) on projects like Cultural Heritage Tourism and the Big E.

All of these stakeholders are interested in impact. Why? Because it is not enough to keep busy doing work that you know is important. THEY have to know it's important, too. And the only way to do that is to evaluate the program, project, or service; provide evidence that backs up the claims that you (hopefully) made at the start of the work; and make it all so clear and compelling that, of course, you will receive more funding to do more programs and services the next year.

Okay, so we all know what we are supposed to do: show the value--no, PROVE the value of investing funds and experts' time in supporting arts education, showcasing the arts in all their forms, and helping artists and organizations to market and promote their own goods and services. Using labels like "value added," "authentic," "rooted in traditions" and many more, we tend to talk about the arts in terms of its impact on tourism, economic development, community development, and individual learning and personal growth.

But the dirty little secret is this: no amount of evaluation, of measuring impacts of the arts in terms of economic development or increased tourism, or telling the sweet stories about how little Johnnie suddenly turned his life around in seventh grade when he discovered acting is going to change the mind of anyone who hasn't lived through the "transformational moment" that occurs when one experiences great art in person.

The best we can do is tell stories about how people (elsewhere, usually) have adopted an arts-based plan or project and transformed a community. I can tell you about, for instance, the Police Poetry and Photo Calendar project in Portland, ME but unless you knew some of the folks personally who participated and you are a mayor or police chief yourself, you're highly unlikely to advocate for such a project for your own town. YOU have to be the catalyst; YOU have to take a leadership role; YOU have to be the one to pick up the phone and make the phone call. If you don't "get it" you won't make the phone call. And your excuse will be something like, "well that's all well and good for Portland ME, but we're not in Portland ME."

Yeah yeah yeah.

Once a person has experienced the arts it is impossible to look upon world events--or even local events--without wondering how much better things might have been had we only taken time to experience them the way an artist might. My personal fantasy is to wonder what might have happened if our most recent President had paused with a group of collaborating artists and considered how best to respond to the crimes that took place on 9/11.

In this blog, I once referred to Liz Lerman as having said (and I must paraphrase), "it's clear that the Bush administration never learned the lessons we all learn right away in the theater: rehearsals are not just a tool to establish blocking assignments and lighting cues, but to work out problems that will arise to thwart the progress of the play. If they had only rehearsed their script, the Bush administration would have quickly realized their play had no ending..."

The challenge ultimately, is not what words can we think of that attempt to convey the impact of art on our lives because, with the exception of skilled poets and novelists in whose hands words become, themselves, works of art, words are inadequate to the task.

We must instead expose people to the impact of the arts. Often.

Help us make our many conversations and reports about "impact" and "value" easier. Invite someone to a show this summer. If he/she is on your local select board, school board, zoning commission, or a member of the legislature, invite him/her twice. Not only will you and I be glad you did, so will he/she.

There is still time and there is a lot to choose from.

Stay dry, and enjoy these next six weeks!

Wednesday, July 1, 2009

Celebrating Volunteers

People who review our strategic plan often assume that our goal regarding "increas(ing) opportunities for everyone in Vermont to experience and/or participate in the arts" is limited to helping those who want to become painters, actors, musicians, dancers, writers, poets, filmmakers, composers, etc.

While serving these needs is an important part of what we do, the goal has a much larger mandate.

We certainly want to create a vibrant lifestyle in Vermont in which any and all efforts that result in creative activities, whether in a classroom, living room, gallery, or performing arts center are valued and applauded. But we also want to nurture a Vermont in which those who are not inclined to "be" an artist, are nevertheless encouraged to learn how to appreciate and value and experience the work of those who are so inclined.

One can experience art in a variety of ways, but for the sake of brevity, I will only list four: the performer/artist who (re)creates the artistic experience; the audience-member who reacts to the artistic experience; the administrator who establishes the most optimal conditions under which the performer/artist and audience-member may (re)create and react most effectively; and, finally, the volunteer whose tasks run the gamut from serving on the front lines of customer service, like parking cars and ushering, to setting an organization's operating policies, including its mission, vision, and strategic plans. None of these experiences are mutually exclusive--in fact in many of our most vibrant organizations and artists serve as administrators and volunteers and vice versa.

Volunteers are the lifeblood of not-for-profits. In Vermont's arts sector, they are what keep the doors of our several-hundred arts organizations open. They are the "keepers of the flame," the holders of the collective institutional (and even community) memory. They step in when paid administrators burn out. They protect and sustain their communities' cultural assets because those assets belong to them more than to any others. They "own" them emotionally and psychologically.

