Wednesday, December 4, 2013

A Season of Giving

A few weeks ago my daughter, out of the blue, said “You know Dad, Vermont is a really great place to grow up. I’m glad we live here.”

I was curious as to what prompted this unsolicited comment from a 16-year-old girl whose current mode of communication is primarily a variety of cold-shoulder shrugs and eye-rolls. “I mean,” she went on, “I’m fully expecting to leave the state for college and probably for a while after that, but I can’t imagine a better place to have been raised.”  

Her three older brothers are all in the process of applying to college. It has been a roller-coaster ride of standardized testing, last-minute forays onto the “common app,” frightening conversations with financial aid professionals, and anguished pleadings with teachers. My daughter has quietly watched these proceedings with little or no comment. But I can tell it has given her a real-world perspective on what lies ahead for her when it’s her turn to leap into the vast, unknown arena called college.

I have the joy of doing a lot of travelling around the state, and while I am most familiar with Montpelier and the surrounding Central Vermont area, I can attest that there are many communities all over Vermont that share the same qualities and characteristics that have embraced my family—particularly my children.

Anyone reading this blog can imagine for him or herself what makes Vermont a special place. It’s probably the combination of ready access to the great outdoors, the opportunity to discover where your healthy food actually comes from, the joy of encountering creative people from all walks of life on a daily basis, and boasting rights for “hosting” Ben & Jerry’s as well as Heady Topper. The list is endless.

For me it comes down to what matters for the children. Not just MY children. All children.
And here’s the rub…even in Vermont, with all its beauty and access to wealth and food, an extraordinary number of children are going to bed hungry, waking up hungry, and wearing triple hand-me-downs that no longer keep out the cold. They are unable to keep up with their homework, unable to stay late at school for band or chorus or soccer practice because their parents have no way to get them home except by the bus that leaves at 3 pm.

I had the privilege of participating in the Governor’s Early Childhood Summit in mid-October. It was eye-opening. Depending on the issue, anywhere from 20% to 40% of Vermont schoolchildren are suffering from the lack of SOMETHING—food, transportation, parents with parenting skills, after-school activities, counseling, creative play, joy, inspiration. Art.

At one point during the Summit, the 200 attendees broke up into groups. We were asked to share who we are and what we bring to the summit. Listening to the 30 or so people in my group describe their jobs (teacher, counselor, health-care provider, truant officer, program administrator) and what they need in order to provide a barely adequate amount of service to kids in real need, I realized how truly blessed my family is.

When it came to my turn, all I could do was quote Antoine Saint-Exupery. “If you want to build a ship, don’t drum up people together to collect wood and don’t assign them tasks and work, but rather teach them to long for the endless immensity of the sea.”  I suggested that the arts field is always available to help people explore their dreams and aspirations. It is not enough simply to provide a prescription or sessions with a counselor or a probation officer. We have to find a way to inject a sense of wonder, excitement, and curiosity in our young people. If we fail at that, they will never learn, never discover themselves, never live up to their innate potential.

My children are lucky. They have grown up in a community that offers the Adamant Quarry Works theater in which they performed as 9- and 10-year olds (friends performed with Lost Nation Theater, let’s not forget them!). They also had the privilege and luck to grow up in a community that valued chorus and band as much as soccer and field hockey; where the fall musical is as well-attended as the boys’ basketball playoff; and where the community cinches its collective belt a little tighter each year to make sure that the school budget -- the annual investment we make in our kids -- gets passed at Town Meeting Day. But each year the vote is closer, the money tighter, the number in need slightly larger, the news more sobering.

Somehow we have to refocus our attention away from systems that only reward individual achievement and towards activities and people that serve the public good. Vermont’s non-profit sector embraces education, medicine, social services, the arts, and much, much more. As a whole it is THIS sector that makes Vermont truly stand apart from other states.

I submit it is Vermont’s nonprofits—all of them—working diligently, collaboratively, and effectively to improve everyone’s quality of life that makes my daughter want to live here. In the context of its nonprofit sector it actually is possible to imagine a Vermont in which no child is left behind.

In the spirit of the season, then, I encourage you to be generous with your tax-deductible contributions. Together, we can continue to move Vermont forward; investing in our kids and in our future.

Happy Holidays! 

Tuesday, November 5, 2013

Guess Who Came to Breakfast?

