BRATTLEBORO—A creative economy is bubbling up in southern Vermont.
With the reopening of the stately Brooks House in downtown Brattleboro, followed by the opening of two new high-end art galleries and a restaurant or two, the inauguration of a serious new publishing house, a flush of grant money, a building boom rising on a tide of capital campaigns and many other indicators, the creative economy that many have talked about and worked toward may finally be here.
For years, Brattleboro has prided itself on being an “arts town.” In fact, most of Windham County promotes itself that way. A recent Boston television show even called Brattleboro “an artist’s paradise.”
No one denies that southern Vermont is a beautiful place where it is possible to find both privacy and community.
Painters, sculptors, writers (Vermont has more writers per capita than any state in the union), potters, jewelers, architects, graphic designers, puppeteers, filmmakers, photographers, musicians, poets, actors, circus performers, arts producers, gallerists and all manner of craftspeople, including chefs, have flocked to live here.
This bursting-at-the-seams creativity makes for an exciting place to live and work.
But even in paradise, artists have to eat. For decades, successful artists have lived here and sold their work elsewhere. After all, how much art can artists sell to other artists?
Now, finally, all indications are pointing to a true creative economy growing here.
What is the ‘creative economy’
A creative economy means that artists can earn all, or at least enough, of their living here.
It means enough for-profit and nonprofit arts and cultural organizations — a critical mass, if you will — are serving as a stable economic driver: bringing significant money in, spending significant money here, creating a significant number of jobs, creating an audience, attracting tourists and, in general, enriching the community.
There are a lot of ways to assess a creative economy. One simple way is to add up the budgets of many of the area’s larger arts and cultural organizations, which indicates their buying power in the community.
The combined annual budgets of some of the biggest players on the Brattleboro arts scene — the Brattleboro Museum & Arts Center (BMAC), the New England Youth Theatre (NEYT), Brattleboro Music Center (BMC), NECCA (New England Center for Circus Arts), and the Vermont Jazz Center — soar well over $3 million.
That means there’s a lot of cultural money sloshing around in the community.
Where does it go?
Besides salaries, the cultural economy supports bookkeepers, accountants and attorneys.
It supports restaurants and shops. The money finds its way into the hardware stores (BMAC keeps a running tab at Brown & Roberts), shoe stores, gas stations, supermarkets, propane dealers, carpenters, contractors, health clubs, framing shops, insurance companies, truckers, auto repair shops, caterers, and a host of other local businesses.
Even circus performers need a dentist every now and then.
Tourism is another part of the cultural economy, and southern Vermont has become a destination for tourists, art lovers and second-home owners. Danny Lichtenfeld, BMAC’s executive director, says that a six-month study carried out by the museum showed that 50 percent of the people who visited had traveled to Brattleboro from an hour or more away.
“And in overwhelming numbers, those people are going to a restaurant and doing some shopping,” Lichtenfeld said. “This shows the impact of the museum, in particular, on the local economy.”
For another example, the Brattleboro Film Festival, which this year sold 1,000 tickets in its first three days, describes its economic contribution this way:
“In addition to encouraging spending downtown, the Brattleboro Film Festival also pays into the local economy, spending thousands of dollars in printing of posters, flyers and other collateral materials, theater rental for our films, equipment purchases and rentals, food purchases and more,” said Prudence Baird, one of the BFF organizers.
“In addition, the BFF creates opportunities for other entities to use the festival as a value-added incentive to sell products such as advertising space. The Commons, which is one of our community partners, prints the BFF program and sells advertising space in this special pull-out section. The Latchis Theatre, another community partner, sees a bump in concession sales during festival.”
This is often called the “ripple effect” or the “multiplier.” In 2010, a national study showed an arts multiplier of $11 million in Windham County.
A new study is needed, but certainly the number is much higher now — some estimate it as high as $35 million.
