PUTNEY—Next Stage Arts Project was recently awarded a $50,000 grant from the National Endowment for the Arts.
The grant is part of the NEA’s Our Town program, which, this year, will disburse $6.89 million to 89 projects — chosen from 274 eligible applications — nationwide.
The NEA Our Town grant program “supports creative placemaking projects that help to transform communities into lively, beautiful, and resilient places — achieving these community goals through strategies that incorporate arts, culture, and/or design,” says the NEA’s Website, www.arts.gov.
“The arts reflect the vision, energy, and talent of America’s artists and arts organizations,” said NEA Chair Jane Chu. The NEA “is proud to support organizations such as Next Stage Arts Project, to cultivate vitality in their communities through the arts,” Chu added.
The grant will help support LEGACYPUTNEY: A Collaborative Celebration of Putney’s Arts, History, and Culture. The project will honor the legacy of the people in the community through a variety of creative media, including oral history, music, theater, and food, said Next Stage Director Maria Basescu.
The work will bring together Next Stage, the town’s residents, the Putney Historical Society, the Putney Public Library, area schools, and other regional and statewide organizations.
Presentations will occur throughout the year, and culminate with a two-week festival in May 2018 “that will feature Putney stories and works by and about cultural figures and groups in our local and state history through the present, that have shaped the Putney of today,” according to a news release.
The yearlong process includes storytelling-training workshops with Narativ for “a cadre of community members,” Basescu said.
Narativ, based in Brooklyn and London, operates under “a deep appreciation for the human quest to know and to share experiences and insights through the vital, relatable, memorable vessel of story,” says its website, narativ.com.
The goal is to “dispatch the [local] storytellers among people who know and trust them, with a real eye to reach beyond people who are usually engaged” in arts projects, Basescu said.
She wants all demographics, from different socioeconomic, religious, and age groups, to participate. “We’re trying to harness many aspects of the community,” she said.
The NEA funding is a matching grant, which means Next Stage has to come up with an additional $50,000.
Thanks to the Fresh Sound Foundation, they are most of the way there. The Boston-based nonprofit, with a mission to build “healthy communities through the arts, education, the environment and sustainable economic development,” awarded Next Stage and LEGACYPUTNEY a $40,000 grant.
“We’re looking to the community for the remaining $10,000,” Basescu said.
“Fresh Sound has been a long-standing supporter of Next Stage since the beginning,” she added.
Basescu said Next Stage got on the NEA’s radar last year, when Chu came to Putney to spend time with past grant recipients Sandglass Theater and Vermont Performance Lab.
Sandglass’s and VPL’s directors convened a meeting with other local arts organizations, including Next Stage, and members of the press and the Vermont Arts Council, she said.
Sandglass Theater gave a performance at Next Stage of excerpts from Babylon, their work-in-progress about refugees. “It was very moving,” Basescu said.
Chu “got to see what we do together,” and afterward, “we had a very open, moving conversation about art, refugees, and humanities. I talked about what we do and why we do it, directly to Jane Chu."
“VPL and Sandglass Theater are really important partners with Next Stage,” Basescu said, “and it was generous of them to write us into the conversation” with Chu.
“We’re not in competition. We’re all in this together,” she said, noting her gratitude for the “spirit of collaboration."
That Next Stage is eligible for NEA funding is a very recent development.
Making it accessible
When Next Stage officially opened in its current location — a historic, 1841 church on Kimball Hill — in March, 2011, it needed quite a bit of work, and the upstairs theater could only be reached by stairs.
After a thorough, $1.7 million renovation, accomplished partly through the generosity and skills of many local designers and builders, Next Stage reopened in January 2016.
In addition to a revamped, 200-seat theater with better sight-lines and improved interior and exterior aesthetics respectful of the building’s history, Next Stage offered something new: accessibility.
Next Stage has ramps to enter the building, ADA bathrooms, an elevator to the upstairs theater, handicapped-accessible seating, and hearing-assist technology.
Although Basescu said she would have loved to apply for NEA funding prior to the renovations, “you have to be accessible to get [their] grants,” she said.
“I was in awe of how the community rallied in the renovation of the [Putney] General Store, and Next Stage,” Basescu said, pointing out the lumber donations the general store received from local families from trees they had raised and milled.
Asking how her arts organization can help unearth those families’ stories, and others, Basescu said, “was what we said to the NEA and Fresh Sound, and that’s what they gave us money for."
Receiving this award is a “powerful validation of our project as a cultural hub for this community, and will be instrumental in our efforts to broaden and deepen our community engagement,” she said.
“It’s a huge vote of confidence and affirmation” from the NEA, Basescu said.