BRATTLEBORO—Can the arts transform a community?
Brattleboro and the Arts Council of Windham County (ACWC) said “yes” all the way through the National Endowment for the Arts Our Town grant process.
The NEA agreed with Brattleboro and ACWC’s vision, awarding the municipality and the nonprofit a $50,000 two-year planning grant for the Brattleboro Project.
The project will bring arts into the community’s center through cultural asset mapping, cultural district planning, and the creation of a public art installation or event.
The grant also requires the town to match the $50,000, either through in-kind or cash donations.
Brattleboro was one of 80 Our Town recipients out of 317 applications. The Paramount Center in Rutland also received an award.
According the NEA’s website, the latest round of grants totaled nearly $5 million to projects in 44 states and the District of Columbia.
Combined with grants from 2011, the NEA has invested $11.58 million in Our Town projects in all 50 states and the District of Columbia.
Our Town grants focus on “creative placemaking,” or how communities use the arts to “shape their social, physical, and economic characters.”
Downtown Brattleboro has the potential to become an attractive creative center for visitors, residents, and commuters, said Town Planning Director Roderick Francis.
The grant required that a municipality and local arts organization jointly head an Our Town project. For the Brattleboro Project, the town and the Arts Council of Windham County joined forces.
The arts might play an active part in the Brattleboro community, said ACWC representative Zon Eastes, but that role is not a central one.
This grant was conceived to help change that conversation, he said.
“It might be a game-changer in a kind of way,” said Eastes.
Town Arts Committee Chair Kate Anderson said that by moving arts to the core of the community’s dialogue, the grant can help Brattleboro build a creative sector that drives growth and economic development.
Anderson said one question driving her participation on the town arts committee and the Brattleboro Project remains: Is Brattleboro an arts community that is good for the arts or the artists?
Right now, she feels the answer is an either/or. She would like the answer to become a both/and.
Checking the soil for nutrients
Brattleboro can use the Our Town process to dig into the arts and creative sectors and see what “nutrients are in the soil, or not,” said Anderson.
According to their application, Brattleboro and ACWC’s proposal blossomed over the previous three years, during work on the Brattleboro Town Plan.
The town plan process includes cultural planning by focusing on local arts and culture capacity building. The process involves the arts and culture community in conversations about the town’s natural and cultural heritage, and discussions about residents’ future visions for the community.
The application writers also pointed to a series of “wake-up calls” in town, like the Brooks House fire and Tropical Storm Irene, as demonstrating the need for many sectors of the community to collaborate in the planning process.
This grant will allow the Brattleboro community to understand the “deep currents [that] tend to determine how a community grows up and becomes” itself, said Anderson.
“The project will proceed on three tracks, each demonstrating how the arts, at the core, can play a deciding role in the intentional creation of place and community,” wrote the applicants in their proposal to the NEA.
The first track is cultural assets mapping. This process should produce maps that show cultural resources. The track also includes creating community identity maps that record stories and traditions that illustrate a sense of place.
According to the application, the town and ACWC hope that this data collection will support cultural promotion, economic development, planning, and policy work.
The next phase, track two, encompasses cultural district planning, a form of zoning district.
According to Francis, the state is exploring changing some statutes to allow for the creation of such cultural districts.
Eastes said that if the cultural district designation becomes a reality at the state level, he hopes that Brattleboro could serve as a model for the rest of Vermont.
For track two, people involved with The Brattleboro Project will conduct six panel discussions to explore cultural district development planning, with the arts and culture communities participating in the decision-making.
The final phase involves creating a “public art or an arts-based performance.”
The application writers pointed to the aftermath of Irene along the Whetstone corridor as a potential starting point.
“The precise nature of the piece will reflect the work of The Brattleboro Project,” the grantwriters proposed.
Front and center
The Our Town grant process will put Brattleboro’s arts and cultural life front and center for two years, said Francis.
“By the way we talk [concepts], we open or close doors,” said Eastes. “Some communities live with arts in their lives in a way Brattleboro doesn’t.”
The process could also support community members who identify as artists, but do not make their living from art, said Francis.
Anderson said she believes that creativity is central to human nature. She hopes The Brattleboro Project will inspire the community to use creativity as a common language.
Francis said the town should start receiving the grant funds by December or January. Although the funds will not funnel directly into local organizations like traditional money, the team behind the project feels the process will strengthen the arts sector overall.
“This is a long-term composting project,” said Eastes. “It’s not a squirt of water on a dry day.”