A community is defined by the arts it produces and nourishes; art makes each community unique.
The chairman of the National Endowment for the Arts, Jane Chu, pointed that out on June 2 when she visited Windham County.
“When you’ve seen one community, you’ve seen one community,” Chu said.
Chu enjoys keeping in touch with arts organizations all over the country.
Whenever she’s going to visit a new place — as she did last week when she gave the commencement speech at Bennington College — she gets in touch with the state’s arts council and asks what artists or groups she might enjoy visiting in the area.
In this case, Alex Aldrich, the executive director of the Vermont Arts Council, recommended two groups that have received NEA grants.
One was the Vermont Performance Lab, set on 350 stunning acres of land in Guilford, and the other was the Sandglass Theater, a puppet theater crowded into a tiny barn in Putney.
“There’s nothing like seeing and hearing first-hand the meaning behind how a community is producing art,” Chu said. “It’s one of the best ways to identify the characteristics of the community and what makes it so special and alive.”
This year marks the 50th anniversary of the NEA, an independent agency of the federal government.
It is putting it mildly to say that the NEA has been a lightning rod for controversy.
In 1981, Ronald Reagan tried to abolish it. Many still remember the bruising culture wars of the late 1980s and early 1990s, when politicians took exception to some of the art it funded.
Since then, the NEA has been so quiet that some might be surprised to hear it is still around. But, like the arts themselves, after its trial by Congressional fire the NEA simply morphed in new, more sophisticated and unexpected ways.
One way has been the appointment of Chu herself in 2014.
Chu — a musician as well as an arts administrator — was appointed to a four-year term by President Obama; her appointment was confirmed by Congress. Before that, she served as president and CEO of a large performing-arts center in Kansas City, Mo.
In Chu’s tenure at the NEA, she has awarded more than $240 million in grants and instigated a national conversation about the arts’ contribution to the economic vitality and gross national product of the country.
Chu is a petite, lively, polished, deeply intelligent and intuitive woman of Asian ancestry who was born in Oklahoma, raised in Arkansas, and still speaks with a decided Southern accent. Quick to laugh, easily accessible, and deeply knowledgeable, she believes that arts are “an essential component of our everyday lives.”
More to the point for someone with money to give, she understands that every artist and arts organization is “somebody’s dream come true.”
In other words, she gets it on both levels: the importance of art in defining community and the life-or-death importance of art to the maker of that art.
Chu clearly enjoys talking with artists, which she did at both the VPL and Sandglass.
The day was beautiful and southern Vermont was green and splendid — “gorgeous,” Chu said — when she arrived at VPL. She was straight from the airport, yet fresh and eager in a fitted green jacket, khaki pants, and walking shoes.
VPL is a nonprofit performance laboratory that its founder, Sara Coffey calls “proudly itinerant.”
What she means is that while she and her husband, musician and recording engineer David Snyder, who runs Guilford Sound on the premises, own the splendid landscape, plus their home, plus the beautiful state-of-the-art recording studio, plus a historic house, VPL itself is free of real estate.
But, wait, there’s more.
Go down a steep stone stair, across a brook and up an equally steep stone staircase — hence the walking shoes — and you’ll see a low building clad in Corten steel that appears to be rising out of the ground and that has rooms for five artists and a meeting table that is made from the floor of a lane in a bowling alley.
But: “Guilford Sound operates the sound studio and the artist housing,” Coffey said. “VPL rents an office and can rent the housing from Guilford Sound at below-market rates. The biggest difference, and why I say we are itinerant, is that unlike most other performing-arts organizations, VPL doesn’t own a theater or studio to produce our residencies.
“We produce our residencies in a variety of locations each year. To do this we partner with a lot of local organizations, produce residencies in nontraditional settings — on trains, in grange halls, fields, covered bridges, galleries, etc. — and sometimes rent theater spaces.
“We do this not only to keep our operating costs down, but because it allows us to collaborate with interesting organizations and situate artists’ research and the work in a variety of settings.”
This is important to Coffey because in her former life, before she came to Vermont, she managed dance companies in New York and “they all needed space,” she said. “I know places where artists have studios and close their doors to create. I wanted to provide space to artists who want to open the doors of their studio.”
