Tuesday, September 18, 2012

A New Arts and Cultural Alliance: St. Johnsbury VT

Several days ago I had the pleasure of visiting St. Johnsbury to attend, among other events, the centennial celebration of the Masonic Hall.  Fifteen years ago, the Masonic Hall served as the headquarters for the local Passumpsic #27 chapter of the Vermont Freemasons, and was known best for its charitable work and the phenomenal model train set in its basement.

Today, through a remarkable collaborative community effort, the Masonic Hall is now also the headquarters of Catamount Arts.  Therein lies a remarkable story.

For the past ten years or so, a slow reawakening has been occurring in St. Johnsbury.  The venerable cultural institutions that line Main Street, including the St. Johnsbury Academy (my favorite secondary school because the horizontal nav bar on their home page lists the Three As for all the world to see!), the St. Johnsbury Athenaeum, and the Fairbanks Museum and Planetarium, have figured out, along with Catamount Arts, that there is safety in numbers.

During the centennial celebration, Charlie Browne, director of the Fairbanks Museum gave a brief talk on St. Johnsbury’s new Arts & Cultural Alliance on which they have all collaborated (reprinted by permission):

Catamounts Arts, with energy, momentum, and this splendid home, has taken its place as an extraordinary resource for culture and the arts in St. Johnsbury and beyond, alongside a world-class independent high school, St. Johnsbury Academy, a national historic landmark library and gallery, the St. Johnsbury Athenaeum, and the venerable and beloved Fairbanks Museum & Planetarium.  No other community of this size can claim such rich resources for art and culture.

Culture is our shared experience, values, heritage, vision, and sense of place.  Art is that universal human imperative to creative expression - from needlepoint to garage rock, from digital design to expressive dance, from filmmaking to poetry, from a well-tended garden to a well-crafted novel, from nature photography to culinary delights, and from watercolors to a handsomely turned cherry wood bowl.  Art in all of its forms shapes and illuminates our shared culture by expressing our values, inspiring our thinking and contributing to our heritage – across our generations.

Together, these four institutions have formed the St. Johnsbury Arts & Culture Alliance, with a shared purpose: to nurture that imperative in us all, and to do so in close collaboration.  I thank Jody Fried and his team, Joe Healy and his Academy colleagues, Matt Powers and his Athenaeum team, and Anna Rubin and her Museum colleagues for breathing life into this organization. 

Together, they have defined and celebrate a St. Johnsbury Arts and Culture Campus, one without walls, but marked by beautiful student-designed banners that line Main Street from the Academy to the Museum and along Eastern Avenue and Railroad Street.  

Together, they are creating a new authentic learning experience for Academy freshmen: the Freshman Humanities Capstone that will bring students into working contact with these like-minded institutions and their resources.

Together, Catamount Arts and the Athenaeum are launching a new arts education program, and a community public sculpture project is in the planning stages.  And together, these four institutions are finally coordinating and sharing their respective calendars or community events!  

Collectively, the Arts & Culture Alliance is a unique community asset, one with a tradition of innovation, and one that is driving a thriving creative economy, from which we all will benefit.  Thank you, Catamount Arts and your beautiful facility for being a leading part of this effort.

It would appear that the next hundred years is off to a very good start in St. Johnsbury!  Now, if I could only find out what happened to that model train set…

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Wednesday, September 5, 2012

On Assessment

“The Arts Council should do something fun, cheap, and available to any man, woman, and child that wants to participate.  I’m recommending we do a project with an artist’s palette; send them all over the state to any community that wants a bunch.  Let everyone decide for him or herself how they want to decorate their palette.  It’ll be fun, and it will do more to raise awareness about our work than anything else we could possibly do.”

“But will it work?  How are we going to know if it does everything you claim it will do?”

“Trust me, it will work.”

“How do you know?”

“I just do.  That’s how.”

[The above conversation took place between two Council trustees at our Annual Meeting in the summer of 2005.  The argument was regarding whether to undertake what became “The Palettes Project.”]

*     *     *     *     *

For the sixth time since arriving in Vermont I am working on the Arts Council’s Partnership Application to the National Endowment for the Arts (NEA).  It is, in the truest sense of the word, a labor of love. 

