Wednesday, December 19, 2012

For Which I Stand

“I pledge Allegiance to the flag of the United States of America and to the Republic for which it stands, one nation under God, indivisible, with Liberty and Justice for all.” 
                   -- Pledge of Allegiance as amended, 1954

How many of us have stood proudly facing the flag with our right hands over our hearts, earnestly intoning these words? It’s a memory for me that goes clear back to Mrs. Orne’s first/second grade class at the Chatham Center Elementary School in upstate New York.

This week, my heart is heavy and the country symbolized by the flag to which I pledge allegiance is traumatized by the senseless slaughter of innocents in Newtown, Connecticut.  If the recent election did not show how divided our country is, surely the waves of angry comments for and against gun control on Facebook and Twitter do so now.

We, the people, are the Republic for which our flag stands.  The question is what do we stand for?  For me, it’s simple: the Children.

I stand for childhood, that wonderful time of innocence and exploration.

I stand for the outdoors and fresh air and all the opportunities that nature presents to kids to learn about the earth we live on and the foods we eat.

I stand for parents of all genders whose devotion from the moment they start caring for a child NEVER wanes.  The loss of a child at any age is inconceivable, a wound which no amount of consoling can possibly bind and heal.  But the loss of so many six and seven year-olds is appalling to us all.

I stand for public servants of all kinds, but especially for teachers who are increasingly tasked with the “job” of raising our children, feeding them, sometimes clothing them, and teaching them manners as well as ABCs.

I stand for first-responders who step into every situation, regardless of any personal danger, and take care of our children, whether they are in school, in a mall, or in a movie theater.

I stand for those who care for and treat our children for all illnesses, whether they are physical and mental.

After the Columbine massacre, well-intentioned counselors descended on the high school, anxious to begin the process of healing that devastated community.  Someone had the good sense to ask the children what THEY wanted.  It turned out, most of the students didn’t want counseling at all.

The previous year they had worked with some professional (theater) artists and created several original scenes that had been highly successful at engaging the entire school community—as theater usually does.  The school contacted the artists and re-engaged them to help understand what had happened,  create a narrative context that could help people understand the motivation of two of their own to do such unspeakable acts, and then share the results within the community.  This was the ONLY thing the students cared about, according to my colleague from Colorado who reported this story to us at our next national assembly of State Arts agencies.

For years I’ve been arguing that the arts inspire us, unite us, bind our wounds, heal us, fix us, and set us back on track.  Perhaps I am wrong about that.  But I have learned over the years, to trust the voices of children.  In the sad and sorry context of Newtown, CT, the children of Columbine have much to offer. Perhaps we should let their experience serve as a guide. 

I’ll stand for that.

Tuesday, November 27, 2012

Sequestration Blues

Anyone out there interested in what it will be like to show up for work on January 2nd, the day “sequestration” begins and nearly $600 billion in spending cuts and revenue enhancements automatically go into effect?  Want to know what it will be like to have to decide which bill to pay, and which stores to buy supplies in?  Need help figuring out which services are essential and which are luxuries?

Then contact your local arts organization.  They’ll tell you.  They live this life pretty much every day of every year.  In good times and bad, nonprofit arts organizations relentlessly prepare themselves for the inevitable “doomsday” scenario in which a key donor passes away, the promised corporate gift fails to materialize, or the storage facility with all the sets and costumes burns down.

Extremely well-managed non-profits have developed a two-tiered financial cushion.  The first tier is a six- to 12-month cash reserve fund that will allow them to operate at current capacity without interruption, and will buy them time to make additional plans for more austerity or for replenishing their coffers in due course.  The second tier is the much less liquid endowment fund whose corpus may, under duress, be accessed but only with a great deal of hand-wringing by trustees, legal counsel, and parties “of interest.”

Unfortunately, when I last checked, most non-profit cultural organizations in Vermont barely have a positive fund balance much less a reserve account or an endowment. So with January 2nd fast approaching, what will become of them?  How will they survive?

The short answer is they will do what they always do.  They will cut where they need to, explore new ideas and new collaborations (within their means, of course), and create, present, perform, exhibit, compose, and write their way towards, inevitably, the next crisis...

But wait, you say, it’s not just the cuts that will happen. It’s the tax increases especially on the wealthy that will result in significantly more pain for the nonprofit sector.  Who will underwrite the next production if not the wealthy donors whose taxes are low and discretionary income is high?  If their charitable deductions are capped, what will happen? How will we cope?

