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Brattleboro artists prepare for round one

Questions remain as date to submit initial proposal for public art to town nears

To learn more or become involved, visit the Facebook group Brattleboro Public Art Forum (facebook.com/groups/587213334753752).

BRATTLEBORO—The deadline for artists to submit a proposal to the town for the National Endowment for the Arts (NEA) Our Town grant is fast approaching.

But with the deadline for the initial proposals only days away — Sunday, July 26 at 9 p.m. — many questions remained for the almost 20 people who gathered on the stage in the Latchis’ main theater on July 9 to discuss the grant.

The $56,000 matching funds grant, awarded in 2012 to the Brattleboro CoreArts Project, aims to increase the town’s involvement with the arts. The grant also aims to connect the arts with the town’s natural and cultural heritages and its future visions of itself.

At the grant’s core rests the concept of “creative placemaking.”

In a 2010 white paper written by Ann Markusen and Anne Gadwa for the Mayors’ Institute on City Design, the writers described how arts can be used to connect all aspects of a community.

“In creative placemaking, partners from public, private, nonprofit, and community sectors strategically shape the physical and social character of a neighborhood, town, city, or region around arts and cultural activities,” they wrote.

“Creative placemaking animates public and private spaces, rejuvenates structures and streetscapes, improves local business viability and public safety, and brings diverse people together to celebrate, inspire, and be inspired,” Markusen and Gadwa added.

A bumpy road

Brattleboro’s journey through the creative placemaking process has had its share of potholes.

Early on, the CoreArts team of Town Planning Director Roderick Francis, Town Arts Committee member Kate Anderson, and Zon Eastes of the Vermont Arts Council identified three phases for the grant.

Phases one and two included holding public charrettes with experts in the field, and assembling a cultural assets map.

Earlier this summer, however, the Selectboard noted that the grant process had hit speed bumps.

Due to disagreements that seemed to lack the possibility of resolution, Francis and Eastes had askedAnderson to leave the team. Meanwhile, with only weeks before the end of a NEA deadline extension, the town had yet to produce the vetting process for phase three: the public art work.

During June, the Town Arts Committee and Town Manager’s office, with the help of community members, put their shoulders to the wheel. Their efforts produced a request for proposals and the process for soliciting and screening public art projects.

As a result, the NEA has granted another extension. The public art project must be completed by July 31, 2016.

Jump-starting the process

Jessica Callahan Gelter of Brattleboro organized the July 9 community meeting on short notice.

Gelter, who orchestrated the meeting independently from the town’s activities, said she hoped to give community members a chance to learn more about the RFP. She also hoped the forum would provide an opportunity for developing partnerships among the meeting’s participants.

Participants included representatives from local nonprofits, artists, Eastes, and Anderson.

Kate O’Connor participated in her role as executive director of the Brattleboro Area Chamber of Commerce. She also serves as Selectboard vice-chair.

Gelter said she wanted as much of the grant’s money for the phase three public art project to remain local.

“This is a passion project for me here, but it’s also what I do professionally,” said Gelter, the executive director of Arts Alive! in Keene, N.H.

The town has stipulated that the public arts project should take the form of either a visual or performance project.

A screening committee will vet the one-to-two-page project proposals submitted by July 26, said Gelter. The committee’s main goal will be to remove any obvious “outliers” from the submission process — like projects with a budget greater than $50,000.

“It’s not a huge hoop to jump through between now and then,” she said.

Steps in the process

Artists whose proposals meet the criteria of the first stage will then produce a more detailed application that will come before a second — and different — selection committee.

The Selectboard has yet to assemble that committee. Due to a lack of committee applications, the board has extended the deadline to July 16.

Anyone interested in serving can learn more by visiting brattleboro.org. To obtain an application, click on “Boards and Committee Application” on the home page under the “News” section, or call the Town Manager’s office at 802-251-8151.

According to a press release from the town, applicants must live in Brattleboro or bring prior experience in judging artistic ability and experience.

The board hopes to approve screening committee members at its July 21 meeting.

According to the RFP, the project should inspire the community to do more with the arts, increase the role arts play in town, and represent the whole community.

The project must respond to the town’s natural landscape, built environment, cultural and community assets, and opportunities for public expression. The public art should provide community members with a sense of ownership.

Artists must also possess the ability to engage and include the community.

According to the town’s timeline in the RFP, the screening committee will nominate finalists by July 31. The Selectboard will consider the list and select finalists on Aug. 4.

The finalists have until Sept. 4 to submit their final project materials.

In August, the Selectboard will appoint members to the selection committee, which will submit a list of recommended projects to the Selectboard. The board will decide which project to award the grant to on Sept. 15.

A full RFP can be found at the home page of the town’s website.

Artists can divide the grant among any number of projects and artists.

“There’s a lot of opportunity to share the money and there’s a lot of opportunity to collaborate,” Gelter said.

Questions abound

An atmosphere of confusion and frustration hung in the Latchis’ main theater at the session, where audience members spouted questions, many of which did not have answers — yet.

Anderson recorded the questions to pass over to Town Manager Peter Elwell. The town manager’s office has since released the answers through an addendum to the RFP, also linked to the home page of brattleboro.org.

Gelter asked participants, “How could public art change Brattleboro?”

Through a theater exercise called “milling and seeding,” participants discussed the question in small groups.

Quickly, the room became charged with inspiration, ideas, and visions for Brattleboro.

Participants who spoke said they hoped to see a project that continued to give back to the town beyond the initial project, like a performance space or new public space.

After the meeting, Gelter said that “there were a lot of great connections” made among the artists and participants representing the social-services sector.

“It was positive,” said Gelter, heartened by the number of offers people at the meeting made to collaborate with one another and provide resources like time, meeting space, and publicity.

The audience members will hold a second meeting soon to develop a list of recommended criteria for the screening committee.

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Originally published in The Commons issue #314 (Wednesday, July 15, 2015). This story appeared on page A1.

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