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.