An attractive place
The creative energy of southern Vermont makes it an attractive place to live and work, even if you’re not an artist.
“Employers such as the hospital, or any big local employer who is trying to attract employees — well-educated and well-paid employees with families, these people have other opportunities to work,” Lichtenfeld said.
“For employers like that, one of the things they put forward about the quality of life in this area is places like the museum. We have a small but world-class art museum, we have the youth programs at the New England Youth Theatre, and how many music festivals? The arts add value to the community.”
Many people living here do their creative work for area corporations, colleges and industries. Graphic designers and architects can have home offices in the renovated barns behind their houses and still keep their clients happy in New York and Boston. After all, UPS delivers to tiny Williamsville.
Then there are the commercial ventures predicated on a location near a flourishing arts economy: high-end restaurants, art galleries, craft breweries (Brattleboro will soon have three), jewelry stores, antique stores, etc.
Gather it all up and you will see a critical mass of creative people who live, work. own homes, spend money and pay taxes here. Looked at it this way, the creative economy becomes a significant sector of the overall economy.
“It’s a countable economy,” said Mara Williams, BMAC’s chief curator. “And it distinguishes us from other places. We have a charming Main Street that’s a real main street. We have an innovative museum that would serve a small city well, and we have it in a town of 12,500 people.
“We have world class music of many different kinds. Classical at the Yellow Barn, Brattleboro Music Center, the Marlboro Music Festival, plus the nationally-recognized Vermont Jazz Center. We have cultural reasons for people coming here — architectural reasons, fine dining reasons, crafts tours, high-end shops.
“We have really significant crafts arts here. All of this brings a certain je ne sais quois to the area. A certain vibrancy or zest that makes downtowns exciting.”
Of course, having a flourishing creative economy doesn’t mask the area’s problems with drugs and homelessness.
Many artists still have to work two jobs to survive. Established artists still sell their work in New York and San Francisco. Property taxes are still high due to the high cost of education. Incomes in other economic sectors are still stagnant.
There are still a few empty storefronts on Main Street. There’s talk that nonprofits, which don’t pay property taxes, soon might have to face a “payment in lieu of taxes” that could slow growth.
“But it’s not all bad news,” Williams said. “Every place has stagnant salaries. If people think their town or city doesn’t have homelessness and drugs, they aren’t looking in the right places. Probably every community in America is struggling with these problems. It’s just less talked about in some places than others.”
Quantifying an economy
As they say on public radio’s “Marketplace,” let’s do the numbers:
• The budget for the Brattleboro Museum and Arts Center is reaching toward $550,000 this year, Lichtenfeld said.
• West Brattleboro is now home to a flourishing publishing house. A little more than a year ago, writer, bookmaker, and illustrator Dede Cummings began Green Writers Press, “giving voice to writers who will make the world a better place.”
She began her enterprise with $30,000, most of it from a home equity loan. Her company, which publishes many local authors, now has 11 books in print, some of them featured at the prestigious Frankfurt Book Fair. The books are sold by carefully selected national distributors.
And GWP is growing: it has six new books on its spring list. The company is hitting $100,000 in sales and has started being able to pay its volunteer artists, editors and proofreaders as well as its authors.
• The Vermont Jazz Center, now in its 37th year, produces concerts nearly every week with nationally known performers in its 180-seat theater at 72 Cotton Mill Hill.
Its budget, which increases at least 10 percent a year, is reaching $220,000, according to artistic director Eugene Uman. It recently received an Acclaim Award from Chamber Music America.
• NECCA, (the new formal name for the New England Center for Circus Arts), started at Cotton Mill Hill.
With an annual budget of $750,000, it puts on shows and teaches circus arts to both locals and professionals who travel to Brattleboro to learn from other professionals. Its students come from as far away as Argentina, Sweden, and France.
“We estimate that over 100 permanent circus residents are in Brattleboro, as many have made it their home,” said executive director Serenity Smith Forchion.
