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?