A week or so ago, nearly 200 artists, arts educators, administrators, and other interested parties gathered in the Vermont State House for the 2013 Arts Summit.  The theme for the Summit was Connect, Animate, Lead; an exhortation for those in attendance to network with each other, to explore new ideas and new opportunities, and come away with a sense of purpose and fulfillment that will carry them even further forward.

Before the day even got going with a plenary keynote address from noted artist and educator Eric Booth, a group of nearly 60 early risers made it into the largest State House committee room to hear a moderated discussion on... (wait for it!)... tax reform.

Wait…don’t click the back button.  This “breakfast conversation” was among the most important conversations our field has participated in in years.  Capably moderated by WCAX Senior Political Reporter Kristin Carlson, the four-person panel consisted of Flynn Center Executive Director John Killacky, Common Ground VT Executive Director Lauren-Glenn Davitian, Senate Finance Chair Tim Ashe (Burlington), and House Ways and Means Chair Janet Ancel (Calais). 

I can’t improve upon the great summary of the session that was penned by Lauren-Glenn Davitian.  I can, I hope, impress upon those of you that have read this far why you must be part of this conversation!!!

It appears as if, in Vermont, the arts are the only part of the nonprofit sector that has so far awakened to the significant possibility that the mechanisms that have been in place for more than a century to fund social service agencies, medical institutions, educational institutions, and cultural institutions are at risk.  In a post leading up to the Summit, John Killacky set the stage for what would happen to the vital network of nonprofits whose activities in Vermont generate nearly 20% of Vermont’s gross domestic product.  Citing Hawaii, which limited the charitable deduction in 2011, Killacky pointed out that its governor recently signed legislation undoing the 2011 law since the resulting $12 million in revenues generated had “cost” the state some $60 million in services from the nonprofit sector.

No one in the room during the Summit faulted members of the legislature for looking at reforms to the Vermont tax code.  It is clear there are inequities, loopholes, incentives, and other challenges that have evolved over the years that are collectively draining the State Treasury. 

But what needs to happen now is people representing social services, health care, higher education AND culture need to organize together to make sure that any steps the Legislature proposes during the next few years minimalize, if not eliminate, damage to the fragile network of public-benefit agencies like hospitals, rehab facilities, senior centers, and cultural institutions on which Vermonters depend.  Tax reform must lead to efficiencies and equity.  It must not result in a wholesale diminution of services that address problems.

The Arts Council will continue to follow and report on this issue as the year progresses.

Tuesday, July 30, 2013

Outstanding in Her Feld(man)

The news has hit the streets.  The bells have stopped ringing.  The sound trucks have gone back to their garages.  And life, for most people, has returned to its normal, dog-days-of-summer rhythm.

But the reality has only just now begun to sink in here at the Vermont Arts Council.  Rachel Feldman—our social- and broadcast-media queen, our communications maven, our “Chicago Manual of Style-or-else” poster child—is moving up the street, up the hill, and up the ladder.  In a few short weeks she will begin her new position as Lt. Gov. Phil Scott’s new Chief of Staff.

It goes without saying that any transition is an opportunity to (re)consider the total system of an organization: are our human and financial resources aligned in such a way to make the most effective use of them? Do the people answering questions from constituents or the media have access to the best, most relevant information? Are there issues that, in the year since we last hired someone new, have risen to a more urgent priority and thus we need to cast our net for someone with a slightly different set of skills?

I’ll be honest.  Rachel’s departure leaves a whopper of a hole in our staff.  Replacing her is not an option because, honestly, she is irreplaceable.  But two things I know for sure.

First, we will be hiring someone new to cover as much of the terrain that Rachel covered as possible, with a few changes to the job description to keep it, and us, current.  That person will be outstanding, I’m sure.  He or she will bring new skills, new ideas, and new “best practices” that we intend to make the most of. But Rachel’s tiny feet leave large footprints…

Second, Lt. Governor Phil Scott’s office is going to take on a whole new personality.  Don’t misunderstand me. There was nothing wrong with what he was doing before. But if our experience with the “Rachel Feldman phenomenon” is any indicator, Phil Scott will soon be trending on Twitter, hashtagging his public appearances, learning to keep his sound-bites to under 140 characters, (re)connecting daily with all of his Vermont voters on Facebook,  and yes, ignoring the Oxford comma.

Rachel, some cynics will complain that your time with us was way too short, and truthfully, I would agree with them.  But I’m not a cynic.  Your time with us was time well spent; for you, for us, and for Vermont!* 

We were lucky to have you for as long as we did.  Good luck and Godspeed. 