With notable exceptions (the amazing ushers, for example, who receive their 20-, 30-, or even 40-year pins!) even volunteers can burn out. They do so for a variety of reasons, but for the last several years I've begun hearing about a disturbing trend--fewer young people than ever are stepping into the shoes of those who retire or move away.

Part of this trend is the result of our economy. More people in the work-force than ever, and more people looking for work (due to the downturn), have resulted in the creation of a huge disincentive for people to volunteer.

But I think there is also a sociological reason for this trend. "Leisure time entertainment" has dramatically increased in the past 15 years, offering tantalizing--and enormously time-consuming--alternatives to young people who might otherwise have volunteered. Television was intrusive enough when I was a kid. But kids today have computers, hand-helds, ipod touches, wiis, and other addictive tech toys. Even worse, a significant amount of this type of entertainment is geared towards (and is largely responsible for) the short attention span of Gen-Xers, Millenials, and other cohorts who often feel antipathy towards art forms that require any kind of sustained concentration. Thus, even if one is fortunate enough to attract young volunteers to give their time and energy to an arts activity, there's a good chance that the art form itself will hold limited appeal for them. While many still volunteer because it is the least expensive way to experience a play or an opera, or an opening, it is my fear that fewer and fewer people are volunteering for that reason.

So I'm curious. Why do people--particularly young people--volunteer in this day and age?

One reason is perhaps in response to an ideological call for public service, like the White House's recent United We Serve program. But there are other good reasons to volunteer--as Dear Abby is quick to reassure her readers. Meeting people with similar interests (social networking in person--what a concept!) is a great reason to volunteer. Professional networking is another (spending quality face time with the director of an organization as a volunteer is even better than getting a killer recommendation from your favorite college professor, I promise). Also, professionals often volunteer their services as lawyers, accountants, or management consultants simply because they receive huge psychological and social rewards for doing so.

Of all the reasons to volunteer, however, the most important for me is the degree to which doing so creates a shared sense of community. Yes, social networking is certainly part of that. But volunteering--if only for an hour or two a month--offers a glimpse into what makes a community--YOUR community--tick. This is a community benefit--not just a personal benefit.

There are hundreds of opportunities in Vermont to volunteer, especially during the summer. Almost any not-for-profit needs your help. But I'm speaking now on behalf of all Vermont cultural organizations--from historical societies to opera houses, libraries to festivals.

We all need your help. Our participation in the Lake Champlain Quad Celebration (which, yes, needs its own volunteers) offers lots of opportunities to participate (or experience, if you prefer) the arts. The first is at puzzlePalooza where we need help putting together a Guinness Book of World Records-setting jigsaw puzzle, the second is at the parade during which we need people to represent the more than 190 Vermont towns who have participated in Art Fits Vermont (the puzzle project). Both are on July 11th. Click here for information.

Volunteering locally is really only a matter of making one phone call, or visiting one website. Simple, really.

And for you newcomers to the volunteering "scene," there's one other thing that any old-timer will tell you: wear comfortable shoes.

Friday, June 12, 2009

(Not) Cheap Art

The story goes that, years ago, a marketing hotshot created an ad campaign for Subaru with the following tag-line: "Cheap, and built to stay that way!"

Sales of Subarus promptly nose-dived, the campaign was ditched, the hotshot fired.

Subaru was, of course, trying to position itself as the inexpensive but reliable alternative to a host of competitors in the class of vehicles designed to attract the attention of the cost-conscious suburban/rural soccer mom.

Anyone who has or knows a real soccer mom also knows that that particular cohort is not into "cheap." Inexpensive, sure. Cheap, no.

I confess, I feel the way the Subaru soccer mom does when I hear or see the term "cheap art for sale." I cringe.

Lately, I've been seeing more and more notices for Cheap Art; often they are poorly magic-markered onto cardboard signs at local Farmers' Markets. But in a recent notice about the Northeast Kingdom being featured in the July/August issue of National Geographic Explorer Magazine, the Kingdom is described, in part, as "home to the pioneering Cheap Art Movement."

Hmmm. Is this "on brand?" as our Tourism Commissioner likes to intone?

Our "pioneering heritage" as the first to outlaw slavery, the first to recognize civil unions, the first to use a postage stamp, laughing gas, sandpaper, and a host of other firsts, is something that all of us in Vermont may be proud of.

But cheap art?

I can't imagine anything more likely to quash a desire to visit the Kingdom than the prospect of being exposed to bale after bale of Cheap Art. [Note to self: whales come in pods, crows come in murders; check the internet to see of Cheap Art comes in bales. It sounds like it should.]

