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.

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