[This post first appeared in the Burlington (VT) Free Press, January 1, 2012]
I am frequently asked, what is the current state of the arts? My response?
Vermont is the State of the Arts.
2010 Census figures are not available, but based on 2000 data, Vermont is first in writers, seventh in visual artists, and fifth overall in the per-capita ratio of artists-to-citizens out of all 50 states. I believe, however, that visual artists are extremely under-reported in Vermont, and that once the 2010 data is out we will find ourselves ranked first overall.
From communities as diverse as Brattleboro, White River Junction, Island Pond, Rutland, Bennington, and the greater Burlington area, Vermont’s artists leave an indelible impression on citizens and visitors alike. We are a creative state whose character is hewn as much from the keyboard and the brush as it is from the soil and the forest. For most Vermont artists, the natural landscape informs their creative core (corps?). For others, Vermont’s independent streak inspires provocation and even outrage, as certainly art should from time to time. The critical note, here, is that of all states I have heard about, Vermont artists describe themselves exactly this way: “I’m a Vermont artist”—using Vermont as an adjective to encompass the depth and variety that very name conjures in the imagination. No other artist from any other state does this, to my knowledge…at least not with the same degree of commitment.
Arts institutions in Vermont—the “healthy” ones—are nimble, have strong community support, and make the most of digital media and social networking tools to reach out well beyond our border. Virtually all who regularly apply to the Council for funding fulfill the “artistic excellence” requirement with ease. Grants, therefore, tend to be awarded based organizational capacity and the value and impact that their activities have in/on their communities, not on the past record of accomplishment; a subtle but important difference. If nothing else, it indicates a sector that is fully mature, with very high standards, and aware of its important role in bringing quality programs and services to the public.
From the consumer’s perspective, therefore, the arts in Vermont are thriving. There are many arts events to choose from, not just on the weekends, but on any day of the week. And with very few exceptions, they are all of really high caliber. A glance through any community newspaper will prove the point.
The view is very different, however, from the creative/producing end.
Whether the root cause is the economy, donor fatigue from massive weather cataclysms, or the increasingly vocal, but very ill-informed, national movement to remove all so-called “nonessential government services,” the issue for all is survival. The Kennedy Center’s Michael Kaiser believes that the key to survival lies in the diversity and excellence of programming coupled with an ever-expanding commitment to marketing and promotion.
Therein lies the rub. Arts organizations are mission driven. If there is an extra dollar left over at the end of the year, the mission mandates that it be spent on programming. The result is that Kaiser’s advice to focus on diverse, excellent, new programming with an emphasis on marketing is difficult to sell to trustees and audiences.
What the sector really needs are tools for analyzing the impacts of artistic activity on education, community economic development, and social services. With the Pew Trust’s Cultural Data Project just getting started here in Vermont, and the new fields of “Social Impact Analysis” and “Brain-based Learning” coming into their own, we will soon provide policy analysts and state/local officials with much better information about why they should be advocating for significantly more resources to be spent on supporting and promoting the sector.
Artists and arts organizations are generally pretty capable at corralling what they need to put on a show. What they are less good at is reaching audiences in Boston, New York, Montreal, Albany, and the Berkshires (!) to let them know what is available less than a half-day’s drive away. This is where the state’s interests and the arts sector’s interests are currently most in alignment and where immediate returns are already beginning to be found. (There are many others, but this is the lowest of the “low-hanging fruits.”)
Vermont’s arts sector is, from an economic policy perspective, one of its last great un(der)-tapped resources. With the right kind of collaborative, strategic and socially-integrated investment, the arts sector could easily thrive and become integral to Vermont’s economic vitality, not just a pleasant, icing-on-the-cake afterthought.