Wednesday, April 28, 2010

Making it Happen

At its retreat in Vergennes a couple of weeks ago, the Vermont Arts Council spent some time with an artist who had participated in one of two Artist Marketing Workshops we organized this spring. Bonnie Baird of North Chittenden shared her experiences as a participant in our Rutland Workshop and for her—as for us—it signaled an important departure from “business as usual.”

A little background… A year ago we conducted a listening tour during which we asked our constituents what they needed from us that would allow them to continue to be creative. We assumed, of course, the answer would be “money,” and indeed it was. But after explaining that money would be, if anything, tighter in the immediate future (at least from state and federal sources), we pushed people for other ideas.

From artists we heard that they needed tools—marketing tools—so that they could make their businesses successful. With that, we set about designing an initiative that would not only introduce “business” skills and concepts to artists through a two-day workshop, but provide them with a forum in which they could take time to process what they learned, collaborate with colleagues, and develop a proposal for funding based on their experiences in the workshop and the specific needs they wanted to address. So far we have had two packed workshops for nearly 50 people from all over Vermont and Bonnie Baird bravely stepped in to represent what seemed to us to be the feelings of most of those who participated.

“I felt like we, as artists, were not alone in our struggles to be business people and that our state was willing to teach us better skills to stand on our own rather than just enabling us…I truly appreciated that respect.”

It is impossible for me to quote everything Bonnie said to us a few weeks ago. Suffice to say that it was the first time at an Arts Council Board meeting more than just a few eyes welled up with tears—tears that represented joy and pride and the spirit of accomplishment. Bonnie was feeding us with her words even as she was acknowledging the importance of what we were doing to help her feed herself. It was a very powerful encounter for all of us. And it’s especially nice to know that we have been able to provide seed-funding to all workshop participants who have since asked for support to implement some aspect of a plan they created based on what they learned in the workshop.

An unanticipated, but certainly no less valuable, outcome of this initiative is that we have helped generate a whole new statewide network of artists who have gotten to know each other well through this intensive two-day experience and who provide advice, assistance, and even connections to other resources to each other on a daily basis. While the specific skills that artists have sought and so far all received are important, I have a feeling that it is this network that will be the true valued legacy of this initiative.

From SoHo to Santa Fe, and from Port Townshend to Key West, there is no force on earth that can stand up to a group of artists that sets its collective mind on something. Artists’ impact might be scaled a little differently here in Vermont, but it is just as strongly felt and certainly no less valued.

I have a good friend here in Montpelier who was sick and tired of the local middle school’s lack of action in designing and building an upgraded outdoor play area. She volunteered to lead the parents’ committee charged with working with the administration on this project and in less than a year, the project was designed, spec’ed, permitted, and built.

I asked her how she did it so quickly (the dithering had been going on for years and—pause for full disclosure—my own wife is on the school board!). Her answer? “I got a bunch of my artist friends involved. Some designed the playground, well…you know the story. We just kept at it until it was done.” I laughed even harder when she closed by saying, “C’mon Alex, you of all people know that if you want to get something done you just have to get artists involved…!”

I have a feeling that there are quite a few residents of several dozen towns in Vermont who already know this to be true. I have an even stronger feeling that in a few years there will be many, many more. If you’re an artist and you want more information about our workshops you know where to find us.

They are, in the words of another participant from the Rutland Workshop, Kathy Cadow Parsonnet, “by far the most relevant, practical, and validating series of informational sessions and activities that I have encountered… [They] reinforce the message that Vermont takes ‘the creative economy’ seriously, and that it truly values the creative minds and energies of its artists.”

Cool stuff.

Wednesday, April 14, 2010

A Small Reminder

Earlier this week I was in Washington DC advocating for the National Endowment for the Arts. I also spent a day in the Russell Senate Office Building helping curator Janet Van Fleet install The Art of Action exhibition in the Russell Rotunda.

Later that same evening I listened to Mayor Joseph Riley of Charleston, SC exhort 517 arts advocates and their colleagues (about 1000 total) to create great, livable cities by investing in infrastructure that fits the character, history, and culture of the neighborhoods.

The following morning, we all headed back to the Hill to attend Sen. Leahy's traditional Tuesday coffee hour and attend the "opening" of the exhibit and then go on to spend some time with Sen. Sanders's and Rep. Welch's staff before heading back to the airport and home.

Let me just say one thing about this brief trip. We have, without question, the best Congressional delegation in the country. Granted, I tend to be a one-track pony where legislative issues are concerned, but I see again and again people from other states trudging from one office to another, urging their elected representatives, despite their often terrible voting record on the arts, to expand our country's tiny investments in the arts and culture. By contrast, I and my Vermont colleagues look forward with joy to meeting with our delegation to thank them for everything they do, year in and year out.

Are we lucky? Perhaps. I think our representatives in Washington actually DO represent the body politic in Vermont. Many of our towns have thriving arts centers; artists of all stripes and colors live throughout the length and breadth of our state. Vermonters have started to accept a variety of lifestyles; welcoming outsiders from overseas as well as those from other states. Our tourism infrastructure is dependent to a large degree on the health of our cultural sectors, and these, in turn are nurtured by the artists and creative entrepreneurs that are at their core.

It is an ecosystem that our US Congressional delegation completely understands and it's why, year after year, American's for the Arts' Congressional "Arts Report Card" exhibits As and A-pluses across the board. It's also partly why the National Endowment for the Arts's budget has increased significantly in the past three years, usually over the President's own recommendation.

So here is what I need everyone reading this to do. The next time you attend a program in your local town hall theater, visit a gallery, experience a jazz or chamber festival, or in any tangible way take advantage of Vermont's large and varied cultural offerings, drop a line to Senators Leahy and Sanders and Congressman Welch and thank them for their efforts.

They deserve it.