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Voices / Viewpoint

Putting our money where our mouth is

Volunteerism can move our Brattleboro arts community forward, but only so far. Statistics show that the area economy thrives on the cultural economy — and the time has come to invest in that economy with an arts fund.

Shanta Lee Gander — an artist and multi-faceted professional in the areas of marketing, management, event planning, and more — is winding down her one-year term on the Brattleboro Selectboard. She and her husband, MacLean Gander, work together on The Commons’ investigative journalism team.

Brattleboro

According to the statistics, arts matter in Vermont.

The participation of 28,708 people in the state’s creative sector is 32 percent above the national average, according to a 2018 status report of the Vermont creative sector economy commissioned by the Vermont Creative Network. An additional 8,424 workers in the state do creative work within non-creative industries.

Arts & Economic Prosperity 5, an economic-impact study that was prepared by the Americans for the Arts in partnership with the Vermont Arts Council, further supports the idea that arts and culture are big business.

Based on this study, arts and culture is a $123 million industry in Vermont. Approximate annual spending in the sector of arts and culture is $44 million. An estimate of 70 percent of nonresidents indicated that the reason for their visit to our state was focused on arts and culture.

Those are the numbers. Here’s a story based on my personal experience, and why we need an arts fund in our community, as will be considered at Annual Representative Town Meeting on Saturday, March 23.

* * *

In 2012, I returned from a trip to India, inspired to seek ways to contribute to the community. I wanted to offer my skills based on my experience and education as an entry point into the creative sector. One organization offered an opportunity to hang occasional exhibits, but nothing with any real depth.

Joining a board like the Arts Council of Windham County (ACWC) was one of the few options for participating in the creative economy.

As a board member and unexpected president, I learned about the nature of arts in Brattleboro. My leadership role allowed me to explore collaborations and think strategically about ACWC’s positioning.

If we were an arts town, how did we make that happen? How could I help provide authentic options for artist engagement? How could I contribute to creating a community of artists from an environment of creative silos of multiple artists working in isolation?

Although these questions remained, my work with the ACWC gave me hope for shifting the culture here.

Pathways to collaboration were abundant during our masquerade and ARTstravaganza events, which included an Artists Congress in New Hampshire. During a couple of Gallery Walks, we paired with businesses with artists who performed in their shop windows.

We explored the depths of creativity through forums that created a model for bringing artists together. These discussions illustrated a potential for reaching across state borders. The endeavors relied on individuals, artists, and organizations volunteering their time and skills.

As a volunteer with limited time, I started to think about other measures that could contribute to the atmosphere of an arts town and engage the region. The creation of a television show, for example, presented an opportunity for us to reach more audiences. Radio similarly reached a range of listeners.

But money to support these efforts was limited to nonexistent.

I want to believe these endeavors had an impact on the community, though the question about sustainability and real support for artists remained.

Creating a bridge between arts and business is one answer. Seeking opportunities to climb out of our silos is another possibility — for example, the public arts forum that attracted 70 artists, businesses, and other unlikely partners. That event — supported by donations and many hours of volunteer time — illustrates what could be possible when we de-silo.

While we can’t overlook the value of volunteers, it’s not sustainable. Windham County is a generous region. However, over-relying on fundraising and/or grant chasing is precarious, especially because many may be competing for the same sources for funds.

I wanted to leave a legacy of shifting the role from volunteers to paid employees. But how does one do that without falling into the nonprofit trap? How could such a shift be made with limited volunteer time?

My energy didn’t run out, but without proper systems, my role was not sustainable — we needed funding, people power, partnerships. I stepped down in 2017.

* * *

After my work with ACWC, I continued to think about who we say we are as a creative economy versus how we connect to that vision in Brattleboro. Our town remains compartmentalized, and we need a real paradigm shift.

If we want to take arts seriously, we must see artists as potential business partners. We must extend ourselves beyond collaborative rifts — this is the most common stumbling block. We must avoid and discourage idea or project poaching. I wish I had stats to share on this one, but it seems rampant.

We must seek opportunities to merge rather than compete. And we must seek individuals who are not the usual suspects for inclusion — in other words, step out of the cliques.

As an artist, I’ve felt like I had to ask to be admitted into a cool kids’ club. As a former leader of an arts organization, I found myself in a Sisyphean role in many ways.

I created my own table rather than fight for a seat at one, and I’ve connected with opportunities outside of Brattleboro that had a closer connection between the vision of creative economy and the action to realize that vision.

I’m not the only one with this story.

Artists and organizations participating in our creative economy shouldn’t be malnourished. We need to nurture our soil to support and grow a creative economy for all rather than the precious few.

We must dismantle the concept of the starving or struggling artist. I wonder if the ways I’ve given my time and engaged others did more harm by contributing to this trope.

* * *

The creation of an arts fund would be a good start toward ending this town’s paying lip service to supporting the arts. This step toward a creating a fund should also connect with making the arts accessible, perhaps through the lens of the four P’s of marketing: place/positioning, price, promotion, and product.

And a big piece of accessibility? With arts funding, no admission to the club would be implied or needed.

We have a real chance to create a system that encourages better supports for the creative economy here.

We have a chance to take that which we say we value and connect it to action.

Will we take the opportunity?

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Originally published in The Commons issue #501 (Wednesday, March 13, 2019). This story appeared on page D1.

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