Smith estimates that about 2,500 individual tickets were sold for NECCA performances in Brattleboro during 2013.
• The Latchis Theatre and Hotel at 50 Main St. is a commercial hybrid, where a for-profit hotel and a nonprofit, four-screen theater co-exist under one umbrella. The joint is buzzing.
“We’re a fusion of our nonprofit heart-and-souls and our for-profit hearts-and-minds,” said executive director Jon Potter. “So we live in the world of downtown, of business and commerce, and in the tourism business — our August and our October were both awesome.”
At the time, Potter was sitting on an nine-day high that started with a presentation of “The Rocky Horror Picture Show” that drew 300 people.
It was followed, the next day, by the Paul Winter Consort, followed by a documentary about early childhood development, then by the Vermont Historical Society’s annual conference which brought 150 historians to town, followed by the 31-film, 10-day Brattleboro Film Festival, and then the Boston Gay Men’s Choir, a show that raised $25,000 for the Brattleboro Retreat’s LGBTQ Outreach Program — all while showing three wide-release commercial films.
To finish the stretch, Potter was gearing up for the Metropolitan Opera’s Live in HD performance of “Carmen.”
• The New England Youth Theatre, on Flat Street in Brattleboro, “educates the hearts, minds, bodies and voices of youth of all abilities through the dramatic arts.”
Founded by professional clown, mime and actor Stephen Stearns, it currently has a budget of $700,000, half of it earned through ticket sales and the rental of its theater, and half through grants and donations,
“We have a beautiful space,” said development director Naomi Shafer. “One of the reasons we rent our space relatively inexpensively is to be a resource for other arts organizations. So people who don’t want to see youth theater can still an arts event here. And for youth, it’s their theater. It’s important that they have a space of their own. People pay to see them perform — the importance of young artists is that their work keeps the building open and the theater driving.”
• This year, the Brattleboro Music Center has a budget of $549,000. In addition to two full-time and four part-time employees, it has four artistic program directors and 45 music teachers teaching more than 17 instruments — and classes in voice, theory, conducting, improvisation and traditional music.
It has 800 students counting private lessons, classes and camps. Sixty amateur and professional musicians play in the Windham Orchestra. Eighty singers sing in the Brattleboro Concert Choir. Thirty-five more are in the Blanche Moyse Chorale. More than 5,000 audience members will experience live music through the BMC.
• The nonprofit Sandglass Theater in Putney has been creating and performing puppet plays around the country since its founders, Eric and Ines Zeller Bass, started their company in 1982.
Every two years, Sandglass also produces a 10-day international puppet festival, Puppets in the Green Mountains, which brings to Putney companies from five continents and more than 20 countries. Sandglass’s 2013 budget was roughly $190,000, and so far in 2014 they have entertained about 2,700 people with about 24 performances, according to project coordinator Michael Hanish.
Sandglass is the first theater in Putney’s “Theater Row,” because, as Eric Bass says, “Two theaters make a row.” The second theater is next door’s Next Stage Arts Project. The two theaters work closely with each other, rather than trying to grab each other’s audiences on the same night. They collaborate with each other and Sandglass sometimes uses Next Stage’s stage.
• Which brings us to Next Stage, a performing arts production nonprofit with a budget this year of about $140,000. Next Stage recently won a $320,000 grant from ArtsAmerica — a conglomerate of large companies and financial institutions that pool their money to make significant investments in arts and community.
According to executive director Maria Basescu, Next Stage is using $40,000 of that grant money for programming. We’ll get to the other part of that grant in a moment.
• The nonprofit performance and education center Main Street Arts in Saxtons River celebrated its 25th anniversary in 2013.
These are just some of the major Windham Country arts and culture organizations. There are also the Vermont Performance Lab in Guilford, which incubates new avant-garde performance art, and two amateur theaters. There are also a host of small performance spaces that produce concerts, theater films and other events.
