Conference touts impact of creative economy

Cultural professionals gather to find ways to boost the financial reach of the arts in Windham County

PUTNEY — The creative economy in Vermont is no longer just a sideshow.

Arts and culture have become a significant part of the state's overall economy, which was why, on April 9, the downstairs hall at Next Stage Arts in Putney was filled with visual artists, circus performers, photographers, writers, and representatives of various cultural institutions from all over Windham County.

They had gathered for a conference titled “Southern Vermont Creative Meeting: Nexus of Art & Economy.”

Organizers of the conference - presented by the Rockingham Arts and Museum Project and Vermont Performance Lab in partnership with Next Stage, the Vermont Creative Network, the Vermont Arts Council, the New England Foundation for the Arts, and the Southern Vermont Economy Project - hoped for 40 attendees.

They were surprised when a capacity crowd of 120 people - including local leaders, state legislators and federal staffers - showed up to discuss the art community and its economy, and how to strengthen it.

Big impact

“Arts and culture are embedded in every town,” Karen Mittelman, executive director of the Vermont Arts Council, told the audience. “The creative economy brings together voices that may not realize we are all part of one choir.”

She pointed out that while the growth of Vermont's creative sector is slower than most others in the nation, it still has a large footprint here.

Zon Eastes, who served on the Vermont Arts Council until his recent retirement, presented data to back up that statement.

The sector, which includes not only fine and performing arts but also imaginative and inventive fields such as architecture and design, publishing and multimedia production, and artisan foods, employs 8.6 percent of all Vermont workers - 32 percent above the national average, according to a study commissioned by the Vermont Arts Council.

“One of the things that we know about Vermont's sector is that it's robust,” Eastes said. “But, the creative sector isn't put together very well, compared to agriculture or food, industries that can talk more effectively to legislators and the community.”

Vermont ranks third in the nation for artists as a percentage of the workforce, second for fine artists and writers, and eighth for musicians and photographers, the U.S. Census Bureau reports.

Eastes also cited research from the Arts & Economic Prosperity 5 Study by Americans for the Arts, which measured two areas: organization spending and impacts, and that of audiences.

Ultimately, the 2017 statistics showed that 88 creative organizations in Vermont generate 4,268 full-time jobs and $7.2 million in revenue to the state government. The total employment of the Vermont creative sector economy was 37,132.

And Vermont's arts organizations and their audiences spend nearly $125 million annually in direct expenditures, generating $2.6 million in revenue to local governments and $7.2 million to the state, according to a Vermont Arts Council survey.

But many in the sector are self-employed and lack steady pay and benefits such as health insurance and retirement savings.

Finding support

Attendees expressed the need for public and private investment, as well as “support structures” such as affordable housing and studio space and child care, and expressed some doubt over the accuracy of the data.

“Each person is only counted as one job,” said Dee Schneidman, Program Director of the New England Foundation for the Arts. How many of you creative workers have more than one job?”

Lots of hands shot up in the audience amid gales of laughter.

“So what we know is that the federal data vastly undercounts creative workers,” Schneidman said. “For people who want to start leveraging important partnerships, we asked very specifically what resources are crucial for your career success.”

The top five answers, she said, were earned income from one's creative skills, affordable healthcare, collaboration with other creatives/artists, distribution for one's work, and affordable housing.

The next challenge, according to meeting organizers, is to collect more data as further evidence for the creative economy's potential.

But they also voiced hope for current collaborations such as a $52 million revitalization of Bennington's historic Hotel Putnam building and surrounding 4-acre block, as well as the Windham Regional Commission and Vermont Performance Lab's “Confluence Project,” which gathers planners, schools, and community groups around the subject of local watersheds.

The state Agency of Commerce and Community Development, for its part, shared a “Think Vermont” video promoting businesses ranging from Burton snowboards to bioscience.

“You all create the authentic Vermont brand,” Wendy Knight, commissioner of the Department of Tourism and Marketing, told the audience.

“The original vision [of this forum] was to bring all of the diverse groups together,” Mittelman said. “When we work alongside each other, we are going to be much more powerful together than we are individually. Artists are struggling to make a living [and] we face some challenges. We need to focus on creating an infrastructure for the arts - sharing resources, ideas, and best practices.”

Mittelman added: “It's easy to focus on the economic impact, but ultimately it's about people, it's about building community, it's about transforming lives.”

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