Wednesday, January 19, 2011

How Art Supports us All

It’s the time of year when budget discussions and funding priorities cause me to awaken each day with a need to prove to someone new that the arts matter; to explain that far from being a social amenity or, worse, a luxury for the elite, the arts provide vital connections among, and social, intellectual, and emotional content to, all parts of society.

I have put together a few examples of exactly how and why the arts really DO matter –not just to people directly involved in creating and presenting art, but to everyone.

A Town and Agency Dilemma
Several years ago we were asked by the Transportation Agency to see if the Arts Council could help it with a project in a town in the Northeast Kingdom.  The Agency and the town had—at that time—spent more than 25 years disagreeing with each other about how a federal highway, which doubled as the town’s “Main Street” would be rehabilitated to current USDOT standards without ruining the essential character of the village center and its village green.    

Within a matter of 20 months, artists had been selected to work with a town/agency committee, developed a design charrette that explored a variety of creative design solutions, the final result of which received the unanimous blessing of the town’s select board, its people, and the Agency.

The artists’ commitment to the project, and more importantly, their ideas, were an essential part of putting to rest the project’s troubled history and putting it on track.  And it wasn’t just the “art people” who benefitted.  It was the entire town—the vendors who sell their wares on the town green on market day; the kids who play catch on the green or enjoy the fall foliage festival, the folks who pay their local taxes at the town clerk’s office, or shop at the local country store.  The project breaks ground this April, and when, two years from now, the work is completed, the parking will be improved, the viewscape will be enhanced, the safety of pedestrians and passersby will be ensured, and dotted throughout the ¾-mile long “canvas” will be works of sculpture and built objects that will provide echoes of the towns past and markers for its future.

A few artists helped make it happen, but everyone benefits.

Poetry:     Out Loud but Not Heard
Six years ago, at the urging of the National Endowment for the Arts, the Council organized Vermont’s participation in an annual poetry recitation contest, similar in concept to the Scripps Spelling Bee Competition.  Each year one Vermont High School Champion is flown to Washington DC to compete for top honors in front of a distinguished panel of judges.  Winners get scholarships and their schools receive significant visibility and—perhaps more important—funds to purchase books.

Last week I and two colleagues attended a different kind of Poetry Out Loud competition—a pilot project with the Community School of Vermont whose students, for reasons that will soon be apparent, are unable to participate in the regular competition.  Our journey took us almost to the Canadian border, down a country road, through a parking lot next to a wall topped with coiled barbed wire, into a waiting area, through a “lock-down” portal and into the community activities room at the Northern State Correctional Facility in Newport.  There, six young men treated us and about 25 of their fellow inmates to an hour-long recital.

It was a two-week pilot, offered for credit, and these six young men were as passionate and professional as any other kid I’ve seen in the POL finals.  One or two might have suffered from a learning disorder, or a lack of schooling “on the outside.”  But the intensity they brought to their performance clearly showed how this project had reached them.  Two things were particularly noteworthy.  One was a poem written by Eddie* reflecting on the (presumably autobiographical) circumstances that put him in prison. “Lying there, stretched out on the pavement, he was dead.  And the gun was in my hand.  I hadn’t been man enough to walk the other way.  Now I had to run.”  In the next segment he read a work by Tupac Shakur: “The Fear in the Heart of a Man”: 

Against an attacker, I will boldly take my stand
because my heart will show, fear for no man
Before a broken heart, I run with fright
scared to be blind in the vulnerable night
I believe this fear is in every man
some will acknowledge it, others will fail to understand
  there's no fear in a shallow heart
because the shallow heart is faint and don't fall apart
because the shallow heart is faint don't fall apart
But feeling hearts that truly care
are fragile to the flow of air
And if I am to be true then I must give.. my fragile heart
my fragile heart

The second was a poem written by Michael *—a paean to “My Main Squeeze” in which he describes in great detail how his Main Squeeze is so important to him—is there for him night and day; there to inspire him; there to talk him through the lonely times; there to be nibbled on and caressed by his sweet lips; and who will be waiting for him when he gets out to help him put his life back in order…  His Main Squeeze, it turns out, is his ballpoint pen…

The poignancy of the first and the humor of the second was proof that these were not “average” people—assuming, that is, that one could look past their being incarcerated.  These six young men are in trouble now.  But what happens next? 

If the few thousand dollars we spent helps inspire even one of these six young men to turn his life around and stay out of prison—that is a huge savings to taxpayers and well-worth exploring further.  Again, a few artists make it happen, but everyone benefits.

Artists May Hide, but They Can Also Run…a business that is.
We hear it all the time.  “Oh, I couldn’t possibly be do that (fill out a form, learn to use a computer, apply for 501(C)(3) status, etc.).  I’m not a business person.  I’m an artist!”  Well tell that to Simon Pearce.  Tell it to Judi and Fred Danforth.  Tell it to Warren and Lorraine Kimble, to Sabra Field, to Grace Potter, to Charlie Shackleton and Miranda Thomas, to the good people at Wall Goldfinger and Conant Metal and Light, and to the hundreds of filmmakers and photographers and thousands of other creative artists and craftspeople around the state whose work adorns our walls and table-tops; whose songs fill our mp3 players and smart phones, and who employ hundreds, even thousands of “average” people in shops and studios around the state.