Two things: first, people who have a lot of money give to charities because they believe in the charity's mission, not because they get a tax deduction.

Second, this reminds me of a conversation I had a few years ago with my then-eighth-grade child. “Dad, I just spoke to my friend who just finished 9th grade math and he told me all about quadratic equations and functions and I’m really sure I’m going to fail math next year.”  I assured him that by the time he got to this point next year his teachers would have taught him everything he needs to know. 

Like all good teachers, life has a tendency to prepare you for what is coming next.  Whether it is a macro-cosmic issue like global warming or a so-called fiscal cliff, or a micro-personal issue like learning quadratic equations, life has a way of giving us the time and resources to learn how to navigate through what seem like insurmountable shoals and emerge into a new awareness.  As far as the fiscal cliff is concerned, I agree with Warren Buffet. Congress will figure it all out.  Maybe not by January 1, but certainly soon thereafter. 

Until then, I’m going to get out as much as I can and enjoy the season.  I have places to go, people to meet with, hand-made, high-quality gifts to buy, and four extraordinary artists in Brattleboro to celebrate!

Tuesday, November 13, 2012

What's In A Symbol?

The election is over; pundits are winding down their post mortems; the country is heaving a sigh of relief if not at the outcome, at least at the fact that it’s over; and our lives are returning to normal. Much has already been written about what happened on November 6, from the really interesting analysis by researchers at University of Michigan describing how “red” and “blue” break down across the country, to the extraordinary confrontation between Megyn Kelly and Karl Rove on Fox News shortly after Ohio was called for President Obama.  Historians and political analysts will spend a generation (at least) pulling apart every single moment of the 2012 Presidential campaign to try to pinpoint exactly what happened and why.
Let me make it easy for them.  I can tell you EXACTLY when Mitt Romney lost the election.

Let me first state that I am not a professional politician, nor do I possess a degree in political science.  I think of myself as a student of human nature as well as a reasonably observant (and very minor) participant in the political process.  Several weeks before the election, I ran into my friend Gerry, a lobbyist who has a much broader view of how politics works than I ever will. I asked him how he thought the election would go.  At the time, he was pretty sure the President would serve just one term.

And then the debates happened. 

Most agree that Romney won the first debate (by a lot) and that both candidates acquitted themselves well during the last two debates.  Maybe Obama won one or both, or maybe Mitt Romney did.  As far as I was concerned, however, Mitt Romney lost it about halfway through the first debate.  I don’t mean he lost the debate (I actually agree with the prevailing sentiment that Romney won the first debate). 

I mean he lost the election.

In response to a question about what he would do to lower the deficit, Romney took on Big Bird.  He said that among his first items of business would be to “defund” the Corporation for Public Broadcasting and fire (my word) the debate moderator, the especially wounded-looking PBS news host, Jim Lehrer, from his “day job.” And yes, that would probably take care of Big Bird as well.

To me that was as telling a moment, as big a turning point, and as colossal a mistake as the Howard Dean scream at the end of the Iowa Caucus in 2004.  The difference, however, was that Dean’s scream was more the result of a unidirectional microphone he held himself during a crowd roar and thus an accidental, or circumstantial mistake that could have happened to anyone.  Romney’s mistake was deliberate and therefore both cruel and unnecessary.

While everyone commented about this gaffe at the end of the debate, and several articles were written, few pundits took it seriously.  Despite the surge of Big Bird’s popularity on social media of all kinds (I won’t pretend to understand exactly what a meme or a trend is in this context; all I know is that Big Bird took off like….well, a VERY big bird on Twitter and Facebook), most traditional reporters and pundits were treating the comment like what it was—a symbol for the presumed "cold, business-like efficiency" of the Romney Presidency.  What they didn’t understand was that it wasn’t just a symbol. 

It was a SYMBOL, dripping with kids, and education, and mom ‘n’ pop and apple pie; of afternoons spent playing on the living room floor in front of the teevee, waiting for Mom to come home to fix you a snack, or dinner—pretty much everything, in short, that makes life for a preschooler in these United States a grand adventure.

Firing Big Bird, dismissing it, in effect, as being an inconsequential piece of Americana that is not deserving of our collective support, quite possibly appealed to the ultra-right, tea-party base of the Republican Party.  But it awakened the sleeping beast inside every man, woman and child under the age of 40 who, I assume, grew up with Big Bird and his (her?) buddies on Sesame Street.  If Romney could so casually fire Big Bird, who or what would be next?  And if this is what he is like as a candidate…how much WORSE will it be if and when he becomes President?