There's a guy in town who, when he completes them, shellacs jigsaw puzzles, frames them, and hangs them on his wall. He has several dozen creations and, he tells me, he only hangs a small portion of his collection at a time and he changes it whenever the mood suits him. He's got a farm in Peacham, Main Street in Moscow, Ascutney Mountain in the fall, and a bunch of other Vermont land- and village-scapes about which he regularly boasts.

There was a barber down in Savannah, GA in the 1980s who took up whittling. Over the course of his lifetime, he recreated pretty much every person he came in contact with as a small wooden doll, crafted with his two hands and a two-dollar pen-knife. Sometimes he'd give one of his pieces to a family member as a holiday gift, but most often he'd give them away to clients who liked them. Then he'd whittle another likeness. At his death he had a collection of nearly a thousand dolls he'd created over the years.

So here's a trick question: which of these makes cheap art, and which does not?

Here's my take on it.

If an artist values his/her own creations so low as to allow them to be labeled "Cheap," it creates an oxymoron. Art is not cheap. Art is never cheap, not when it is the result of a guy putting a jigsaw puzzle together, framing it and hanging it on his wall, or whiling away the hours with a pen-knife and a block of scrap wood.

Cheap is a state of mind. It starts with "inexpensive" and takes a disrespectful turn into self-loathing. Cheap is not Vermont. Cheap is not Art.

Let's do something about this; can we call it "Inexpensive Art" "Affordable Art" "Art Anyone Can Own" "Art for People for Whom Money is the Only Object" or something else? Please?

Monday, June 1, 2009

WWW The Vermont Arts Council

As we started planning for our 44th Annual Meeting in the Vermont State House on Thursday June 4th, our Board recognized that so many things have changed in the past few years, both nationally and in Vermont, that it would be a good thing to provide an overview of who we are, what we do, and why we do it--hence the WWW title of this post. The following (with a few edits) was distributed to Vermont media outlets earlier this week and I thought it a nice way to introduce my first-ever “Guest Blog Post” from Marie Houghton, the Council’s Chair Enjoy!--ALA

In 1965 the Vermont legislature approved Act 170 which directed state and federal funds to the Vermont Arts Council for the purpose of "increasing the opportunities for Vermont's citizens and visitors to view, enjoy and participate" in the arts.

For the past 45 years, trends in the arts have fluctuated but we have held that founding principle as the basis for all we do. We have also followed the lead of the National Endowment for the Arts (NEA) in articulating artistic excellence as the core criterion by which we assess applications for funds. At times it has been a challenge to respond nimbly to national and state influences in our operating environment. But through it all we have remained community-centered.

Until the 1980s, the Council’s appropriation from the NEA (representing more than a third of our budget) grew annually and we invested heavily in developing the capacity of Vermont’s cultural organizations. The Council offered sizable operating funds to community arts organizations and healthy artist fellowship grants. Our primary focus was on facilitating organizations’ ability to present—and individuals’ ability to create—art.

The environment supporting an "art for art’s sake" philosophy began to erode during the Reagan era, and when funding from the NEA was slashed in the mid-90s, the Council faced a new reality. With less money, how could the Council help organizations fulfill their missions; artists retain their creative vitality; and schools and community centers avoid cutbacks in arts education programs?

Our response—arrived at through careful planning and experimentation—was to invest time and energy in new collaborations around Cultural Heritage Tourism, the Creative Economy, technology-based arts-learning, and projects like Palettes of Vermont that encouraged public participation in creative activities.

Today the Council is reaching a broader Vermont audience than ever. In the past five years we’ve given nearly 700 grants totaling $2.3 million for creation, presentation and arts education. Peer panelists review and recommend grant applications for funding based on criteria that, in virtually every case, states “high artistic quality” as the primary consideration for funding.

In terms of outreach, however, nothing we have done has been as successful as our Statewide Community Arts Projects: 47,000 Vermonters participated in the 2006 Palettes of Vermont project and 60,000 are currently engaged in Art Fits Vermont (the puzzle project). We do not believe that encouraging Vermonters to participate in the arts at whatever level they are comfortable, and rewarding outstanding work, whether created by artists or presented by arts organizations, are mutually exclusive activities. They are not.

As trustees we are proud of the Council's work, from our statewide projects, our grant programs and workshops that support the creation and presentation of art, to our Cultural Facilities Program and the "Art of Action." This last is an innovative, public/private collaboration with Lyman Orton and has resulted in the largest commissioning project in the Council’s history and was the cover story of the February 4, 2009 issue of Seven Days.

