Let the arts play a role in our economic recovery

Building resilience was the key to recovering from Tropical Storm Irene. Now, Vermont is due for a similar response to the global pandemic. Can the creative economy play a critically important role in our rebound?

As we begin to emerge from the worst period of the COVID-19 pandemic, its equally frightening companion - the economy - starts to take center stage.

After thousands of workers have filed unemployment claims and businesses have applied for emergency loans and relief from the Small Business Administration and the Paycheck Protection Program, many of us are now looking at the next wave of concerns.

How many jobs will never come back? How many businesses will permanently close their doors? Will the state and our towns have enough revenue to keep essential services intact?

As we slowly reopen the spigot, so many more questions will emerge.

The last major crisis our state faced was Tropical Storm Irene. Resilience was a guiding principle in the rebuilding. In that recovery effort, we made investments to ensure that our infrastructure would be adequate to withstand future major storms.

This idea of resilience is clearly relevant now for rebuilding our economy.

We need a road map for what will happen once the crisis subsides, for when we get all the people on unemployment who need it, for when we get businesses their PPP loan funds, the children back to school, the virus contained.

This crisis, like Irene, has exposed many vulnerabilities.

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Vermont's creative sector is uniquely positioned to take a strong role in not only rebuilding our economy but in re-envisioning one that is resilient and vibrant, one that brings vitality to our downtowns and village centers, one that provides good and secure jobs at successful businesses, one that addresses environmental and social concerns, one that is integral to the infrastructure of communities working together.

Investments in the creative sector attract businesses, create jobs, promote tourism, and increase tax revenues while also promoting community cohesion.

As evidenced by a 2019 study by the National Governors Association, the arts are integral to rural prosperity and vitality.

This conclusion is born out in Vermont through the data. In 2018, the creative industries provided 30,404 jobs in the state, or 9.3 percent of all employment. According to the National Endowment for the Arts, in 2015 the arts added $1 billion in value to the Vermont economy, or 3.2 percent of state gross domestic product.

Cultural organizations and economic development groups often view each other as competitors for investment instead of as partners in promoting a thriving economy. Artists, planners, nonprofit organizations, and business development specialists can work together for mutual benefit, particularly at this moment when we need all hands on deck.

Some of this work was already underway before the COVID-19 health crisis hit. The Vermont Legislature established the Vermont Creative Network, in 2016, an initiative of the Vermont Arts Council.

The Network is comprised of a broad group of organizations, businesses, and individuals who are working to advance the state's creative economy through the development of a comprehensive, research-based action plan. Two Network partners -the Downtown Program of the Agency of Commerce and Community Development and the Regional Development Corporations - are particularly important collaborators.

While the action plan is not yet complete, some initial priorities include providing economic incentives, access to capital, and business and marketing support to creative individuals and enterprises; establishing connections between creative businesses and other sectors of the state's economy; marketing creativity as a Vermont brand; and supporting emerging entrepreneurs at the high school and college levels.

The economic disaster we are currently facing will not go away soon. After Tropical Storm Irene, it took extraordinary effort and coordination of state and local governments, the Federal Emergency Management Agency, state employees, the National Guard, and citizen volunteers to put Vermont back together. It will take another extraordinary effort, with more resources and coordination, to return the state's economy to a strong footing in the aftermath of COVID-19.

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Cultural organizations and creatives are already mobilizing across Vermont in response to the pandemic.

Live-streamed concerts, online performances and film-watching parties, and family arts activities will help to ease the social isolation and fear experienced by ill and vulnerable Vermonters in the coming months.

Artists and arts organizations - the ones that can survive this crisis - will continue to be there to enable our communities to move forward when the worst is behind us.

As we prepare for a phased reopening of the state's economy, we need to ensure that the creative economy is considered and that creative businesses, institutions, and workers continue to have access to economic opportunity to help them survive this crisis.

The Vermont Creative Network, key to these efforts, has assembled a Creative Sector Recovery Team to provide guidance to the governor's Economic Mitigation and Recovery Task Force and has organized a statewide forum to bring Vermont's creative community together with policymakers and leaders involved in the state's COVID-19 economic recovery plans.

We would encourage anyone who works in the creative sector to participate in the VCN's Creative Sector Response and Recovery Forum, which will be held online on Monday, May 11 from 1 to 2:30 p.m. For details, visit vermontartscouncil.org.

As we slowly sort through and emerge from this crisis, we will need the arts now more than ever, to help us to support one another with creativity and compassion and to bring vitality back to our downtowns and resiliency into our communities.

As we did with Irene, let's build resilience into the recovery - this time, with the arts.

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