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Should the arts really shape place?

We can't expect hard-pressed people to attend meetings not relevant to their interests — but those interests must be acknowledged

Byron Stookey, a retired teacher, works usually on issues about affordable housing.


Regularly, for a number of years now, we’ve had studies or meetings with different names but the same idea: Brattleboro’s future is in the arts.

And now there’s the CoreArts Project, with $50,000 of public funds to figure out how “arts and place shape each other” here — or should.

If we are successful in making the arts Brattleboro’s “anchor of attraction,” it’s expected that that will benefit artists and the town economy and citizenry.

But the reality is more complicated:

• If we become an acclaimed arts venue, all but the most successful artists will eventually be priced out of Brattleboro. It’s a familiar pattern: Artists settle in a place that’s congenial and affordable, then increasingly attract a clientele, who gentrify things to the point where the artists are pushed out to some other place, where the cycle starts again.

• Arts patrons — residents and visitors — will be well-served.

• Some pieces of the town’s economy will prosper: nice restaurants and boutiques, the Brattleboro Food Co-op, landscape services, maybe the grand list.

• But the less well-off, less visible people won’t. Many of the people who do our low-wage work will be priced out with the artists, moving to Bellows Falls or Hinsdale.

And, even more than it is already, Brattleboro will be, for them, some other people’s town.

* * *

And that’s what’s wrong, time and again, with deliberations of groups like the CoreArts Project, or the group that gathered last month to inform the Vermont Downtown Action Team about Brattleboro. The outcomes are skewed by the skew of the participants. And the less well-off aren’t there.

We can’t expect hard-pressed people to attend meetings not relevant to their interests. But if the agenda is the future of Brattleboro, we need to identify and incorporate those interests. We need to go to where the absent people are, individually or where they meet, and, from the start, enlist not just their views. We need to enlist their participation in the discussion.

I expect we’d find that making art Brattleboro’s “anchor of attraction” is not a priority for them. Arts would not be a priority, nor would it be their priority to attract well-off people.

They’d recognize the benefits of some of that. But their priorities would have more to do with jobs, a livable wage, and making the town more accommodating of their needs and interests.

And my worry isn’t only in behalf of the unprivileged. I worry in my own behalf and for many like me who don’t want to live in a very attractive town that caters mainly to the well-off.

Brattleboro already is an excellent arts town! What we need is to be as good in other ways.

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Originally published in The Commons issue #226 (Wednesday, October 23, 2013). This story appeared on page C1.

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