Wednesday, August 20, 2014

Senator James Jeffords

It is impossible NOT to join the chorus of so many others in celebrating the life and career of Senator Jim Jeffords. He was a thoughtful leader in so many areas – disability rights, education, the environment, and, of course, the arts. He was the co-founder of the Congressional Arts Caucus, the Senate Cultural Caucus, and the Congressional High School Art Competition. He fought tirelessly to retain funding for the National Endowments for the Arts and Humanities. Senator Jeffords’s efforts in support of the arts led to his becoming the first recipient of the Americans for Arts and the United States Conference of Mayors joint inaugural award for Congressional Arts Leadership in 1997.

Senator Jeffords touched Vermonters and Americans in myriad ways. For me, a highlight was in May, 1999. I was invited to testify on behalf of the reauthorization of the National Endowment for the Arts in front of the Senate Health Education Labor and Pensions (HELP) Committee. There was much articulate, thoughtful, and passionate testimony that day, but the “main event” that afternoon turned out to be Jacques D’Amboise, a former principal dancer with the New York City Ballet and the founder of the National Dance Institute.

I will never forget him sitting in front of the committee, asking them to imagine a group of early hominids lying under the stars and seeing, perhaps for the first time, a shooting star. “What would their reaction be?” D’Amboise wondered. “An ooh, then maybe an aah, and spontaneous clapping?”

As D’Amboise continued his story he became more and more animated, oohing and aahing and clapping and exhorting everyone in the hearing to do the same. Within a minute he was on his feet and creating a dance from just the rhythm and sounds of his voice, his hands, and his stomping feet.

It was suddenly a very lively HELP hearing. Decorum prohibited the committee members from joining D’Amboise’s impromptu performance, but I will never forget the smile on the face of the committee chair.

Senator James Jeffords was beaming.

From his expression, I could tell Senator Jeffords felt that THIS testimony showed the Senate at its best: helping people to understand the importance of dancing, singing, and finding joy in life. For years after this testimony, I remember thinking how well D’Amboise delivered his message. Now I have come to understand that the more profound message was delivered by the Senator himself, and he hardly said a thing.

Rest in Peace, Senator, and thank you. Each time a shooting star streaks across the night sky, I will remember your smile that day and think of you oohing and aahing and stomping your feet and clapping your hands.

Tuesday, June 24, 2014

An Appreciation: Rebecca Blunk

Rebecca Blunk

Shortly after joining the Vermont Arts Council’s staff in early 1997, I became aware that the position also came with a perk: a seat on the board of the New England Foundation for the Arts.

This vibrant regional arts organization (one of six across the country) serves its six namesake states with a particular emphasis on touring, dance, jazz, and now theater.  At the time it was under the leadership of Sam Miller and it wasn’t until I had attended a few meetings of the six NE state arts agency directors as well as the full board, that I became aware of a quiet, thoughtful presence in our midst: the deputy director, Rebecca Blunk.

Although ill for most of the past year, her passing last weekend was sudden and unexpected. The email I received left me feeling sick to my stomach.  No.  Not her.

Much will be written about Rebecca’s accomplishments at NEFA, which she led starting in 2004, all of which are considerable and impactful. What I admired most about her though, had very little to do with her programming expertise, her managerial skill, or her quiet and deft management of a diverse and high-powered regional board of directors. What I admired about her most was her willingness to be vulnerable.

So many in our field enjoy posturing; pretending to be knowledgeable in the face of the unknowable,  taking a stand on an issue even though all the facts are not yet in, or deciding that it’s better to be wrong with gusto than be right with a whimper.  Rebecca, as long as I knew her, never did any of these things.  If she didn’t know the answer she said so.  If she felt more information was needed, she would delay a decision. And as far as I can tell, I never knew her to be wrong about anything.  But I did catch her one day in a moment of deep inner turmoil.  I don’t even remember the issue, just that someone was giving her a hard time for something NEFA was alleged to have done.

“I just don’t understand how…” she tailed off, struggling to maintain her composure.

“…people could be such jerks?” I offered, trying to elicit a smile.

“No, …people could so completely misunderstand what we are trying to accomplish,” she finished.

Brought almost to tears, Rebecca refused to make it a personal issue, to turn that person into the proverbial bad guy. That was her way, and I loved her for it.  Rest in peace.

Thursday, January 9, 2014

Arthur Williams -- A Tribute

It would be hard to imagine an individual more instrumental to the shape and development of cultural life of Vermont in the past 50 years than Arthur Williams. To be sure there are several institutions, some that pre-date Arthur's arrival in Vermont in 1958, that have secured Vermont's reputation as a prime cultural destination: Marlboro Music Festival, the Vermont Symphony Orchestra, Southern Vermont Arts Center, Weston Playhouse, Flynn Center for the Performing Arts, and Shelburne Museum to name a few.
Arthur Williams

But it was Arthur's appointment in 1965 to serve as the first executive director of the Vermont Council on the Arts that signaled an important shift in how the arts were supported and, in turn, perceived by elected policy-makers.

I asked Ellen McCulloch-Lovell, now the President of Marlboro College, who was hired by Arthur as the Council's first arts in education coordinator, to provide a few (eloquent, as it turned out) paragraphs about Arthur's impact on the arts and on her.

"I first met Arthur and (his wife) Hanne in 1970 when I received my teacher's certification after a practicum in the two-room Fayston Elementary School, which his three children attended. My husband had known the family since 1964 through the early ski industry in the Mad River Valley. Not long after, Art was on the search committee that selected me as the first arts in education coordinator of the fledgling arts council; I was VAC's fourth employee. Art, I believe, was its first, but never wanted to be the leader, although he served twice as interim director. Instead, he exerted his enormous influence through his imaginative projects, ability to connect to anybody, acute perceptions about power and how to get things done, and absolute integrity. 

"By 1970, he had already masterminded the "Art Out of the Attic" project, identifying and exhibiting gems in private collections, and had administered the innovative Sculpture Symposia, which placed works on the Interstate rest stops. Later in that decade, he advocated for the Council's attention to the Vermont State House as the exemplar of public art in the state. His work led to a scholarly study, renovation of the famous Civil War painting, The Battle of Cedar Creek, the formation of Friends of the State House, which he co-chaired with Barbara Snelling, and the position of State House Curator. These actions led to the beautiful restoration of the State House chambers and much of its important art collection. The citizens of Vermont should thank him for this treasure

"Art was instrumental in the early success of the Council and also it's later stability. I became director in 1983, trusted him completely with any assignment, and always appreciated his individualism and humor. Arthur put my foot on the path that led to a fulfilling life in the arts, politics, and now higher education. I will always think of him with love, admiration, and deep gratitude."

A few years ago we asked him he would allow us to name our Citation Award for Meritorious Service to the Arts after him.  His face lit up with joy and without hesitation--and being the humble servant--he acquiesced and in the same breath asked, "are you sure?"

My response, which was a little tongue-in-cheek was "Yes of course.  Your commitment to Vermont, to the arts, to the State House, to the Arts Council, they are all important.  But the truth is, how could we NOT name an Arts Council award after someone called Art?"

Arthur Williams was, as the saying goes, "both a gentleman and a scholar," to which I would only add, "a painter, a polo player, a philanthropist, a public servant, and a cultural activist." Art, we miss you mightily.  

Requiescat in Pace.