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Samirah Evans performs in a 2018 concert at Brooks Memorial Library in Brattleboro. With a preponderance of live performances cancelled and venues closed, the creative economy — responsible for between 3 and 4 percent of Vermont’s overall economy — remains deeply affected by the pandemic.

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For the creative economy, dual tracks of recovery and resilience

Creative people represent a huge part of the state economy and will play a huge role in the state’s economic recovery from the pandemic. In the meantime, they are particularly vulnerable and need support, argues the leader of the Vermont Arts Council.

BRATTLEBORO—When was the last time you danced at the Stone Church to musicians performing live music?

What movie did you last watch in the Latchis main theater?

What story was most recently told during Fables Storytelling on the first floor of Next Stage Arts?

How long since your children sat in a circle for story hour at their local library?

Like a sad game of Mad Libs, the phrase “before the pandemic” could fit most responses.

The COVID-19 pandemic has hit every economic sector, but it has shown less mercy to creative and cultural offerings, which largely operate on communal events — risky when trying to contain a contagious virus like COVID-19.

According to an August study by The Brookings Institution, a nonprofit public-policy organization, Vermont’s creative sector lost 8,090 jobs and $216 million last year between April and July.

Amy Cunningham, deputy director with the Vermont Arts Council (VAC), defines the creative and cultural sector as anything that requires that creativity be central to the work. While musicians and painters are obvious examples of workers in such industries, Cunningham includes other examples, such as film, media, and speciality foods.

She said the “depth of loss” to the creative sector has proved painful and that many of the state’s cultural organizations and performance venues were some of the first public spaces to close in the pandemic and will likely be among the last to reopen.

Yet, the creative sector is also poised to help Vermonters post-pandemic, she said: arts and culture attract people, they help build community, they are an economic driver, and they are part of Vermont’s recovery.

Cunningham added, however, that as the creative sector moves through the pandemic, individual creatives and the state must focus on both recovery and resiliency.

“I see those things as parallel tracks, where we’re working on, and lifting up, all the ways that the creative sector is a part of the solution for Vermont’s recovery,” she said. “But for the creative sector to be a part of the solution, artists and arts organizations have to be still open and practicing.”

A faster recovery

The state’s creative industries have the potential to supercharge the state’s economic recovery.

Such enterprises have comprised 4.2 to 4.7 percent of the nation’s gross domestic product — more than construction, transportation, mining, and agriculture — according to key findings from an empirical study from Douglas S. Noonan, professor at Indiana University-Purdue University Indianapolis.

The 2020 report, The Arts and Culture Sector’s Contributions to Economic Recovery and Resiliency in the United States, notes that after the Great Recession, the country’s creative sector rebounded rapidly from economic shocks.

For example, after the Great Recession, the average gross state product, per capita, increased 3 percent. The average state arts economy, however, grew 3.4 percent. The report also found that, per capita, arts employment tends to boost an area’s overall employment “more strongly” in rural areas compared to urban areas.

According to the U.S. Bureau of Economic Analysis, Vermont’s arts and cultural sector accounted for 3.2 percent of the state economy and contributed 10,799 jobs in 2016.

For Cunningham, a recovery strategy should include enough federal and state funding to carry individuals and organizations through the whole pandemic.

To increase resilience, however, that strategy policy should include changes that can help creative workers access stable incomes, worker benefits, and policies that are flexible enough to recognize some of the challenges that creative workers face.

The creative sector has always operated as a form of gig economy, she said, using a term that itself was coined only in 2009, amid the Great Recession. Many creative workers are considered independent contractors — small-business owners — even if it’s only a business of one, she added.

“Individual artists, in many cases, had woven together a sustainable career track that included different kinds of gigs,” Cunningham said.

Take, for instance, a hypothetical musician couple.

“They had a sustainable career as working artists with, wedding gigs, and they perform with a symphony orchestra, and they teach lessons, and maybe they do workshops, and maybe they supplement their work with some service industry work,” Cunningham said. “And when lockdown started, all of that stuff went poof, in one fell swoop.”

Creative workers need small-business support like any entrepreneur, she said. The pandemic has turned a huge spotlight on the slim margins within which creative or cultural organizations operate.

Cunningham has noticed that society and creatives alike have misconceptions about what it means to be an artist. One example: Many artists don’t see themselves as business owners. As a result, many creative workers scrambled to pull together paperwork to apply for state and federal relief funding.

On the flip side, some of the relief funding contained blind spots around the creative sector, and its workers risked falling through the cracks of such programs.

Also, female creative workers face the more universal challenges of many women workers in other sectors, such as choosing between child care and working, Cunningham added.

“In addition, like lots of other small businesses [and] sole proprietors, the safety net for folks in the gig economy is just very weak,” she said.

In Cunningham’s opinion, the rest of the community should worry about the health of its creative and cultural sectors.

“These folks are part of the fabric of this state. I mean that culturally, but I also mean that economically — these are economic drivers,” she said. “So someone who comes to a theater, they also eat at a restaurant, they maybe stay in a hotel, they shop in the downtown.”

Waves from the pandemic’s financial blows to the creative workforce travel into the daily lives of people in all economic sectors, she said.

“This is part of who we are and how we connect to the community,” Cunningham said. “Which I realize some people see that as ‘icing’ or ‘extra.’ But it is also why people move to the state and why people stay in communities.”

