Wednesday, May 25, 2011

An Open Letter to Kansas Governor Sam Brownback

May 25, 2011

The Honorable Sam Brownback
Governor of Kansas

Dear Governor Brownback,

I have been following with great interest your efforts to remove government support from the Kansas Arts Commission and to re-establish it as an independent, non-profit agency, with the expectation that doing so will relieve your administration of the responsibility of allocating taxpayer funds to match federal funds from the National Endowment for the Arts.  The budget now awaits your signature and there is a great deal of concern that you will use your line-item veto to effectively abolish the Commission which, I understand, a bipartisan coalition in the Kansas Senate representing a broad cross-section of Kansas citizens hopes you will not do.

It is neither my place nor my intention to engage in the political discourse of your state.  However, since our small agency has been frequently singled out by your administration as an example of a nonprofit state arts agency that is thriving without, as the media has reported it, the benefit of state investment I am compelled to weigh in and set the record straight on just three points.

First, in Vermont our nonprofit state arts agency is effective only BECAUSE there is significant state investment in our work.  Without a State appropriation of just over $500,000 we would be unable to provide the professional development services, educational outreach to underserved communities, accessibility services to hundreds of historic cultural venues that were built long before the passage of the ADA, and a host of other grants that support our creative sector.

Second, without State support we would be forced to raise more than half million dollars (to match our Federal grant from the National Endowment for the Arts) from the private sector—an activity that would put us in direct competition with the very cultural institutions that our mission requires us to support.  In addition, our largest grant program (Cultural Facilities), not only provides significant improvements to our historical and cultural institutions in the area of accessibility, the funds we award employ hundreds of carpenters, bricklayers, plumbers, electricians and other blue-collar workers that are, along with artists and teachers, the life-blood of our communities.

Finally, and perhaps most importantly, every State SHOULD invest in the arts sector simply because it makes good economic sense.  One of our most conservative policy analysts looked at state and local tax revenues that flowed to state and municipal coffers from our very narrowly-defined arts sector in Vermont.  Income taxes paid by artists, arts administrators and independent arts contractors, as well as the long-established IMPLAN economic modeling analysis on just the nonprofit arts institutions in the state, reveal a total return of $19.45 million on a combined investment of $2.5 million, which includes our $500k appropriation.  This annual ROI of 775%  is even more astonishing since virtually all of Vermont’s state tourism dollars promote skiing, outdoor recreation, fall foliage, maple syrup, and artisanal food preparation and service, NOT art and culture—a circumstance which, I am happy to say, is going to change starting this summer.

Our legislature is getting more and more comfortable with thinking of the work we do as expanding the revenue base of our state, not increasing the expenses that our citizen taxpayers must bear.  Our sector provides good jobs.  It adds enormous social and civic value to our communities.  It improves the relationship that young people have with their schools and communities.  And it serves as a powerful attraction to entrepreneurs seeking to locate their new businesses in a creative, vital community setting.  The “creative economy” is real and it is thriving here in Vermont.  I believe that all these arguments are relevant to making the case for keeping the Kansas Arts Commission on sound financial, PUBLIC footing.

With great respect for you and for the wonderful citizens of Kansas, I am

Sincerely yours,

Alexander L. Aldrich
Executive Director
Vermont Arts Council

"Inspiring a Creative State..."

Tuesday, May 10, 2011

Counting one’s Chickens at the Vermont Legislature: A Tribute to Public Service

About three weeks ago a chicken established itself next to the Vermont State House, taking up residence in a pine-tree adjacent to the west entrance.  Within a few short days, she became an unofficial State House mascot, received lots of tasty handouts from passers-by consisting mostly, I suspect, of the staff of the Abbey Group who manage the State House cafeteria, and in general providing a welcome break from the far weightier issues being hammered out inside the building.  Bob, the parking lot security attendant, showed me her roost and pointed out the can of rainwater and the handful of straw nearby in case she felt like nesting.

A few days ago word came down from the State House…the chicken was to be removed by the close of business; captured and sent to live out the remainder of its days on a local farm.

I have two reactions to this.

First, why remove the chicken?  She’s clearly doing no harm to anyone at the State House.  She has provided a disproportionate amount more levity and good will than almost any other living thing within, say, a couple hundred yards. And if the people caring for her remain vigilant, they may, from time to time, be rewarded for their kindness with a really tasty, organic, free-range egg.

Should she, in due course, suffer a Darwinian event, well—at least it won’t have been because she skied out of bounds at Killington or waded into the swollen Winooski and couldn’t be located despite a massive search-and-rescue effort by local authorities.  This is a bird that, unlike Pete the Moose, was born domesticated and later, through no fault of her own, became wild.

Like Pete, the chicken has captured the fancy of many in the State House.  In fact, she now even has a name:  Henrietta Josephine—Josephine for short (confirmed by my esteemed colleague David Schutz, the State House Curator).

Going from the philosophical to the practical is my second reaction: good luck with that!  As I stood with Bob the parking lot attendant hearing about Josephine, a security officer passed by and muttered under his breath, “give me five seconds and the chicken problem is solved,” as he meaningfully patted his holstered weapon.

Laughing I asked if he could use a taser instead to which he replied, “What, you want it roasted, too?!” 

Nothing like a Vermont sense of humor…

Guns, tasers, rocket-launched nets, and trappers aside, it’s going to be darn near impossible to get near that chicken.  Unless you get them accustomed to a coop, and unless it’s after dark when they have gone to roost, chickens are almost impossible to catch once they have “gone rogue.”  

I truly hope Josephine enjoys her freedom now that she has won it, living off a few hand-outs from the folks in the State House and the occasional private citizen.  And since this is a column about the arts, I normally draw an appropriate arts analogy to fit the circumstances.  But I’ll let you have the fun of doing that.

I’m content with knowing that this particular chicken crossed the road to enjoy the hospitality of the Vermont State House.  That, at least, is something all Vermonters, avian or otherwise, can generally count on.