Our recent listening tour provided great food for thought as we evaluate how best to serve Vermont’s creative community in the current environment. We are always open to new ideas: drop by the Council's office in Montpelier, send us an email, or give us a call with your thoughts. Even better, come to the Vermont State House on Thursday, June 4 and join us at 4 pm for our Annual Meeting and Awards ceremony. We look forward to your participation.


Marie Houghton, Chair
Vermont Arts Council

Monday, May 18, 2009

Lip Service isn't Enough

In the late 1950s, according to symphony lore, San Francisco thought it had a world-class symphony orchestra. However a few people, including the SFO Executive Director, knew differently. With the backing of a committed group of trustees he invited several of the country's best orchestras to perform in San Francisco. For the next couple of years San Franciscans were treated to performances by the Boston, Philadelphia, Cleveland, and Chicago Symphony orchestras.

It didn't take San Franciscans long to realize that while their symphony was pretty good, it wasn't world class.

The result? They hired a young Seiji Ozawa and within a matter of years, San Francisco's recordings began to match those of its more reputable east-coast competitors and its performances were regarded by the press and the audience as, finally and truly, world class.

Here in Vermont, we have a different kind of problem. We actually DO have world-class artists whose output (whether visual, performing, literary, or media) rivals any other place in any other time. We also have performance and exhibition venues that consistently provide Vermont audiences with lively, intimate, and highly welcoming cultural experiences that are often rooted in the community's local customs.

Unfortunately, as I write this post, I can't think of a single Vermont artist who makes his or her living from his/her art in Vermont. I have come to understand that there are three ways to survive as an artist in Vermont: 1) you have a day job such as teaching, waiting tables, or farming; 2) you have already earned, inherited, or married into great wealth; or 3) you have a substantial out-of-state network of patrons who regularly hire you.

The reason artists have a hard time earning a living from their art is in part rooted in our geography and demographics. We have evolved as a state with powerful tendencies to value "local control" over our own circumstances. Our (tiny) population is about the same as Acapulco, Mexico, but with more than 250 towns, each of which feels its offerings are unique and distinct from its neighbors', Vermont has a very difficult time sustaining its abundant cultural institutions, much less its individual-artist population.

But there is another problem--one that is well within our means to address: Vermont does not sufficiently market itself as an "arts destination."

How do we fix this?

San Francisco showed its own population that its symphony was not world class by bringing symphonies that were to play. We have to do a similar thing only in reverse. We have to bring Vermont artists (or their works) out of state--to other population centers--and show people what they're missing. The assumption being that once they see the level of quality and professionalism, those audiences will want to come to Vermont on their own.

North Carolina did this kind of thing years ago with its "Handmade In America" driving tours throughout the Blue Ridge Piedmont. Hundreds of thousands of visitors now take "weekenders" or "staycations" in what used to be one of the poorest, most rural, depressed-and-depressing regions of southern Appalachia. The amount of money they spend on incredibly-wrought arts-and-crafts items and local performances would boggle your mind... well as support quite a few artists, that's for sure.

So...two tasks: market Vermont as an Arts Destination, and Take this Show on the Road.

Two exhibitions in the next 12 months are taking artists' works on the road. The first, Rediscovering Champlain, organized by Doug Lazarus of Middlebury features 39 works by Vermont Artists. This exhibit is finishing up its run at Shelburne Farms and will soon go on tour to New York and Boston.

The second, Art of Action, organized in partnership with Lyman Orton by the Arts Council will bring about 50 works from 10 Vermont Artists on tour to Washington DC (as well as 26 venues throughout the State of Vermont) next year.

It's my hope that these efforts, combined with the outstanding work that Jay Craven and his colleagues have done in Burlington to pull together a significant cultural festival around the Champlain 400 celebration will go along way towards kick-starting Vermont's brand image as a "world class arts destination."

Slogans anyone?

Tuesday, April 28, 2009

What gives a community its Vitality?

A couple of weeks ago a former trustee paid me a visit. He told me a story about how he recently took some heat in his community for remarks he made about how important the not-for-profit cultural organizations were to the economic health and vitality of his town.

I don't have access to the full story and its reportage, but it sounded like quite a few people took offense at his suggestion that the cultural institutions in his town were what drew people to visit, live, work, and raise families there. (What about the restaurants, the bookstore, the artist collaborative?, they cried. What about the grocery stores, the car dealership, and the movie theater? What about the hiking, biking, and fishing that was conveniently located within minutes of the downtown? What about the people, the finely built homes, the attractive downtown?)

