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.


Martha Fitch said...

Alex, you mention the Vermont Arts Calendar as a source for local arts events listings. This calendar is drawn from listings in the Vermont Travel Planner which is not the first place a local arts presenter or a local arts event seeker, would think of as a place to list/find an art event. I support the Council's push to have arts organizations/presenters become a presence on the Travel Planner, but still few of the profusion of arts events in the state end up there. There is a need for an activist arts advocate to take a year and challenge themselves to list as many events as possible (and not just the high profile ones). I think the result would go a long way to bringing the public and the government under your tent as it would demonstrate the widespread activity of the sector you serve.

Ver said...

"dumb down the arts."

Sadly this is true, but not in the sense of community projects. The VT art community (and grant process) is staid... mirroring the 'been there, done that, support artists who - quite honestly - show no real innovation / are coasting on their 'talent' vs. doing what an art community should be doing. Where are the young artists? Why give $42,000 to a handful of 'been there...' artists instead of handing out 50 grants of $840.00 each to young artists? Saatchi has the right idea:
When is the VT art community going to stop supporting tourist art, and actually promote the next generation / innovation /commitment instead of supporting the boring status quo (just what really innovative /artistic art has come out of grant recipients like Catamount and Kingdom Country Productions lately? )


Alex Aldrich said...

Actually, Martha, you have it exactly backwards. The Arts Calendar feeds the Travel Planner, it doesn't draw from it. People putting information into the Arts Calendar get the benefit of it also appearing in the Travel Planner. The advantage of registering with us and then using the Arts Calendar as your means to input data is twofold: one, you only have to register once and you can input multiple events at one time; and two, events put in the Arts Calendar can be recalled, or found, by "type" (ie. "Chamber Music, Opera, Visual Arts, Theater, etc.) whereas if you enter data through th Travel Planner it gets automatically classified as an "attraction" no matter what type of event it is.

It is clearly our job to explain to those people why it IS in their interest to put their events in the Arts Calendar, but the fact is that no one person could possibly input all the events that go on in Vermont in a year. There is simply too much going on! That's why we put the responsibility back on people producing/presenting events. That, and the accountability issue...