Next month the Council will host its fourth “Breaking into Business” Workshop in Windsor.  The word about these two-day intense workshops is out…we have more than 45 applicants for only 25 spots. 

Our constituents wanted our help in learning how to better market and promote their work, both in Vermont and beyond its borders.  They wanted the state to partner with them in promoting Vermont’s artists and art works.  They wanted help in learning how to take advantage of the internet and of social media and social marketing tools like websites, facebook and twitter.   They wanted to meet other like-minded people so they could share resources and provide mutual support. 

In a time of scarce resources, we have to help people make connections, provide them with training and support services and zero in on just a few critical skills that are really effective at helping people help themselves.  By helping one artist to become the next Simon Pearce or the next Judi Danforth, employing dozens of people in their manufacturing process, their gift shops, their fulfillment warehouses –we are helping others who aren’t artists.

All of which, by the way, are examples of how art supports me, you, your community, and the state Vermont.

Stay safe and be warm.

*Not their real names

Tuesday, January 4, 2011

Looking for Multi-partisanship

Happy 2011!  As the Vermont Legislature reconvenes and we all welcome the Shumlin Administration, it's a great time to pause and reflect on how the arts fits into the overall Vermont economic recovery picture and to look at a couple of issues that will be confronting our field in the coming biennium.

The big issue, of course, is the looming $150 million hole in the state budget.  The general tendency when there is a budget deficit is to cut expenses.  This strategy works for corporations and individuals.  But it doesn't work so well for governments because people need government-funded services during a recession more than when there isn't one.  If anything, government should actually increase its spending during a recession because it is the only sector that tends to have access to investment capital that will, if used wisely, will help us "grow our way" out of the recession.

Also, cutting expenses is only half the job of our public servants.  The other half is to raise revenues--especially for those of us who are in a position to do so.  The state of Vermont has many ways to increase its revenues (taxes on income, property, sales and use, room and meals; fees for hunting, driving, fishing, camping and other services; and many other things too tedious to mention here).  But a recent study (from Doug Hoffer courtesy of Melinda Moulton) shows that the revenue impact of the arts sector on the State of Vermont is close to $19.5 million--or about $17 million MORE than the state invests in the arts through various agencies.  This is an ROI of nearly 800%...every year!

Another aspect of economic recovery requires one to think slightly more holistically about what kinds of things generate investments that lead to jobs.  Why do people choose to live and work in one town and not another  Why do people choose to establish a business in Vermont and not in New Hampshire or New York?

According to people like Richard Florida, more than ever, people can live where they want because technology has enabled them to telecommute.  As more and more of Vermont gets broadband (a big shout out to my pals at the Vermont Council on Rural Development), the more Vermont will become attractive to telecommuters.  But broadband is only a piece of the "where to live" decision.  Equally important are the availability of housing stock, the quality of the local shopping, the access to high quality recreational and cultural opportunities and, perhaps most important of all, the quality of the local schools.  These last two, cultural opportunities and quality of schools are directly related to the health of the cultural sector.  The healthier and more vibrant the arts in a community, the better the cultural and educational opportunities will be.  And if those are good, then you've got really compelling reasons for entrepreneurs to move in, establish roots, and start employing people.

The second issue is the impact of a sales tax on tickets sold for nonprofit-produced performances.  Sure, a sales tax isn't going to stop me, personally, from attending a show.  But it might stop someone else.  It is that last, "on the margin" ticket-buyer that is often the difference between a success or a failure in the nonprofit world.  Nonprofits exist to educate, inspire, fulfill, and nurture.  Ticket sales represent usually about 30 to 40 percent of a nonprofit's revenue.  Donations and grants make up the remainder and it is the quality and originality of programming, the community/educational outreach, and the perceived social service value of the nonprofit that triggers these donations and grants.  Taxing tickets may seem like a good idea, but it won't raise anywhere near as much money for the state as people think, and it may just induce a tipping point for some organizations whose own margins are razor-thin.  Is a tax worth it?  I personally don't think so, but I look forward to the debate in the Legislature in the coming weeks.  I hope we will see some multi-partisan agreement coalescing around this issue.

Finally, as we look ahead just a month or two, the sixth Poetry Out Loud competition will be happening in 40 schools around the state.  But what has me excited most of all right now is that one of the schools is the Vermont Community High School and it is doing its own version of Poetry Out Loud for the first time.

What, you're not familiar with this school?  It's Vermont's largest public high school and it exists under the jurisdiction of the Corrections Department.  But more on this unusual pilot in future posts.

For now, I'm looking forward to welcoming the new legislature and the new administration and celebrating our newest Cultural Facilities grantees on January 13th.

For all of you out there, please stay in touch and drive safely...!