How DARE he (my former trustee) suggest it was the cultural institutions that were responsible for the town's economic identity?

What is interesting to me about this story is that when one talks about a Vermont town or village, one can be pretty sure that all of them share many of the same characteristics. Shops, grocery stores, and easy access to outdoor recreation are common to virtually every town or village center in Vermont.

But I'm pretty sure that what my former trustee was talking about was not those fairly common characteristics, but those characteristics about his town that were UNcommon. It's very easy to imagine any town with a grocery store, a book store (although a good independent bookstore is a rare treasure these days) and even an eatery of some kind or other.

Burlington is not unique because it has just any performing arts center or thriving visual arts scene. It is unique because it has the Flynn Center for the Performing Arts, it has the Firehouse Gallery, and it has the South End, North End, and all-around-the-town artists scene (yes, including the colleges and University) that, whether the Art Hop or the Jazz Fest or some other type of cultural activity, gives Burlington its unique character. That it is the queen city on the lake is a bonus, but again--of all the towns that share that characteristic (being on a lake), none except for Burlington, is Burlington. If you don't believe me, ask yourself, when was the last time you visited Plattsburgh? Will you be going back any time soon?

The same is true for Bennington, St. Johnsbury, Brattleboro, Weston, St. Albans, Montpelier, Randolph, Bellows Falls, Vergennes, Brandon and many many more. Plenty of towns have good schools, a great library, a museum, a performing arts center, a great artist coop, some good restaurants, a good bookstore. But only Bennington has the Bennington College, Bennington Museum, the Oldcastle Theater, the Artists' Guild, and (slightly north) the Vermont Arts Exchange as well as good restaurants, stores, etc. Only St. Johnsbury has the Athenaeum, the Fairbanks Museum, Catamount Arts, and the St. J Academy (and a great artists coop, bookstore, and a few restaurants). Only Brattleboro...oh heck, you get the picture.

All of these towns are unique (and thus attractive to visitors, new businesses, relocators, etc.) largely because of the cultural institutions they play host to.

I felt badly for my former trustee. He fell victim to what I now call the "me too" syndrome that afflicts everyone in times of economic crisis. No one's livelihood is inconsequential to the life and vitality of a town. So when someone dares to suggest that what makes a town unique and attractive to investment (whether of marketing dollars or business incentives) doesn't include you and your work, you tend to get defensive. (What about me? I'm important. My work matters.)

But too much "me too" results in the fabric of our communities becoming frayed and the institutions that define their cultural legacies reduced, ultimately, to rubble.

We can't let that happen. Not in Vermont.

Tuesday, April 7, 2009

According to my 5-second research project on Google it was Georges Santayana who first said, "those who are ignorant of history are doomed to repeat it." This quote is on my mind these days as we get closer to the April 9th release of the report from the Council on the Future of Vermont (CFV) in the Vermont State House. For those of you are unable to attend this "pre-summit conference" please make plans to attend the May 11th day-long Summit on the Future of Vermont at the Dudley Davis Center at the University of Vermont. The April 9th pre-summit is free; the summit in May requires a registration fee, but should be well worth it.

I have had the privilege of reviewing an early draft of the CFV's report on the future of Vermont, and it is extraordinary.

It is extraordinary because of its scope and the degree to which the CFV reached out to segments of Vermont communities that rarely are heard from either by choice or by circumstance. It is extraordinary because of the breadth of experience and knowledge that the CFV members bring to bear on this huge undertaking.

It is extraordinary because of the degree to which this report seeks to engage Vermont in an ongoing dialogue about what kind of state it wants to be--an amazing, complex, messy, and ultimately rewarding civic exercise writ on a very large scale. And it is extraordinary how important decisions that were made in Vermont's past continue to resonate today.

Many of you familiar with the Arts Council know that for most of the past year we have developed a project in collaboration with Lyman Orton and in conjunction with the CFV. Called "The Art of Action," this project is designed to allow artists time, money, and "creative space" to reflect on the CFV's report findings, and--through art--respond to the report and to Vermont itself. As one member of the VCRD board put it this will be "one of many end-products that result from the CFV's two-year effort."

What will the "Art of Vermont's Future" look like?

There are so many world-class artists of all disciplines who have had a strong connection to Vermont, who have identified with its rugged, rural attributes, and its spirit of independence, you can almost feel the energy of their presence and the impact of their legacy. It's hard to imagine any artist, charged with creating work "on Vermont's future," ignoring Vermont's past. Of the 10 artists selected to participate in "Art of Action," four (David Brewster, Annemie Curlin, Curtis Hale, and Janet McKenzie) will be on hand for the April 9th event in the State House. My suspicion is that their work will definitely get us all talking about the future.