Present were U.S. Senator Patrick Leahy’s representative Diane Derby, state Reps. Mike Hebert (R-Vermont) and Molly Burke (P-Brattleboro), state Sen. Becca Balint (D-Windham), wood artist Michelle Holzapfel, painter Robert McBride of the Rockingham Arts and Museum Project (RAMP), HB Lozito of Green Mountain Crossroads — an LGBTQ group that is currently working on collecting and recording the lives and stories of rural gays — and Los Angeles choreographer Ann Carlson, who was in town to audition some sheep.
Carlson, with the help of a grant from the NEA, is working on a piece called “Doggy Hamlet,” that involves sheep, herding dogs, sculpture, and music and dance, not to mention Shakespeare. She had just been at the Major farm to cast between 34 and 50 sheep from their herd of 200.
The defining requirement was that the sheep work well with the dogs. Her piece, she said, was inspired by the dark novel, “The Story of Edgar Sawtelle” by David Wroblewski, about a mute boy and his dogs. Its first performance will be in September at VPL.
Carlson said VPL is “unique” because it “supports research,” giving an artist space to create, make mistakes and create again. She said that once Coffey opened VPL, “word quickly got around the arts community that this extraordinary place was available.”
Coffey talked about her commitment to “deep collaboration” with other organizations in the community, including Sandglass, Marlboro College, the Town of Guilford, Green Mountain Crossroads, and RAMP.
Burke said Coffey was a model of “how to think on a grand scale,” and Chu agreed, saying that Coffey “sounds like someone whose walk and talk match.”
After leaving the vast vistas of rolling hills and hayfields, Chu moved on to Putney, where she met the founders of Sandglass, Eric and Inez Bass, and was treated to five minutes of a heart-breaking work-in-progress puppet show about immigrants called “Babylon.”
The piece, according to one of the performers, Shoshana Bass, the daughter of Eric and Inez, who is carrying on her parents’ legacy, is not only about the experiences of people who are fleeing their homelands and leaving behind family as well as their culture, language, and way of life, but about the short attention span of the people who only hear about these tragic stories on the news.
“We have to do something, find some way to contribute,” Shoshana Bass said. “This is our medium.”
Chu said she felt the power of the work personally.
“I love what I just saw,” she said. “My mother left China in 1949 and never saw her family again. I really appreciate what you’re doing, not only leaving a legacy and being proud of a lineage, but this piece was much more powerful than just five minutes. We’re here to create and find meaning, and the way you’ve done it is very effective.”
After the performance, a small group of Sandglass board members, friends, and performers moved into the Bass’s living room for iced drinks and custard tarts. They were joined by Maria Basescu, the executive director of the Next Stage Arts Project, which is next door.
Next Stage has been unable to apply for NEA grants until recently, when it became fully handicapped-accessible.
Eric Bass said that when Next Stage was in development, people chided him about having a performance-arts competitor next door. He said art was like an Arab souk, or open-air marketplace.
“There’s a street that sells nothing but chickens,” he said. “One vendor isn’t going to sell all the chickens. But you can bet that anyone who wants a chicken will be on the street.”
“It’s the model of abundance rather than scarcity,” Basescu said.
“We’re not competitive,” Inez Bass said. “Other arts organizations are incredibly generous towards us.”
Chu appreciates strong cooperation between arts organizations.
“We think about systems and processes, but also about infrastructure that allows creativity,” Chu said. “So you’re emboldened enough to create arts organizations. And the more arts organizations around each other means they bring more community together. Some people think, ‘If it’s this, it can’t be that.’ But collaboration is a both/and — a win-win. Those communities which recognize this have great energy.”
Basescu said Vermont has a history of doing things the right way and influencing the nation. Aldrich agreed with her.
“Vermont is the state with the third most concentrated number of artists per capita in the country,” Aldrich said. “We’re second for artists and writers. We have the luxury of a strong sense of identity. We fed New England for 100 years. And I feel we’re still feeding them.”
Aldrich called Sandglass “seminal ambassadors” who bring their work all over the world.
At the end of her visit, Chu said, “It’s been an honor to be here. This was a great sampler. It comes down to one question. Are we making sure — and this is our bottom line — that all Americans are able to be included in the arts? We want to dispel the myth that arts just belong to some people. The heart of America is creativity and innovation.”