When else does one have the opportunity to cram what could easily amount to a 150-page discourse on programs and services offered to artists, arts organizations, schools, and communities  into a mere 11 pages?  When else do we in this very limited field (there are only about 60 state, territorial, and regional arts councils in the USA) get to brag to our peers about the incredible work that, in some small but meaningful way, we have helped bring into existence within the borders of our small state?

Writing these applications is joyful.  It gives me a “5-hour energy boost” that lasts for months. It makes me incredibly grateful for the outstanding staff that works with me at the Council.  Their labors and those of our constituents nurture Vermont’s creative workers; engage our children in positive, collaborative pursuits; identify and preserve our most precious cultural landscapes; and in countless other ways improve Vermont’s quality of life.

There is, however, one aspect of applying for a grant (not just from the NEA) that has always perplexed me.  It is the inevitable question about evaluation/measurement/assessment.

While it is important for any non-profit, public-benefit corporation to be able to articulate why its work is worthy of public support (including tax-deductible contributions from private citizens), the degree to which “accountability” has crept into our daily lives is a diversion from the real arguments in favor of supporting the arts.

As a result of the conversation recreated above, the Palettes Project was approved unanimously by the Council’s trustees, all of whom trusted the gut instinct of a very experienced trustee (and their own) over the “cost/benefit-” or “risk/reward-”based arguments that staff was asked to present. And yes, it accomplished everything the trustee expected and much, much more.

How many times are we asked, sometimes in multiple ways, how we will know that our programs and services are successful?  For many of the things we do, the answer is quite easy.  We ask for reports from grantees and people who have participated in our Breaking into Business Workshops, and they simply tell us how great (or not!) the program or service has been.

But for the bulk of the money we spend on creation grants, operating support grants to organizations, project grants and arts education grants, the answer is often far more difficult to articulate.  We get a lot of responses like, “the smiles on the faces of the kids as they left the auditorium, were priceless.”  And, oddly enough, I completely know what the grantee is telling me when I read a statement like that.

The truth is really that there are no metrics  to help us ascertain the degree to which a visit to the Flynn Center for the Performing Arts had an impact on the development of a 5th-grader from Island Pond.  Nor is there a measurement tool that captures the unique causal relationship between the economic vigor of a community and the degree to which that community embraces its arts sector.  Perhaps some university-backed psychologist with a $500,000 grant to do a longitudinal study in these areas might reveal something concrete that most of us already know instinctively.  But to arrive at the positive conclusions about the impact of such activities on people’s and communities’ lives is something that ALL of us working in the arts know.  We have experienced it.  But getting concrete, incontrovertible, third-party evidence at a price we can all afford is, in my experience,a waste of money.

I have borne witness to literally hundreds of so-called “economic impact studies” (which, more often than not, are about activity not impact); served on dozens of panels that expound on the value of collaborations, of marketing, of professional development; participated , collaborated, and advocated for public and private arts support, using every argument in the book, from Cultural Heritage Tourism to the Creative Economy; and written literally a thousand blog pages urging people to value and support the arts.  But it all comes down to a series of simple statements.  Feel free to add your own:

We support the arts because they inspire us to lead a better life.
We support the arts because they reflect profoundly on the human condition.
We support the arts because they provide the emotional, subjective anchors that are at the root of community.
We support the arts because they engage our young people and allow our elders to share their wisdom.
We support the arts because they allow people from different backgrounds to gain respect for, and insight about, each other.

We support the arts because they allow us to work, to play, to rest, and to recover.  Homo sapiens have known this for 40,000 years or more.  We don’t need a longitudinal study of any kind to tell us this.

The bottom line is that I am completely satisfied that the programs and services we provide to Vermont’s arts sector and the programs and services the Vermont arts sector provides to the general public are neither more nor less exemplary than those provided by every other State Arts Council and their arts sectors.  We all have been doing this for a long time, and shall continue to as long as people can dance, speak, sing, hold a brush or camera, and write.   It’s important work, and it matters. How do I know?

I just do. That’s how.