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.