Monday, July 23, 2012

A Study in Contrasts

As part of my ongoing travels throughout the State, I frequently witness startling contrasts.  Most have to do with views or weather. After all, this is Vermont, and we have plenty of varieties of both.

But my recent travels have brought me into contact with two communities, in very different parts of the State, each of which are remarkable in terms of what they offer from a cultural perspective (or don’t), and more importantly, how they view the role of art and culture in their community’s future.

The first community, which I shall call “A,” has for years suffered from the manufacturing flight of the past couple of generations.  Hundreds of thousands of square feet of former factory/mill real estate has lain empty for a long time, and several attempts to “bootstrap” an economy have met largely with mediocre (if that!) success.  Community “A” has not, however given up.  In the past few years they have converted some of the space into a community health center, and looked at what other communities have done that have resulted in new public/private investment.

It seems to be working.  Last week I attended a public opening at a new (re)development in the heart of the downtown, and it was clear to me that the town and the developer of the property had their priorities squarely in the right place.  As Mayor Richard Riley of Charleston SC famously said, “If you want to build public value in a community, give the best parts of the community to the public!”  This community, this developer took the centerpiece of the property and turned it into an open gallery/community use space, taking advantage of the nearly perfect lighting that the clerestory windows drew from outside.  They had invested time and energy into selecting works of art that both captivated the viewer and reflected back the town’s new-found energy and commitment to its future.

Community A still has a long way to go.  But they now have a significant cultural entity with which to draw visitors, to attract workers and their families, to attract entrepreneurs, and to attract additional investment.  The positive energy was palpable, and the community’s sense of pride and achievement is well-deserved.  [And I should also add, the next town over also recently installed a new art center so now each community can build on the strengths of the other as they look to bring people into Vermont!]

Contrast this with my encounter in community “B.”  This town has a storied history, wonderful cultural entities who have been serving as the primary draw for visitors and residents for well over a century.  Their cultural assets include several buildings (museum, library, performing arts facility, and theater), and a school with a strong national reputation for educating well-rounded, culturally aware students.  There is a thriving population of artists and craftspeople whose work is visible in many locations throughout the community and whose combined interests support multiple arts and community festivals etc.

The difference between community A and B is the level of engagement by their respective elected or appointed community leaders.  Community A’s leaders, especially the business leaders, are totally behind the new efforts to establish use this new arts facility as a calling card, a beacon of light to attract new life-blood to the community.  Community B’s leaders seem content to quietly ignore the considerable cultural assets in their midst.  On a recent trip there I stopped by community B’s visitor center, having previously attended many meetings there to discuss how to kick-start their “creative economy,” only to find that the visitor’s center had been moved at least three miles out of town, past “the strip” and its large contingency of car dealerships, fast food restaurants, and mall shops.

What visitor to community B is going to want to find his/her way three miles out of town and then turn back again?

The point here is simply one of perception.  Community A perceives this new art venue as a draw, as a catalyst that will help turn their town around psychologically and, eventually, economically.  People in community A have committed themselves to the arts, and placed one of the most valuable new pieces of real estate in the hands of curators and artists to carry their community spirit forward.

Community B perceives the arts as something very different.  Perhaps the community leaders have grown up with these incredible assets and their stately familiarity is simply not something they see much value in.  Lucky for community B, the people who manage, who perform in, who visit, or otherwise attend these cultural entities are loyal and committed to the work that is presented.  They carry on despite their local community’s leaders’ apparent neglect.

This is a pity.  Community B will have a much more difficult time, despite its significant cultural advantages, in attracting new audiences, new visitors, new investment, and new blood than community A. 

It’s an interesting contrast.

No comments: