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.