Why now for voter-approved funding for the arts?

While we call ourselves an ‘arts town,’ a person driving through Brattleboro would never know it. Our artists, of whom there are many, struggle to sustain and share their vision.

BRATTLEBORO — As a town resident with a long involvement in the arts, one of the founders of a literary arts nonprofit (Write Action), and an arts advocate through both writing journalism and serving on boards of a number of arts organizations, I am writing about the effort of a growing number of artists and appreciators of art - and just plain citizens - to support the creation of an arts fund for the town. It is something that is long overdue.

One might ask: “Why now?”

Brattleboro has embraced getting named one of The 20 Best Small Towns in America by Smithsonian - which noted our “reputation as a hidden artistic haven” - and is on several other lists.

At the same time, morale is low because money for the arts is harder and harder to come by. The Trump administration has threatened to cut nationally funded arts (and humanities) programs altogether.

Due to low morale, our two arts boards - the Arts Council of Windham County and the Brattleboro Town Arts Committee - nearly came to an end recently. Fortunately, new individuals stepped up to save each organization, and both now have fully functioning boards.

While we call ourselves an “arts town,” a person driving through would never know it. There is no public art to speak of, no sign proudly announcing this status. Our artists, of whom there are many, struggle to sustain and share their vision.

In times where self expression is threatened and in some instances has actually been squelched - as in voting rights and the rights of immigrants, the arts as a medium of expression - and of hope and love - have become more important than ever.

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A proposal will go before Representative Town Meeting members at Representative Annual Town Meeting on Saturday, March 23 to have a small percentage of the 1-percent rooms and meals local-option tax, instituted in 2007, go toward a town arts fund, for arts projects with a public component.

Since one of the main reasons out-of-towners come to our town and to the vicinity is for arts events (just try negotiating traffic on a Gallery Walk evening, or during the Brattleboro Literary Festival), it is reasonable, we feel, to ask for a portion of that revenue source. Doing so will have minimal, if any, impact on property taxes for local citizens.

And we hope that artists having access to a fund for public arts projects will help to bring in more funds for businesses and revenues for the town via the local-option tax.

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Here are some statistics from the Vermont Arts Council:

The arts drive tourism: 70 percent of visitors who come to Vermont for an arts festival, performance, or museum exhibit say it was their primary purpose for visiting our state.

Vermont's nonprofit arts and culture industry leverages $44 million in event-related spending by its audiences. When people attend a cultural event, they also eat dinner in local restaurants, pay for parking, buy gifts and souvenirs, pay a babysitter, or stay overnight in a hotel. On average, a tourist in 2015 spent $46.35, while a resident spent $23.45 (on items other than tickets).

• It's a fact that man (and woman) do not live by bread alone: “Art is food,” as River Gallery School's motto goes. (That's a quote from a young Jacob Sharkey!) When I was an art student during the '60s civil rights and Vietnam war protests, William Sloane Coffin, an activist minister from New Haven, came to the art school I was attending.

He did so at a time when we artists might have felt superfluous and unneeded, and he extolled the importance of art, even in perilous times.

“There needs to be something to fight for,” he said. Art has an important place in a civilized democracy. It is something to remind us of our humanity.

Montpelier currently has a fund for public art. The city lists possible future projects as art in parks and making alleyways a welcoming way to draw people into those buildings. (In Brattleboro, that could be the Hooker-Dunham alley, or Arch Street.)

Montpelier also encourages art in “forgotten spaces,” such as murals. (We do have Scot Borofsky's murals, for which he had to collect money on the street for materials, receiving nothing for himself.)

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An arts fund sourced from local revenues feeds into the “limited self-government” initiative that some members of the Selectboard are pursuing, a plan that has the potential to empower us as an arts-rich community.

An Arts Fund Working Group has been meeting to flesh out details of this proposal. At this point, it looks like this.

A set amount of funds would be taken out of the 1-percent local option rooms and meals tax. Last year, that revenue was approximately $400,000. Five percent - $20,000 - would go this year into a public arts fund to be managed by the Arts Council of Windham County. The members of its newly invigorated board are professional artists with much experience on both the creative and administrative sides of the arts sector.

A vetting committee to look at project proposals would be made up ideally of seven individuals: two from the Town Arts Committee, two from the Arts Council, and three from the at-large community of artists representing various disciplines (such as literary, dance, and theater, with final selection influenced by the areas of expertise of the other four members).

The committee would meet quarterly to discuss proposals, which would be submitted on an application form followed by an interview.

Projects approved by the Arts Fund Working Group would be passed by the Selectboard for final approval.

Again, projects would need to have a public component, and those members of the Arts Fund Working Group would work closely with the Downtown Brattleboro Alliance and the Brattleboro Area Chamber of Commerce to promote these projects, regardless of whether those organizations also receive the extra funding they are seeking.

If you would like to express support for the arts fund proposal, and would like to let your District Representative know, you can find them at Brattleboro.org under the link “Serving the Community.”

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