In a State where the past is of such great value to its people maybe it's time to go back to Georges Santayana's adage and amend it as follows: "those who are ignorant of history are doomed to repeat it--except in Vermont, where the people know their history well and repeat it when they wish, and build on it with pleasure."

* * * * *

On a completely different subject, Diane Scolaro, Allison Coyne Carroll and I returned last week from Washington DC where, in addition to meeting with our Congressional Delegation on a variety of arts issues, we attended the annual Nancy Hanks Lecture, this year given by Wynton Marsalis. Speaking for more than an hour without notes in front of about 2000 people at the Kennedy Center, Marsalis gave one of the great speeches of this, or any, generation. It's 90 minutes long (of which the first 10 minutes or so are an introduction) but well-worth the time.

Friday, March 27, 2009

On the Gay Marriage Issue

Midway through Arts Achievement Day this past week (March 25, 2009), word filtered out of the Vermont State House that Governor Douglas would veto a gay marriage bill if it landed on his desk.

Remembering back to the Civil Unions debates earlier this decade, I quickly realized that no amount of quality arts activity taking place in the State House would penetrate the wall of news that the Governor’s press conference would generate. Sure enough, in Thursday’s paper, I searched in vain for even one reference to the dozens of artists, students, advocates, and arts supporters who put on such a creative show at the State House a day earlier.

So…bowing to the inevitable, I have come to understand one key thing:

This year, one way or the other, it’s all going to be about gay marriage--or civil marriage if you prefer.

2009 is not going to be “the year that Vermont turned the economy around (or didn’t).” It won’t be “the year that the legislature finally passed (or didn’t) a motion picture incentive bill that offers a transferable tax credit to those making a film in Vermont.” It won’t be “the year that the legislature increased (or didn’t) the Arts Council’s state appropriation to a level that matches that of the National Endowment for the Arts.”

Nope. This is going to be “the year that gay marriage passed the Vermont House and was signed into law by the Governor (or wasn’t).”

I am forbidden by law to advocate for a particular position regarding pending legislation since I am the director of an independent 501(c)(3) organization that also serves as the official Vermont State Arts Agency. I am, however, allowed to offer fair and balanced opportunities to all people to educate themselves about issues of note.

Trust me, no matter how you feel about it, this is an issue of note.

Many of you have already made up your mind one way or the other on gay marriage. This post, however, is directed to those of you who have NOT made up your mind about whether you support or oppose gay marriage.

Go to the website for those advocating for traditional marriage: Take It To The People.

Then go to the website for those advocating for gay marriage rights: Freedom to Marry.

Still haven’t made up your mind? Go back and do it again, and yet again if you have to. I truly don’t care what your position ends up being. I just don’t want you or your children, grandchildren, or great-grandchildren to feel any regret that you didn’t take a position and communicate it to your legislators when you had the chance.

As to where I personally stand on this issue, feel free to draw your own conclusions.

Monday, March 23, 2009

Perspective Anyone?

I don't remember too many details from Fine Arts 13, my undergraduate survey course on the History and Appreciation of Western Classical Art. But I remember vividly the Venus of Willendorf, a squat fertility figure dating back many thousands of years, and I remember a lot of classical statuary, Roman architecture, and the Moorish influence in Spain in the late Middle Ages. But mostly I remember the profound feeling of relief that came over me when, as we started in on the Italian Renaissance in the early 15th Century, artists (Brunelleschi comes to mind) started to use perspective as a principle tool for organizing three-dimensional images on a two-dimensional canvas.

Ahhhh. Perspective. Something we all need. Something we rarely enjoy.

In art, of course, perspective is often something that professional artists love to play with. I have a couple of coffee-table books and many ties in my closet with images taken from the works of M. C. Escher. They provide hours of amusement for my children and me as we trace the passage of someone walking up the underside of a staircase and emerging through a door sideways. It's a little disconcerting but also a useful tool to explore how different points of view result in different outcomes.

Of late I have been reminded how a little more training in the use of perspective might have been useful during the past couple of months on the economic front. I've already raved about the ridiculousness of the US Senate getting all crazy about $50 million of the stimulus bill going to support efforts by the National Endowment for the Arts (NEA). $50 million, for those of you who missed my post, is about 63/10,000ths of 1% of the total $789 billion stimulus package. Kind of puts things in perspective, doesn't it?

But then I remembered something important. The Senate used to get all crazy over the NEA's $172 million budget back in the early 1990s. As a percentage of the Federal Budget, the NEA's budget was even smaller than its current portion of the stimulus package.