Then there are the festivals:
• The Brattleboro Film Festival, now in its third year, brought 31 independent films to the Latchis in November with a budget of approximately $14,000.
Of note is that its first Young Filmmakers Showcase received 42 entries, out of which 10 official selections were chosen to be shown and win prizes. Most of them ran less than 15 minutes. Each filmmakers was aged under 25.
• In October, the 13th annual Brattleboro Literary Festival drew some 4,000 people to downtown Brattleboro to hear approximately 60 authors read from their published works and to browse, shop, and eat.
Organizer Sandy Rouse told The Commons that the festival cost $25,232 to produce, “with approximately half of the budget spent on hospitality. Most of the funds come from private donations and grants. Vermont Public Radio (VPR) is the festival’s media sponsor. Marlboro College has sponsored the festival from the beginning.”
The local grassroots writers’ organization Write Action! was selling books by member authors. Cummings, who helped with publicity, made sure her books were featured for sale; several of her own authors did readings.
• In 2013 the Independent Television and Film Festival (ITVFest) moved from Los Angeles to Dover. Its first year was such a success that it is now committed to stay through 2017 and is estimated to bring more than $2.5 million of new business revenue into the area, according to its executive director, Philip Gilpin Jr.
Windham County also hosts, among others, a dance festival, a women’s film festival, a LGBT film festival, a Jewish film festival and one that celebrates cows — the famous Strolling of the Heifers.
Then there are the tours:
• The Putney Craft Tour is entering its 36th year this Thanksgiving with 26 artists participating. It regularly draws some 3,000 people each year to visit artists’ homes and studios,
• The Rock River Artists live in Newfane and Williamsville. This collective of 17 painters, potters, glassblowers, fabric artists, furniture makers, and ceramists is already organizing for their 23rd annual tour in July 2015.
• The 26 artists in Brattleboro-West Arts had their sixth annual tour in September.
• The new Gems of the West River Valley is “a collection of businesses linked geographically by the winding course of a river and its history.” It begins with Fulcrum Arts in Brattleboro, includes internationally prominent glassblower Robert DuGrenier’s studio in Townshend, adds in some stores and historic inns before it ends with Elaine Beckwith’s fine art gallery in Jamaica.
Finally, two new galleries in Brattleboro have brought the entrepreneurial arts economy into fine sharp focus:
• In September, painters Petria Mitchell and Jim Giddings, a married couple, opened Mitchell-Giddings Fine Arts at 183 Main Street in Brattleboro. They put $170,000 — their retirement savings — into buying and renovating an old recording studio and turning it into an elegant art gallery that wouldn’t be out of place in New York’s Chelsea art district.
Artist Wolf Kahn, who has a second home in the area, wrote in the guest book on opening night, “You have brought Paris to Brattleboro.”
Their first show featured seven of the best local artists, including themselves. And from the beginning, the work began to sell.
“We met our goal for the first month in the first 10 days,” Mitchell said. “Not all of our artists are selling, but our marketing is just getting started.”
“It’s a gamble because we have to make money to survive,” Giddings said. “And yet we have to do it as well as we can with the visual artists we choose. There’s a lot of expensive work here, but we can’t do it any other way.”
• Fulcrum Arts is the combined passion project of two women, glassblower Randi Solin and ceramics artist Natalie Blake, both respected in their fields internationally.
Fulcrum opened in October with a celebratory pig roast. Located a short drive from downtown on Route 30, this combination of studios and an airy, high-ceilinged art gallery was more than four years in the making and cost approximately $500,000. The art for sale ranges from $40 to $6,600.
These two new galleries join the long-established Vermont Artisan Designs Gallery, Gallery in the Woods, the Artist’s Loft Gallery and the Catherine Dianich contemporary art gallery — all on, just off of, or above Main Street in Brattleboro.
Many cultural organizations here are experiencing growth spurts.