*Don’t even THINK about getting rid of that last comma!

Tuesday, June 18, 2013

Vermont: The State of the Arts (2013)

In the fall of 1980 while traveling on a Eurail Pass in Germany, I ran into a fellow traveler from Poland named Josef.

We were at a Biergarten in Cologne and despite his lack of English and my lack of Polish, we quickly discovered that two or three liters of Germany’s finest greatly facilitates any conversation.  It wasn’t long before I learned Josef was in the process of completing his doctorate in political science at a “Uniwersity” in Poland, and as the evening wore on, he shared with me, quite vigorously, his views on the future.

“Computer is key.  With computer I speak Harward. I speak Berkeley. I speak Moscow. I speak Beijing.  Uniwersity professors everywhere speak computer.  Have access to same informations.  Without informations we are like dinosaur.  Strong in what we know, wulnerable in what we don’t.  Informations is key.  Informations change world.  You watch.”

Well surprise, surprise…within 10 years a Polish Pope had supported a Polish union leader in helping to facilitate the downfall of the Soviet Union. I always wondered about who, exactly, Josef was and what he did for a living...

The longer I live, the more I realize how essentially correct Josef was in his broken English.  Information is key.  Information does change the world.

I work in a field, however, that often frustrates those seeking information.  It’s not that the arts aren’t studied, and it’s not that the arts don’t have a measurable value.  And it certainly isn’t that artists and those that support artists don’t have the same level of passion that my friend Josef did.

But, for those of us in the arts, the challenge is discerning which information matters and which does not. 

Even today, after nearly 50 years of the National Endowment for the Arts and the cumulative investment of billions of dollars, society still argues about the value of public funding for the arts.

I’ve gotten fairly good at making this argument over the years.  The difficulty I have, however, is with grant-making organizations like large foundations and even the National Endowment for the Arts whose applications invariably ask questions like How do you evaluate your programs and services? How do you know if they are successful or not? What specific things do you measure that serve as indicators for success?

The smug answer is “The public value of supporting the arts is self-evident.  Humans have supported art-making of all types since long before the Paleolithic Republic of Gaul gave its first Art in State Cave grant to a spectacular cave artist named Pablo P’Lascaux some 17,000 years ago.”

This “art for arts’ sake” response works for arts supporters, but tends to isolate them from everyone else.  The truth is, there really are things that we should do, and that we should do well because the bulk of the money we spend comes from tax-payers all over the country!

So as my old friend Josef might ask, “what informations do you have?” Well, that’s a simple question with a somewhat complicated answer.

Our five-year Strategic Plan is pretty clear on two things.  One is a focus on arts education and the other is a focus on marketing and promotion.  One is in deep trouble and the other offers us the best opportunity and most engaged allies at the state and local level in years.  But to do both, we need resources, a plan and clear outcomes that can be used to see how well we do.

Let me start with the resource question first.  According to our plan, we gave ourselves two years to develop and successfully make the case for matching National Endowment for the Arts Funding 1:1.  As I hope all of you know by now, we beat that benchmark by a full year. Thanks to you and hundreds of advocates from all over the state, the Governor and legislature approved a 26% increase.  This increase means that for the first time in our history we do not have to use our own grantee’s funds as match. 

This is good news for several reasons.  We can now begin to unpack the many issues surrounding the delivery of a meaningful, sequential, and integrated program of arts education in our schools even as we start a new collaboration with the Agency of Education to develop an operating plan that balances student and school needs against the state’s (and our) capacity.

We can also help our partners at the Agency of Commerce to infuse their marketing and promotion efforts with much more timely information about the arts and culture.  Remember, as Josef said 33 years ago, “Informations change world.”  At the very least, we hope better informations about the arts will change Vermont by bringing an ever-greater number of cultural tourists to explore our treasures.

But what will we measure? Where arts education is concerned, our biggest challenge is finding out what data is currently collected.  Our primary strategic objective is to support educational activities particularly in the pre-K through 12 cohort that have arts-enriched/arts-integrated curricula and programming.  Why? Because we want Vermont to be known for turning out civic-minded citizens who recognize and appreciate the arts not only for their intrinsic value, but for the value they offer to communities.  We further assert that learning in the arts is a critical path to success for all students.  So what will we measure and how?

