BRATTLEBORO—Imagine a black-and-white map of Brattleboro.
Now, imagine marking the map first with bright blue flags for every place focused on the arts, then with light blue flags for the areas supporting the arts.
“You’d see a lot of blue,” said Kate Anderson, the chair of the Brattleboro Town Arts Committee (TAC), who has organized an effort to explore a new grant opportunity from the National Endowment for the Arts (NEA).
Winning an NEA Our Town grant would help launch a project that could coalesce Brattleboro’s blue flags of all shades, said Anderson.
Brattleboro is distinguished as having a prolific arts sector at its core, she said — but how do we vitalize that heartbeat?
Developing a creative district — an aspect of creative place-making — would help make the arts visible to the community and improve access for everyone whether they consider themselves creative or not.
“Art is part of our lives,” said Anderson. “Everyone listens to music.”
The NEA has announced grant submission criteria for communities interested in competing for the Our Town grant.
The competitive awards of $25,000 to $150,000 would fund projects that use the arts to design and create sustainable neighborhoods and an enhanced quality of life, a process the NEA calls “creative placemaking.”
The NEA requires these neighborhoods to possess distinct identities, vibrant economies, and increased creative activities.
The Our Town grants also require partnerships between municipal and nonprofit entities for potential projects, said Anderson.
The grant will not fund buildings or support projects the NEA considers unsustainable.
Anderson and fellow committee members hosted a project planning forum, or “charrette,” on Jan. 10 to gather project ideas from community members.
Participants at the meeting landed on the theme of an arts corridor, one that would unite Brattleboro’s multiple artists, organizations, and arts spaces
They envisioned that corridor would follow the Whetstone Brook from the Connecticut River near the Brattleboro Museum and Arts Center — also the home of the ongoing Union Station project — to West Brattleboro.
According to Anderson, a small task force will vet the ideas along with suggestions from other meetings. The committee will present viable ideas to the community as part of shaping the final submission.
At the forum, Eugene Uman, artistic director of the Vermont Jazz Center, suggested people consider submitting the arts chapter recently drafted for the Town Plan.
The roadmap, administrative structure, and projects are all there ready to go, he said — so why not launch them?
Arts on the map
Moving the arts into public view would also change the town’s perspective, Anderson said in a recent phone interview.
The perception would shift from viewing the creative process at arm’s length to moving creative endeavors into the community’s everyday reality.
“When you go into a coffee shop, you expect coffee,” said Anderson.
Identifying a physical area, like the corridor from the museum to the studios along the Whetstone, also generates activity, said Anderson.
This activity would come in the form of increasing foot traffic, developing events, or attracting more creative businesses.
That momentum would eventually boost the town’s cultural tourism, she said.
As an example of creative placemaking, the Center for Cartoon Studies recently established an incubator space for its graduates in White River Junction, said Joe Bookchin, director of the state Office of the Creative Economy.
For graduates looking to remain in Vermont, the center helps them market and commercialize their work, he said.
Vermont has identified the creative industries — everything from film, to game design, to architecture — as a business sector with potential to help the state economy grow.
According to Bookchin, approximately 14,000 Vermonters work in the creative sector.
But Anderson, who describes herself as “a militant evangelical for the arts,” stresses that improving access to the arts for people who don’t consider themselves creative is also important.
She used the example of a person regularly walking past a kiosk of flyers for classes, events, workshops, or conversations. Eventually that person might think, “Maybe they also mean me.”
Anderson said that creativity fuels everyone. Stepping out to try painting, writing, dancing, playing music is valuable to the core of every person in Brattleboro.
Leading to a creative economy?
A codified creative district like the one proposed for the NEA grant application is a few steps ahead of developing a full-blown creative economy, said Anderson.
The grant won’t help Brattleboro develop a creative economy, but those resources could help the community plan or design the infrastructure core of a creative economy.
A creative community that thrives financially plays into a creative economy, said Anderson.
According to Anderson, the local creative community, with a few exceptions, does not thrive financially.
One of her overarching goal for the arts in Brattleboro is making it easier for creative types to earn a living: funding their housing, sending their children to college, and saving money for retirement.
A creative economy needs infrastructure to support those efforts, including creative incubation spaces, a compendium of resources available to artists, and training in entrepreneur skills, she said.
“The quaint phrase ‘starving artist’ trips off the tongue, but I tell you, there is nothing about starving that I find in the least charming,” Anderson said on receiving the Arts Council of Windham County’s Friend of the Arts Award. (Her speech appeared in the Dec. 7 issue of The Commons.)
Anderson said that society’s default belief is that creative people will make money off their art if they’re talented enough. But, she said, the reality is that the financial struggles of artists don’t reflect a lack of talent. Instead, they reflect a gap between talent and an entrepreneurial mindset for making money from that talent, she said.
Some artists shy away from cultivating their business know-how, said Anderson, but that’s not the only reason the business world sidesteps creative fields.
Creative endeavors are a square peg in the business world’s round hole, she said, because art is not a widget that a factory can stamp out four million times and sell at a profit.
With art, “you’re inventing every time,” said Anderson. “There’s no profit margin in there.”
Yet, art generates valuable energy that does translate into dollars, she said.
According to Bookchin, the state is looking at creative economies as a way of vitalizing downtowns.
In general, the creative sector fits easily into Vermont’s rural landscape, he said. Innovative, creative companies need laptops more than they need massive new industrial parks. They can, instead, move into the second floors of downtown buildings.
The creative sector also contributes to the creation of high-paying, innovative jobs that act as cultural magnets for their local communities, he said.
Brattleboro is one of many Vermont towns working hard to support its downtown, said Bookchin. He thinks it’s the community’s work that has helped the town remain resilient in the aftermath of Tropical Storm Irene and the fire at the Brooks House last year.
Anderson said the NEA submission should be ready by Feb. 19. Anyone with ideas should contact the Town Arts Council through the Town Manager’s office at firstname.lastname@example.org or 802-251-8151.
Anderson said it’s too early to know precisely what project the town will present to the NEA.
“But why shouldn’t we invent something?” she said.