Fast forward a bit to this week. Perspective again becomes an important issue.

The general public is understandably outraged that AIG bosses received $160 million in retention (NOT performance) bonuses even as that sad-sack corporation was receiving $170 billion in tax-payer funds to--what's the phrase?--"cover its nut."

Now I don't have exact figures here, but it seems to me that, as justified as this outrage over bonuses is, it pales in comparison to the tens of billions of dollars that AIG is spending on, are you sitting down?, paying large international banking firms for having taken unconscionably bad investment positions in derivative swaps (or whatever they're called).

So, let's run a few numbers and get some new perspective on this AIG mess.

For ease of computation, I'm going to assume that AIG has paid out $50 billion to about a dozen banks all over the world to compensate them, dollar for dollar, the amount that they lost on derivative swappage.

What would have happened if, as frequently happens during a bankruptcy proceeding, AIG had said to these banks, "look, you're about to drive us out of business. But we're about to get some tax money. We'd like to offer you $0.90 on the dollar, since the alternative might just be for us to declare bankruptcy in which case you might get less than $0.10 on the dollar. Would $0.90 be okay?"

Assuming the banks said yes (and how could they refuse? THEY were the ones who made the bad investments to begin with!) tax payers could have saved $5 billion.

So here you have the poor schlubs who are busy "winding AIG down" getting retention bonuses (if they didn't, NO ONE would work for AIG), and getting beat up by the press, the Congress, and the American Public. Their collective bonuses represent just 3.2% of the money that could have been saved if only AIG had offered 90 cents on the dollar. But no one but me seems to be in a dither about it.

See what perspective does to you? It reveals a whole new side to a situation that makes you madder than you were before.

Perspective also reminds you that $160 million is frequently the cause of a lot of gnashing of teeth and flailing of limbs in political circles. We're in the Arts, after all, and we have that perspective down cold.

If this hasn't made you mad enough yet, then consider this.

The $50 million that caused such a furor in the Senate several weeks ago is exactly 1% of the $5 billion that might have been "saved" had AIG done the right thing.

Doesn't this make you want to pick up and head to Montpelier on Wednesday for Arts Achievement Day or to Washington DC next week for Arts Advocacy Day? At least there you'll be among people who share your perspective...

Tuesday, March 10, 2009

Stimulus, Round 2

The American Recovery and Reinvestment Act (ARRA) is now law, and not surprisingly, the Arts Sector is "first out of the gate." Because of conservative reactions to having the Arts included at all in the Stimulus Bill, the National Endowment for the Arts is not only acting incredibly efficiently, but they have developed clear and consistent language for us to use in describing how we all are to use whatever we receive from their (63/10,000ths of 1%) share of the total $789 billion stimulus package.

Thus, funding for the Arts from ARRA, by way of the National Endowment for the Arts (NEA) is "to help preserve jobs in the non-profit Arts field." This means that if you represent an arts organization and are eligble to apply for some of the NEA's funds, your application must address how funds will be used to retain or restore jobs.

While there may be dozens, if not hundreds of ways for your organization to tap funds from ARRA through non-arts sources (by going through your local chamber of commerce, downtown program, planning commission, select-board, state senator or house-member, or US Congressional Representative), there are only three ways to access the $50 million that was set aside for the NEA.

The first is to apply for funds directly to the NEA. To be eligible you must have received a grant from the NEA within the last four years (a grant whose number begins with an "06-" or later). According to the NEA, there are only eighteen Vermont organizations who are so eligible. The deadline for applications to NEFA is April 2; approval by the National Council on June 28th, and notification shortly thereafter.

Th second is to apply for funds from the New England Foundation for the Arts (NEFA), the NEA's regional arts partner. As of this writing, NEFA's program and deadlines are still under development, but their application deadline will probably be no earlier than late April, and approval probably not until early to mid-June. They are still working out the specifics of their eligibility requirements, but it is sure to include organizations that already have an existing program relationship with NEFA through the New England States Touring (NEST) program, or the National Dance Project, etc. NEFA will, of course, be issuing its own guidelines and application forms soon (in concert with the other New England States), so stay tuned. Total funds available for New England Arts Organizations is expected to be between $250,000 and $300,000.