We are giving ourselves until the end of this calendar year to fully answer this question.  I will say, however that the 2 to 5-year Outcomes that we articulated in our Plan are already starting to happen.  We have identified key partners and are actively working with the State Board of Education’s Education Quality Standards Committee to ensure that the arts are an integral part of how Vermont defines a “college-ready” high school graduate. Furthermore, we are working very closely with the consortium of local agencies in Burlington to develop and refine a significant body of knowledge about arts integrated curricula using the Integrated Arts Academy (formerly known as the H. O. Wheeler School) as a model for best practices.

As for what we will measure in the area of marketing and promotion, it’s important to understand first what our strategic objective is.  We support communities that collaboratively engage the arts sector in their promotional efforts about their local economic vitality and vibrancy because the arts are not only a valued tourism draw, but they also serve as a significant attractor for new business development. We will measure increases in the quality and number of materials that the state uses to market and promote Vermont through the arts (most of which we hope to provide), but we will also look at and report out on the significant amount of data collected through the Pew Trust’s Cultural Data Project.

The CDP, as it is called, is an information-gathering protocol that is designed to do what the IRS Form 990 could only dream of doing:  provide consistent, comparable data across the range of nonprofit arts organizations on things like employment, solvency, in-state and out-of-state attendance, management efficiency, trends, and comparison analysis.  We expect our first report on this to drop sometime early this fall.  And so far we are pleased that more than 100 organizations are participating, of which nearly 60 so far have submitted at least two-years’ worth of key operating and financial data.

And what of the outcomes?  We have given ourselves two years to figure out how to work with a variety of state departments, most of which are in the Agency of Commerce and Community development.  A draft Memorandum of Understanding is already circulating that outlines how we hope to become better engaged in promoting Vermont’s cultural assets.

But there is one more important point I want to make.

Sometimes the most important things we do don’t appear in a strategic plan or a Memorandum of Understanding.

No one expected that a series of quiet conversations in 1997 between the then-new Tourism Commissioner and the equally new Arts Council Director would result in a robust Cultural Heritage Tourism Toolkit that remains as relevant today as it was when it was published in 2001.

No one knew in 1999 that a single session at a day-long arts conference would result in something as huge and dynamic as the soon-to-be-completed (finally!) Danville Project.

Our 2001 plan did not include a line directing us to have lunch with Warren Kimble in 2005 and ask him to come up with the Palettes of Vermont.

But all those things happened, and I like to believe they happened because we, the Council and the arts sector in general, are flexible, responsive, and imaginative—and not rigidly tied to a strategic plan.  So I have to ask:

What are we doing today so that in another 15 years the Arts Council’s Executive Director can look back and report on some unexpected outcome that we didn’t identify today because we couldn’t describe what success might look like, much less explain its outcomes and outputs? Where is the next generation of Cultural Tourism, or Danville, or Palettes projects going to come from? How will we know whether and how much to support them? How will we improve our odds of success?

I believe that at its core, the value of the Arts Council is not just in what it can measure, but in what it does to position itself to take advantage of opportunities that are at present unknown.  More importantly, the value of the Council is really more about the quality of the work done by the artists, arts organizations, and arts educators we serve.  In that context, and to stay relevant over time, I believe we need to search outside of our comfort zones.

When asked what the Council does, most people respond that it gives money to artists, arts organizations, and arts educators.  Giving away money is what we have always done, and (in all likelihood) will be what we continue to do in the future.  But this work, while time-consuming, is not hard.  It does not stretch us to look beyond our comfort zone.  Here are some things that surely will:

·       Preparing Vermont to become known as the most accessible arts state—the most welcoming to people with disabilities—in the country
·       Embracing new Americans (especially people of color) and help them to assimilate on their terms to their new home here in Vermont
·       Helping people and institutions physically and psychologically prepare themselves for an increasingly warmer climate with increasingly violent weather

To address these, and many other, issues, the only thing I can think to do is to set a large table and welcome to it a broad array of state, state-wide, local and community partners from all fields with a stake in these and other issues.  Our combined wisdom and knowledge will surely steer us towards solutions tomorrow that none of us on our own could possibly imagine today.  It’s messy, non-linear, and somewhat contradictory to Josef’s “information-will-fix-it” world-view.  But that’s the way the arts roll sometimes.

For now, those of you who are interested in the health of your state arts council, rest assured: we are of sound fiscal mind and body, expected to finish out the current year with a very small surplus all due in no small part to the stellar group of people who respond to your calls day in, day out all year long—the amazing staff of the Vermont Arts Council.  Thank you.