For example, the Brattleboro Music Center is happy to announce that it is planning a new building on Flat Street.
“We are delighted to share that the trustees have approved a plan to move the BMC from its current rented space to a brand new facility to be built on Flat Street,” said interim managing director Mary Greene.
“The new BMC campus will house the music school and will feature a chamber music recital hall. We’re currently in the quiet phase of fundraising, but the BMC anticipates breaking ground in the fall of 2015, once sufficient funds have been raised.
“It is an exciting moment for the Music Center, the town and region. The response from early supporters confirms that this project is right for the community and that the time for it is now."
This past summer, NECCA bought land off of Putney Road to construct a school and performance space. It is currently involved in a $2.5 million capital campaign.
The Brattleboro Film Festival has just won its 501(c)3 status and is revving its engines accordingly.
“Even as our third annual film festival is underway, we are already turning our sights to making our fourth annual festival more robust and engaging,” said Baird.
“One of our long-term goals is to be a year-round presence in Brattleboro’s cultural community, bringing the kinds of films not otherwise seen on the big screen to our community on a regular basis. As part and parcel of this goal is to continue building our media arts and literacy components with year-round events that have real fiscal, cultural and education impact on our community.”
BMAC is expanding not in size but rather in reach.
“Over the last few years, we’ve come to terms with the notion that the museum has grown significantly,” Lichtenfeld said. “We didn’t sit down with a plan for this growth. We find ourself spending a lot more money putting on exhibits and events. Every year is a scramble to be sure we’re coming up with the money to pay for it all.
“Too often, the way it all balances out is we got an unexpected bequest, or somebody donated an art collection or antique furniture that we can auction off.”
To bring in more reliable money, the museum has started doing outreach in neighboring states.
“We looked at our visitor and donor list and saw that we have tremendous support among people living in Brattleboro and the neighboring towns,” Lichtenfeld said. “Now we need to go out beyond that, especially across the river to New Hampshire and across the border to Massachusetts.
“It’s not like there’s another contemporary arts museum in their backyard. We looked at these two factors: the need for reliable income and that we’ve had so little penetration outside our immediate area. This is a problem matched to an opportunity. We need to do a better job attracting and serving people further afield.”
At Next Stage, the remainder of the ArtsAmerica grant will go to make up a hefty part of an $860,000 capital campaign to renovate, in conjunction with the Putney Historical Society, its historic downtown 1841 building.
Main Street Arts in Saxtons River is currently renovating its original building and cleaning up a brownfield so it can construct another building next door. It has already raised 75 percent of its capital campaign’s goal of $875,000.
Skin in the game
The area’s biggest artistic change is that people are putting skin in the game. And by doing so, they are changing the game.
“For me it goes to the idea of entrepreneurialism and bringing that into the arts,” said the Latchis’s Potter. “We have some entrepreneurial thinking in NECCA, Fulcrum Arts, Next Stage — which has this combination of sharp business people mixed in, the new Mitchell-Giddings Fine Arts Gallery.
“There’s something very satisfying about doing it yourself rather than waiting for someone to build a gallery. And there was a need, for sure. The sum total of all this increasingly entrepreneurial behavior is a larger gross domestic art product here in Brattleboro. Arts organizations that are earning respect around here are combining creativity and some measure of business performance in a healthy way.”
The people with the most skin in the game are the five members of Brooks House Development, a consortium which beautifully renovated the landmark 1871 Brooks House in downtown Brattleboro after fire destroyed it on April 17, 2011.
Sewing together a crazy-quilt amalgam of federal and state grants, bank investment, personal and family money and private investors, the $23 million project opened during last month’s Gallery Walk.
As flashbulbs flashed in the classically-designed atrium and people climbed to the second floor to peek into the windows, a packed crowd of news media and local residents heard Gov. Peter Shumlin, U.S. Representative Peter Welch, D-Vt., and a host of other dignitaries praise the beauty of the building and herald a new revitalization of downtown.