The work of an artist, any artist, is to capture Life’s meaning in symbolic languages.  Whether articulated in music, sculpture, painting, poetry, prose, dance or film, the symbolic meaning of art tends to be far more profound than the sum of its parts.  Big Bird is not just a yellow and orange collection of cloth and feathers.  Big Bird is not just a big, goofy-looking puppet with a kindly voice providing guidance and comfort to legions of kids who need something constructive to do after 3 pm and before Mom and Dad come home from work.  Big Bird is not just one of several dozen large puppets that cost several hundred thousand dollars a year to put on television for a couple of hours a day, every day.

Most people don’t care a lot about candidates’ positions for or against the Corporation for Public Broadcasting, the National Endowment for the Arts, the National Endowment for the Humanities, or the Institute for Museum and Library Services.  These are the Federal agencies whose combined $1.5 billion budget, if cut, will drastically harm the arts and cultural sector across the country, and will save only a tiny tiny fraction of one percent of the US deficit this year.  CPB, NEA, NEH, and IMLS are, in short, just a bunch of initials to most people.

Big Bird, however, is different.  Big Bird is a symbol of how precious life is, especially the lives of our pre-school aged children who are hungry to learn their ABCs, to count to 20, and to share.  Big Bird symbolizes the potential that we all have within us to aspire, to be more, to be better, to live a fulfilling life, and above all, to learn the basic rules of civic behavior.

Fire Big Bird?!? Take away Big Bird’s funding?!? Not a chance. Not for my kids.  Not for their kids, either. And certainly not if my vote has anything to say about it.

Tuesday, October 30, 2012

Hi Ho, Silver Bullet!

A legislator asked me last week what the Vermont Arts Council was doing to create jobs in Vermont.  The current recession has gone on for so long and transformed our historical employment patterns to such a degree that it appears that the only relevant public policy conversation anyone can have now is about jobs.  It is an important and relevant topic for everyone, including the arts community.

The legislator was talking with me about our request for a 100% increase in our State Appropriation and her concern was that we were asking for an increase even as Federal funds for low-income heating assistance were being diminished, food bank shortages were mounting, and essential health and human services were being discontinued.  In that context, it was going to be hard to entertain a request for more support for the Arts in Vermont.  It might sound a little like asking for more sheet music for the string quartet on the deck of the Titanic.

Here, then, is what the Arts Council is doing about job creation. In collaboration with State and local partners too numerous to mention, we are:

·        Strengthening our educational system so that our students are not just “taught to the test” but are being trained to think critically about core subject areas, make public presentations on topics they have researched themselves, and work collaboratively with their peers on complex projects to “bring them in on deadline” (this is 21st Century Creative Workforce Training at its best; turning STEM to STEAM!)
·        Constantly encouraging our local partners to create meaningful public places and ceremonial activities (like First Nights or multicultural Farmers’ Markets) in our downtowns which, in turn, encourage people to open new businesses or relocate already existing businesses to those places (Creative Placemaking for one and all!)
·        Providing core business training to artist/entrepreneurs through our “Breaking into Business” and “Nonprofit Management Training” workshops and scholarships (No, fries don’t come with that…)
·        Supporting the delicate infrastructure that supports the Arts sector statewide; a sector that ALREADY employs 6,400 people (more than are employed in Vermont’s insurance sector), and is the source of nearly $19.5 million in state and local tax revenues (Wait…repeat that please?  One more time?!)

Here is the first message we must constantly hammer home:  the Arts are a force to be reckoned with. 

It is not just that the Arts entertain and enlighten (which, of course, they do).  It is also that they employ, beautify, revitalize, and pay taxes.  Artists are often the first to move in to a “depressed area” to revitalize it. Artists need space, time, and an affordable (read “inexpensive”) cost of living. This has been true in places like Soho and Chelsea in New York City, and increasingly in Vermont in towns like Brandon, Barre, White River Junction, and South Burlington.  Bring in art and artists, and revitalization is just a matter of time…

Here is the second message that we must constantly remind policy makers: the State budget consists of an expense side and a revenue side.  Right now, state and local investment in the Arts sector is less than $3 million dollars (of which $500,000 is the Arts Council’s appropriation). Revenues from the sector, as mentioned above, are nearly $19.5 million.  If the State needs additional revenue for LIHEAP or the Vermont Food Bank, or to address any of the countless societal needs that this recession has wrought, it seems like a little more investment in the Arts sector could quite possibly be the “silver bullet” that policy-makers have been looking for all these years. 