Support at all levels

For Cunningham, building a resilient creative sector requires three levels: individual, community, and state.

At the individual level, this includes a talent pipeline of people exploring creative opportunities and networking with one another.

Some of this networking has started through the Vermont Creative Network initiative, which aims to connect workers while developing a statewide action plan, she said.

For the community level, resilience would look like more creative workers actively engaged in building community, assembling committees in their towns, and holding leadership roles. They could, for example, be integrating the arts and culture into their Town Plans and infrastructure projects, she said.

“On the statewide level, it means that there are policies that promote and support creative enterprises, that there’s robust funding to support cultural and creative projects, and that education policies foster the development of creative talent,” she said.

Cunningham described the emergency federal relief monies as “phenomenal” in that the policies governing the distribution of that money recognized small businesses (including micro businesses) and sole proprietors.

But the state can’t stop supporting workers once the pandemic ends, she warned, noting the growing prevalence of gig work at the expense of stable employment opportunities.

Cunningham believes that whether someone identifies as a gig worker, a freelancer, or a contractor — all equivalent, in the eyes of labor policy and tax law — they need more protections and economic relief. She added that these supports must be easy to apply for, noting that not everyone employs a grant writer or human resources professional.

At tax time, many of these Vermont workers show up at the tax preparer’s door with an assortment of W2s and 1099s, she said.

“I feel like it’s almost a little bit of a Vermont stereotype that you piece together a bunch of jobs,” Cunningham said. “So, yes, [we need] the flexibility of policies to acknowledge that many, many people in the state are not full-time employees with benefits, and they have more complicated work lives.”

Partnerships and emergency support

Cunningham said the VAC is building more partnerships to help the creative sector through the pandemic.

One program-in-process is a collaboration with the state Agency of Education made possible through private funding. The program will provide mentors to music teachers in public elementary and high schools to help the teachers build digital audio skills. The goal is for teachers to record curriculum, concerts, and other performances for remote schooling and beyond.

On Feb. 9, the VAC announced that 29 Vermonters had received an Artist Development Grant. The organization has awarded 68 such grants totaling $37,033 since the start of the pandemic.

The awards range from $250 to $1,000 and are designed for a quick turnaround to support artists’ professional development. The program predates the pandemic, but since last March, the grants have also served as emergency funding, she added.

Thanks to private donations from the Vermont Community Foundation, Higher Ground, the National Endowment for the Arts, and the state, the VAC added an additional round of funding, Cunningham said.

One more round of funding will be offered in fiscal year 2021, with applications due Monday, May 10. For more information visit vermontartscouncil.org/grants/artists/artist-development.

“I think that the misconceptions about what it means to be a creative or an artist are really fascinating in this society,” Cunningham said. “It’s like professional athletes or anybody else. Yes, there’s some degree of natural talent, but it takes so much work, and so much continual development, and practice for a successful creative to hone their skills and keep evolving.”

Another artistic stereotype Cunningham rails against is that of the solitary artist laboring in a vacuum. Creatives need a community just like everyone else, she said.

Seven Windham County–based artists received an Artist Development grant this month. Some of what the funding will support includes advanced lever harp technique classes with a master harpist, printmaking workshops, rehearsal space rental, and hiring a business consultant.

Visual storyteller Jo Dery will use her $600 grant toward hiring a professional musician to create a film score.

According to her website, jodery.com, Dery uses animation, books and comics, and multimedia projects to carry narratives. Her short films have screened at multiple film festivals such as the Ann Arbor Film Festival and the International Film Festival Rotterdam.

In an email, the Brattleboro artist wrote, “This funding allows me to contract a professional musician to create a score for my short film, Georgia’s Line.”

“Ruth Garbus, a Brattleboro-based songwriter, will compose and record the music in her studio,” Dery continued. “This funding supports women working in film and music in southern Vermont, which, especially during the pandemic, helps contribute to the vibrancy and resiliency of our creative community.”

Dery would like to see arts funding spread around the state. She specifically encouraged people to donate to the all-volunteer Windham County Arts Council and support the region’s artists.

“I would like to see more support of artists working in southern Vermont and outside the Burlington area in general,” Dery wrote, also urging supporters of the arts to advocate for “including the arts sector in the upcoming COVID-19 relief package!”

Gathering in a new normal

Cunningham said the pandemic forced people working within the creative sector to pivot, learn new skills, and connect with their community in new ways, such as creating more online stores, new outdoor programing, or online workshops.

These entities will remain long past the final push for coronavirus vaccination, she said.

“Those were new flexes for organizations, and I think they’re not going to go away even when we go back to whatever so-called normal is,” she said.

Before resilience, however, comes recovery, in which Cunningham believes arts and culture workers will play a vital role.

“The creative sector is part of the solution,” she said. “This is not about a sector that’s needing a handout. We are here as a foundation, and we’re going to be a critical part of rebuilding the state.”

Social isolation is one of the negative outcomes of the pandemic, Cunningham said. For many communities, arts, recreation, and culture provide the outlets that members use to meet and connect.

“So we’re going to need these as we’re rebuilding the fabric of our state once we can all congregate together,” she said. “That’s not icing.”

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Originally published in The Commons issue #600 (Wednesday, February 17, 2021). This story appeared on page A1.

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