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Vermont Performance Lab founder Sara Coffey has been on a mission to make dance a bigger part of the performing arts scene in Brattleboro.

The Arts

A big boost for VPL

Performance art incubator in Guilford receives $50,000 NEA grant

For more information about Vermont Performance Lab, visit

GUILFORD—Vermont Performance Lab (VPL) has been awarded a $50,000 grant from the National Endowment for the Arts (NEA), and is excitedly putting out a call for help to meet a required $50,000 in matching funds.

According to Sara Coffey, VPL’s founder and director, VPL is one of 919 nonprofit organizations nationwide to receive an NEA Art Works grant this year. She told The Commons the award will support six artist residencies for the organization’s 2015 season.

VPL describes itself as a laboratory for creative research and community engagement. Coffey says that for the past seven years the lab has brought artists of regional, national, and international stature to the grange halls, studios, and classrooms of rural Vermont through its innovative artist residency program.

Residencies engage the public in the artists’ processes as they develop new work, Coffey says, adding that the artists give the local community an opportunity to interact, from the earliest stages of conceptual creation to near-completion or production in preparation for touring.

Workshops, lectures, conversations with artists, and public showings of either works-in-progress or completed works all create a dialogue with artists and the southern Vermont community.

Coffey says she jumped for joy and cried when she learned VPL had won the grant. She said she figured the organization “had a shot” for perhaps $30,000, and the $50,000 exceeded her expectations.

“We have never received a grant on this scale from the NEA,” she says. “It’s more than the money; it’s the recognition from such a prestigious national funder that’s so important.”

This NEA grant will support projects in 2015 involving 22 artists. Coffey says that, in addition to supporting the creation of new performance work, this project “will deepen the understanding and involvement of our existing audience, connect us with new cohorts in the towns we serve, and position artists as vital and inspiring presences in community life. Ideally, this leads to lifelong connection and participation in the arts.”

Coffey says she realizes that VPL faced competition for the funds from “many wonderful and significant arts organizations” and that she believes that what VPL had going for it was its diversity and geography.

“While the actual number of people we reach is much smaller than at many other arts organizations, we touch people who would not be reached otherwise,” she says. “It’s heart-warming to see NEA willing to invest in smaller communities like ours.”

Coffey ventures that the NEA was interested in VPL because the lab is dedicated to addressing local and national needs.

“Although we work with nationally acclaimed artists, our research and development makes sure that their work will be relevant to our community as well as life beyond Vermont. We have a commitment to work with New England artists every season, to develop a robust and recognizable artist in Western New Hampshire and Vermont,” she says.

She adds that the NEA is interested in investing in the arts that benefit non-urban communities. “They want to support artists and projects that reaches out to new audiences. They felt our mission resonated with goals of their national funding,” Coffey says.

With the solid financial support from the NEA, Coffey promises VPL is looking forward to a very ambitious year in terms of the number of artist residencies and the scope and scale of the artists’ work.

Donor sweetening deal for needed matching contributions

As part of the terms of the NEA Art Works grant, VPL needs to raise another $50,000 in matching contributions.

To do this, Coffey says, a generous and anonymous donor already supporting VPL’s end-of-year fundraising effort with a challenge gift is increasing the amount of the matching donation to help VPL meet its goal.

Every gift to VPL received before Jan. 31, 2015 will be matched dollar for dollar with a challenge donation that has been increased to $25,000.

According to Coffey, what VPL wants to do and can achieve always depends on funding. She says VPL applies for approximately 12 major grants a year, ranging from $500 on up.

“We do much research and are selective where we apply. But it takes a long time until the final results come through. We had to apply as early as February for the NEA grant and have just now heard. That makes planning ahead precarious,” she explains.

Had VPL not received this NEA grant, it would have had to scale back in 2015.

“But VPL has such a solid commitment with the artists we work with that we always have the hope that they might consider postponing a residency or scaling down on the projects they might do,” Coffey says.

Coffey has worked in the nonprofit cultural world for nearly 25 years. A graduate of Marlboro College, where she majored in anthropology and dance, she went on to get a master’s in performance studies from New York University. After graduation, she worked around the New York area in a variety of museums, where she gained experience both in development and event production.

However, she says, her last year in Manhattan working with dance artists greatly informed her thinking in creating VPL:

‘The cost of creativity’

“I discovered, as the cost of creativity rose, finances became a real challenge for these artists: not just for raising money for dance spaces to rehearse. Too many artists have to take second jobs to support themselves, teaching yoga or waiting tables just to survive. This sometimes left them with only two or three hours a week for rehearsal time.”

When Coffey and her husband moved back to southern Vermont to raise their family, she initially worked with the Massachusetts Museum of Contemporary Art (Mass MoCA) in its opening years. There, she developed its dance residency program and managed its artists. But even then, she says, she had her eye on something different.

“VPL is the culmination of all my work experiences. There are not many places where performing artists in a residency can develop their work. We fill a special niche, although that was not something I consciously set out to do with VPL,” she explains.

She says she developed a concept combining presenting arts organizations that have a rich humanities component with the artist colony model.

“Our goal always was to connect an artist to this community,” she says. “Artists who want to be left alone in a studio to develop their work would not be a good fit with VPL.”

Coffey says she feels that VPL has developed a reciprocal exchange with the community in the creative process.

“A small town like Brattleboro is an ideal place for community building, since it is easier to connect with its people here, rather than in New York City,” she says.

When Coffey worked in the arts in Manhattan she would only see a small fraction of the spectrum of the kinds of people she interacts with here: “You would inevitably find the same sort of person going to the arts events there.”

In Brattleboro, in contrast, she says she finds herself working with members of the Selectboard, environmental activists, and the many diverse people who live in southern Vermont.

Coffey says that in VPL’s early days getting an audience was slow-going:

“Then we did only two projects a year, cobbled together. It was in 2010 that we started to gain steam. We had some angels looking out for us, and national people began noticing us. Now, in our small way, we’re growing by leaps and bounds, and are selling out most of our performances. Nonetheless, we are mindful not to get too big, because we need to remain sustainable.”

Partners make the difference

More and more, VPL is energized by working with a variety of partners such as Marlboro College, Robert McBride and the Rockingham Museum and Arts Project, Eric Bass and Sandglass Theater, and Konstantin von Krusenstiern, when he was with Brattleboro Museum & Arts Center.

“Such collaborations keep us fresh and interesting,” Coffey says.

As Coffey looks ahead for VPL, she says she’s excited to offer an open studio in late May where several artists share their works in progress.

Also, later in the year, VPL will bring back the Progressive Performance Festival, which was last done in 2011. Ideally, she says, VPL would put the festival on every other year:

“Putting on something on that scale is difficult, but as we grow — and with support like the NEA grant — increasingly it seems possible.”

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Originally published in The Commons issue #285 (Wednesday, December 17, 2014). This story appeared on page B1.

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