“This is a testament to the vitality of the extraordinary community of Brattleboro,” Welch said.
The stylish, new and improved Brooks House houses two local colleges, plus apartments, stores and restaurants. The hope is it will bring even more people into downtown and encourage the opening of new stores and restaurants.
The creation of the Mitchell-Giddings Fine Arts Gallery was tied to the Brooks House restoration.
“This was Petie’s vision and Petie’s idea,” Giddings said. “She always wanted to combine what she’s learned over the last 40 years as a professional artist and bring artists and the public together. We thought the time was right because the Brooks House was going forward.”
To renovate the space, the couple had to take time out from their painting.
“If it works out well, we will be able to go back to our studios,” Mitchell said. “But we want to make this more of a destination. We’re doing something different. We’re happy people are saying we’re raising the bar. I look at this a something we could do joyfully into our old age. Something done well and sustainable.”
“We want to be able to leave something behind,” Giddings said.
Fulcrum Arts opened around the same time, and co-founders Solin and Blake have not only their skin in the game, but their hearts as well.
“Believe you me, we are believers in this wholeheartedly, and thank God Brattleboro Savings & Loan believes in it too,” Solin said. “We’ve been open a month and I’m incredibly happy. Locals who are driving past on their way to work stop to peek in and say, ‘Wow!’ The glassblowing classes are really successful.
“So, yes, we are making money as a gallery — we have 11 artists, all our employees or people who have something to do with the gallery. Everything you see is completely unique.”
Fulcrum is already starting to be a destination.
“A collector of mine who has a second home in Stratton came up for a glassblowing class with me and had dinner at the Windham Hill Inn,” Solin said. “The inn is sending their guests here as something interesting to do. That’s the creative economy”
At Brattleboro Savings & Loan, commercial loan officer Peter Carvell, who has been a banker for 17 years, agrees that a cultural economy is indeed a factor in the Brattleboro area.
“I think Brattleboro is a very diverse community, and certainly the arts are part of Brattleboro’s charm,” Carvell said. “Fulcrum Arts is really the marriage of two very successful arts organizations — Solinglass Inc. and Natalie Blake Studios. Their appeal and success stretches beyond the borders of Brattleboro and Windham County and the state of Vermont.
“It’s a challenging area, but Brattleboro has seen extraordinary success. NECCA, New England Youth Theater, the jazz center — they have very strong local supporters and also supporters from outside the area. Someone like Stephen Stearns lives and breathes it. Randi and Natalie work very hard. They have a passion for the arts and for their specific business.”
Marlboro College has jumped on the creative arts bandwagon in a huge way. A few years ago, award-winning Northeast Kingdom filmmaker Jay Craven became a professor at Marlboro and started producing films in southern Vermont with a mix of film professionals and students.
His first Brattleboro-made film, “Northern Borders,” starred Bruce Dern. His second student-professional film was filmed in Nantucket.
Marlboro, already widely respected as a liberal arts college, is breaking ground for an expanded and renovated visual arts complex. It will house painting, printmaking, photography, sculpture, welding, ceramics and bring film together with the rest of the visual arts.
A $50,000 grant from the Andrew W. Mellon Foundation to support curricular planning will be used to advance digital arts. Use of this “creative space,” as president Ellen McCulloch-Lovell describes it, might channel even more creativity into the economy of southern Vermont.
Brattleboro was once known for its dairy farms. It once had a printing economy and was known for the books it produced. It once had a manufacturing economy that produced paper and wood products and a variety of other things. Now it has a cultural economy.
“There’s a lot more economic activity here, but maybe it just waxes and wanes,” Lichtenfeld said. “There’s a certain way of measuring the arts economy that includes the number of businesses in the arts and how many people they’re employing and their budgets. I don’t know that it says anything about this other issue — the viability of an artist living and working here. But maybe it puts more artists on the radar.”