If you think this is true, you are not alone.  No one wins when we each act like a Lone Ranger where supporting the Arts is concerned.  Join our effort to double the Council’s budget by contacting Governor Shumlin today!

Hi Ho, Silver Bullet…Away!

Thursday, October 25, 2012

The Big Ask, Part 2

A few weeks ago, I informed you that circumstances in Washington were unfolding in a way that necessitated an increase next year in the Vermont Arts Council’s state appropriation.  Having attended two national arts conferences since then, I want to provide some clarity to this situation, as it has many moving parts.

Our best estimate at this time is that, due to the “Sequestration” following last year’s Debt Ceiling compromise and the uncertainty over the budget negotiations for FY2014, the National Endowment for the Arts’ (NEA) Federal grant to the Council will be almost 10% less (reducing it to about $655,000) next year than it is this year.

We, however, remain optimistic, that between now and May 2013, White House and Congressional negotiations will minimize or even eliminate that reduction.

Therefore, without boring everyone to tears with complex arithmetic related to calculating how the State will meet the one-to-one match required by the NEA, which is sure to change in any case, our “minimum” requested increase from the State for next year is actually a range: from $175,000 to $250,000.  Being clever people, we suggested that people focus on the upper end of the range when talking with their legislators or the Governor.  (Bear in mind that the actual increase we have requested is $500,000 of which the $250,000 will allow us to avoid “leaving Federal money on the table.”)

All of this is meant to convey that the funding situation is complex, dependent on many moving parts of which most are pretty much dependent on what happens in Washington in the next couple of weeks.

Confused?  You are not alone.  We will give you more information as it develops.

For information about how YOU can help get this budget increase to pass, please read my previous blog entry.

Tuesday, October 2, 2012

The Big Ask

Once a year we have a conversation with the Governor’s Finance Office about our Vermont state appropriation.  We fill out forms, write a defense of our programs and services, and wait to be told—usually in December—what our “Governor’s Recommendation” will be for the next fiscal year.  From then on, until the end of the legislative session in May, we spend our time defending this recommendation from others who want to change it.  At least that is how it usually goes.

The conversation for next fiscal year has begun and already it is different.

We are asking for a $500,000 increase.

Our current appropriation is $507,607.  It has been exactly that for four years, which according to my colleagues in other states, is considered to be “a success,” given the recession.  However, from another perspective, it is NOT a success.  Our appropriation has been within 5% of $500,000 (sometimes higher but usually lower) since 1991.

In 1991 our state appropriation was $479,153.  If it had simply kept pace with inflation, our state appropriation today would be more than $810,000.  By staying put at $500,000, the appropriation has effectively reduced the Council’s capacity to serve the field more than $300,000 in this year alone.

It’s no wonder, then, that our constituents are feeling pinched.  We have helped to develop an arts sector that is among the finest of its type (given our population and resources), but are supporting it with 40% fewer grant dollars and technical resources than we had only 20 years ago.

There are several other reasons why the Vermont Arts Council needs an increase.  The first is that the National Endowment for the Arts (NEA) has significantly tightened up its matching requirements that allow states to fulfill their part of the State Arts Partnership Agreement (the contract that we sign on behalf of the state that releases Federal funds to support the arts in Vermont). Thus, next year, if the State of Vermont doesn’t match the NEA appropriation at least one-to-one, we stand to leave a quarter of a million dollars in Federal funding “on the table.”  This would be an actual cut, the size of which would be cataclysmic to the dozens of organizations, schools, and hundreds of artists whose projects benefit Vermont communities, educate our children, attract tourists, support several thousand employees, and in general improve the quality of our lives.

But since meeting the NEA match doesn’t address what we will actually DO with the money, the second reason is all about what the money would be used for.

In order of priority, here is what is needed:

1) A significant investment in practical (useful) ways to approach the appalling deficit in arts education funding in Vermont.  We believe that it makes little sense to talk about “developing a creative workforce” on one hand, while focusing on STEM or “The Common Core” (which at best ignore arts education programs) on the other.  The arts allow students to learn how to explore their own creative instincts in a structured, sequential, and collaborative way. If the 21st century expects schools to churn out “creative workers” we have some serious catching up to do.  To start with, we will conduct a “status inventory” of learning in and through the arts in our preK-12 public school system.  This hasn’t been done for at least five years, and we have to find out what best practices are enabling some schools to thrive while others are abandoning the arts.

