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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