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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