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A catalog of creativity

New atlas of the arts scene in Brattleboro is result of first phase of NEA-funded project

BRATTLEBORO—In June 2012, the Town of Brattleboro was awarded a $50,000 National Endowment for the Arts “Our Town” grant to fund the Brattleboro CoreArts Project — an initiative that focuses on arts and place, and how both shape each other.

The first fruit from that NEA grant is now being harvested: a comprehensive atlas of the arts in Brattleboro. The atlas was unveiled during a meeting on May 1 presented by the principals in the project.

A team of graduate students from the Conway School of Landscape Design — Willie Gregg, Olivia Loughrey, and Kim Smith — working with the leaders of the CoreArts team — Kate Anderson, Zon Eastes, and Ron Francis — spent the first four months of this year creating a glossy 58-page book called “Brattleboro: An Atlas of Cultural Assets.”

This atlas, which can be found in digital form at bit.ly/10hT8jV, is more than maps and data points. It’s a narrative atlas that puts into context, with words and visual art, how Brattleboro has been shaped by art and how art has been shaped by Brattleboro.

Each of the maps has a specific piece of the narrative to tell, said Loughrey. The narrative adds up to a cultural ecology that starts with a place, gets shaped by the diversity of the people in that place and connections that grow from the mix of artists, and survives through adaptability and embracing change.

A map featuring William Hays represents individual artists who have come to Brattleboro to live and work, while a map of the Vermont Theatre Company stands for nonprofit arts groups and the collaborative efforts of many communities that keep them going.

The architectural floor plan of the space used by Equilibrium, a new business on Elm Street, becomes the jumping-off point for listing all the different artists, healers, and activities that go on there.

From the evolution of clay arts, to a walking tour of public art and expression, to the reuse of historic buildings, to a crazy quilt of contacts representing the “cultural web” of connections that links together the community and its art, the atlas shows how art suffuses Brattleboro.

Francis, who is the town planner for Brattleboro, said the atlas represents the end of the first track of the CoreArts project and the data that was gathered will inform the next two tracks of the project.

Still to come are community discussions to explore the topics and questions around the creation of a cultural district, and a peer-reviewed process to culminate in a public art piece or event.

Eastes said there will be six facilitated meetings likely to start in June, which will feature a mix of top policymakers and thinkers on the national and international level, regional creators, and local leaders.

Brattleboro was one of 80 towns nationwide to get an “Our Town” grant, and Eastes said the town is getting attention from beyond Vermont for its work so far, especially around issues of placemaking and sustainability.

Eastes said the Brattleboro grant proposal is on the NEA website as a model for other towns to use, and the CoreArts team has been invited to be presenters at the Creative Communities Exchange Conference next month in Portland, Maine.

“We’re on to something here,” he said.

Francis said that Brattleboro’s long-term economic and cultural health rests upon the town’s ability “to preserve our distinctive nature, and communicate that to the rest of the world.”

The atlas is one way of doing that, said Anderson.

“What we found out from the mapping project is that the health of the community depends on the web of connection in the community,” she said. “It’s the grout in the mosaic.”

But more than just cataloging and celebrating Brattleboro’s art scene, Francis said he hopes the Core Arts project “inspires a conversation that outlives the grant. It’s not intended to be an exercise to make people feel comfortable. We want to ask hard questions and challenge people.”

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Originally published in The Commons issue #202 (Wednesday, May 8, 2013).

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