2) Related to this effort, we have to ensure that as many community arts organizations as possible are providing supplemental arts education activities to citizens in the communities they serve.  Starting with in-school and after-school arts programs and experiences, and continuing on with adult, senior, and underserved populations, community arts organizations frequently are considered the “glue” that holds a community together.  Again, a statewide inventory of “who is doing what” is an important starting point—an activity that has never been done.

3) Supplemental marketing and promotion for the arts sector.  In 2010 a study commissioned by Main Street Landing revealed that in 2008 artists, nonprofit arts organizations and their combined creative output resulted in nearly $19.5 million in state and local tax revenues.  It revealed a sector that employs nearly 6,400 Vermonters and accounts for a significant portion (as much as 10%) of total tourism-generated revenues.  What the study does not reveal is that this revenue is the “return” on a combined state and local investment of less than $3 million!

Anyone attending the Discover Jazz Festival, Music at Marlboro, the Made in Vermont tour, or visiting any of our dozens of visual arts attractions (from historic sites to museums and galleries), and “classic” 19th century opera houses and town hall theaters from Derby Line to Wilmington, is familiar with the role that art and culture plays in the Vermont landscape.  What is exciting is how art and food culture is blending to turn farmers markets, harvest festivals, weekend farm stays, and ski vacations into true multicultural experiences.  The challenge is that so much is known about Vermont’s winter outdoor recreation, artisanal food production (especially cheese!), maple products, our famous fall foliage, and our growing reputation for micro-brews and niche wines, that carving out “bandwidth” to showcase the arts is getting harder and harder.

As the Vermont Arts Council starts the countdown on 50 years of public arts funding in Vermont, we believe there is a critical window of opportunity to showcase Vermont as being, among many other great things, an Amazing Arts Destination!  Not to sound like a broken record, but conducting an inventory of our cultural assets, county by county, town by town, is the first task that needs to occur.  Then organizing this information into a web- or app-based service that will allow residents and visitors to explore our dynamic state will become, finally, a reality.

Two of these priorities focus on preparing Vermont’s most vital cultural asset—our children—for survival in an increasingly competitive future.  The third priority focuses on responsibly developing a resource to attract and retain visitors and residents alike for years to come.  The first two priorities represent an opportunity to show how good government programs serve the people.  The third represents how government can, with a very small investment, develop huge returns for itself and local municipalities across the state.

So…here’s where YOU come in!

We have about 10 more days to let Governor Peter Shumlin and Administration Secretary Jeb Spaulding know how important this investment is to Vermont.  Please take a few minutes now to contact them and share your view about the need to support the Council’s request for increased funding.

It is VITAL that the budget the Governor presents to the Legislature in January includes a significant increase for our next fiscal year (starting in July 2013). 

I’ve provided you with a couple of key talking points, but to recap:

We need your help in asking the Governor to increase the Vermont Arts Council’s state appropriation to $1,007,507 (a $500,000 increase over the current level).  Doing so will

·  Allow us to match the NEA’s federal grant of $750,000
·  Invest resources in Vermont’s Creative Workforce by ensuring adequate access to arts instruction in our preK-12 schools throughout Vermont
·  Invest in our communities’ quality of life by ensuring adequate resources are available to the statewide network of cultural institutions that collaborate locally to improve economic opportunity and cultural/educational services to all populations
·  Invest in marketing and promotional campaigns that feature arts festivals, cultural attractions, and performance venues whose combined activity have significant tourist “ROI” for every dollar spent.

The Governor may be reached by contacting 802-828-3333.
Secretary Spaulding may be reached by calling 802-828-3322.

Governor Shumlin may be contacted here.
Secretary Spaulding may be contacted here. (click on his link)

Both of them may be reached by snail mail at
109 State Street
Montpelier, VT  05609

A phone call is better than a letter.  A letter is as good as a personalized email.  A “form” email (in which you simply cut and paste the above talking points) is better than nothing.

Have fun and thank you for helping us turn Vermont into THE State of the Arts!

p.s.  In case anyone asks, the Council has no expectation of increasing its staff beyond its current level.  Any increase to our appropriation resulting from this effort will be committed to the three areas described above.

Please feel free to subscribe to my blog by clicking in the box below my picture in the upper right corner of the page. And thanks to Vermont Arts Council's ArtMail for serving as a great bully pulpit!