The third is to apply for support from the Vermont Arts Council, the NEA's state arts partner. Though our plans still have to receive final approval from our Trustees, we expect our "Art Jobs Program" (a title that NEFA and the New England States have decided to call our collective effort to push ARRA Funds out to the field) to have a deadline of May 8, 2009, with grant notification by July 31, 2009. Funds may be used between August 1, 2009 and August 30, 2010, with final reports required no later than September 30, 2010. Grant amounts will be $5,000 for organizations with annual budgets under $150,000 and up to $10,000 for organizations with annual budgets of $150,000 or more. Total funds available is expected to be not more than $250,000.

Although any Vermont 501(c)(3) arts organization may apply for funds, we expect to place a priority on applications that serve underserved communities, are for educational purposes, and/or retain the services of those who provide marketing and outreach for their organizations. Furthermore, we expect to put a priority on applications from organizations that regularly collaborate with other organizations and thus broaden their reach and expand their audience while at the same time sharing costs.

Here is the kicker. For those of you reading this who are eligible for all three funding streams, you may apply to all three, but you will only get a grant from one. Thus, if you apply for support from the NEA, you should also apply for support from NEFA and from the Arts Council. That way, if you don't receive NEA funding, you will not have missed either the NEFA or Arts Council deadline in the meantime. The good news is that we are working diligently to craft application forms and narrative questions that closely follow the NEA's forms. Filling out all three will not be that much more work.

There is a lot of activity at the Council right now related to the Stimulus Bill. But that's not all we're working on...

Perhaps the most urgent thing for you to take action on right now (aside from gearing up for a stimulating application to the NEA, NEFA, or the Arts Council), is to call your state legislators and urge them to become part of our soon-to-be-formed "Legislative Arts Caucus." E-mail and snail-mail invitations to an organizational breakfast at the Council next Friday (the 20th) are on their way to your legislators this week. Click here to contact your state legislators by email.

There's a lot more related to Arts Achievement Day (March 25th), the Listening Tour to which we have added one more stop (this Friday, March 13, 4 pm, at the Center for Cartoon Studies in White River Junction), and our ongoing programs and services, that I could share with you. But in the interest of time and space, I'll stop here.

Monday, February 23, 2009

Participate, Donate, Advocate, STIMULATE…

Every time I go anywhere these days I’m asked about the Arts and the Stimulus Bill. The Senate voted to exclude the Arts from the Stimulus Bill, but the House successfully put the Arts back in during Conference Committee negotiations. President Obama signed it last week in Denver. Following the signing, a whole new discussion has begun.

What’s the money for, and when/how will it be distributed?

Here’s what we know:

1) The Stimulus Bill that includes $50 million for the National Endowment for the Arts (NEA) which, for those of you who like this kind of statistic, is slightly less than 64 ten-thousandths of one per cent of the total Stimulus Bill!

2) There are essentially three pools of “Stimulus Bill Funds” that will be available to serve the Arts in Vermont (and every other state and district as well):

· The portion of the NEA funds (expected to be 40% of the $50 million) that will be divided among the 57 states and regions. For Vermont, this could be in the low six figures.

· The remaining 60% of the NEA funds (less about 5% for overhead)—or about $29 million—will be available through competitive grant programs administered by the NEA.

· An as-yet undetermined amount of additional Stimulus Funds going directly to the State to stimulate employment in a variety of fields—not just the Arts. This is the largest chunk of money and will probably be managed by a combination of the Governor, Administration, and Legislature. For large cultural facilities projects (and there are a few that I am aware of), you should be in touch with your local planning commission, local legislators, and community economic development offices for guidance on how to tap into these funds.

Here’s what we’re pretty sure of:

1) The earliest I have heard from anyone that one can expect money from the NEA to start being distributed is June 15, 2009. The reason for this is they have to decide what kinds of programs, services, and activities are fundable under the Bill. Specifically, the Stimulus Bill is supposed to be about infrastructure improvements that retain employment. This is, as one might imagine, subject to a great deal of interpretation by the powers-that-be in Washington DC.

2) Though not definite yet, the 40% of the NEA funding coming to Vermont is expected to be administered by the Vermont Arts Council and not put directly into the the State's General Fund.

Here’s what we don’t know:

1) We don’t know any definite dollar amounts or dates of distribution of the funds.

2) We don’t know any definitions of terms or what, if any, restrictions are being placed on the use of the funds.

3) We don’t know the time frame within which funds must be expended, and reported out on.

4) We don’t know when we’ll find out all the answers to these unknowns—although, a spokesperson for the NEA has suggested that their guidelines are expected to start appearing as early as mid- to late-March.

All I know is that there is a lot of need out there. The sooner we can resolve the unknowns and get the dollars flowing, the better off we will all be. Until then, hang tight and we’ll keep you apprised of any developments as they occur.