Action plan for the arts supports state’s creative economy

Dozens from Bennington, Windham Counties join online event to discuss joint priorities

Participants of the Vermont Creative Network's IdeaJam in a videoconference on Nov. 17 highlighted their curiosity, optimism, and desire to collaborate.

Conversations within the online event focused on how the region's creative workforce adapted their work, and how they want to move forward, using other skills from their creative toolbox such as problem solving and experimentation.

The network - authorized by the Legislature in 2016 and operating as an initiative of the Vermont Arts Council - is developing the state's first creative sector action plan, with a goal of building a thriving creative economy that connects creative workers to resources and furthers Vermont's reputation as the most creative state in the country.

Another goal: getting the arts a seat at the table with other respected economic sectors.

“People always think of the arts as sort of icing on the cake,” said Robert McBride, a Network member and longtime arts champion in Rockingham.

“I'm particularly interested in [southern Vermont] really highlighting the economic impact that artists and creatives play in our economy,” he said. “And I think our challenge is to be at the table with the other economic sectors and drivers and to be recognized as that.”

Far from being expendable, the arts are part of what will help communities weather COVID-19 “by keeping us alive and vital, and connecting to each other,” McBride said.

Last year, approximately 9.3 percent of the jobs in Vermont were within the creative sector. According to the network's research, that percentage is higher than the national average.

Almost half of those creative workers are self-employed or freelance.

Meanwhile, despite the state's higher-than-average number of creative jobs, the state's creative sector's growth from 2010 to 2018 is creeping behind the rest of the country's.

Sting of a pandemic

This year, Vermont's creative sector has felt the global pandemic's sting.

With much of the creative sector's work dependent on human interaction, reducing the number of people who can gather in one space and canceling live performances have meant significant financial losses for the creative economy.

Americans for the Arts, a national nonprofit, estimates the national financial impact on the creative sector as $14.1 billion. Data reported by 137 Vermont organizations show an average impact of $20,200 per entity.

The Vermont Creative Network - a collective of organizations from across the state focused on strengthening the creative sector - stretches beyond what is traditionally considered creative fields, such as two-dimensional art or performance.

Anyone interested in the state's creative economy is welcome, said the event's host, David Hohenschau, a principal in Community Workshop, a Vermont-based planning agency.

“We want to always make the point that this is not just for artists or just for creatives,” he said. “We welcome real estate developers and plumbers and teachers - and just about anybody who thinks they care about the creative economy in Vermont.”

A plan years in the making

At its Nov. 17 IdeaJam, organizers with the Vermont Creative Network solicited feedback from participants about an action plan in development.

According to Hohenschau, the Network and the Arts Council, its parent entity, have worked on the plan for a few years. In 2019, a working group conducted surveys, held interviews, and gathered information about the state's creative economy.

Now the network is focusing on where it wants to go and is seeking input on its goals and its priorities.

“So we're looking for ways to organize our thoughts and build strategies around something like that, that speaks to what we're aiming for in our work,” Hohenschau said.

During the IdeaJam, participants weighed in on selecting three priorities from a list of approximately 12.

Hohenschau added that the strategies contained in the final plan will include potential actions at the state, community, and individual levels.

So far, the network has established the following priorities based on feedback:

• Marketing the state's creative sector so that it become a part of the Vermont brand, with the goal of attracting and retaining young people and creative entrepreneurs.

• Investing in creative businesses and entrepreneurs by creating easier access to funding and business support.

• Education, training, and support for “emerging entrepreneurs” across all age groups, including high school, technical school, and college. Also, supporting these institutions in providing creative skills that match the needs of the state's workforce and businesses.

• Building cross-sector partnerships that amplify economic and community development.

• Increasing equity and inclusion in the creative sector.

The study is funded through major grants from Jane's Trust and the Windham Foundation. The Vermont Agency of Commerce and Community Development, the National Life Group Foundation, and the Ruth and Peter Metz Family Foundation have also contributed to the planning study.

The project's consulting team includes Massachusetts-based Mt. Auburn Associates and Melissa Levy of Community Roots.

Focusing on southern Vermont

While the IdeaJam focused on the statewide plan, it was also structured to help creative people from across the state connect to other people in their own regions.

The event's discussion rooms were broken into zones.

The Southern Vermont zone included Bennington and Windham counties and had the largest number of participants.

McBride, one of the conversation's coordinators, said his vision is to “crack down” the walls between the arts and other areas such as workforce housing and health care.

In doing so, he hopes to not only view those issues through a creative lens but also to understand “what connects us to the same challenges all other economic sectors face.”

McBride reminded people they could subscribe to the network's quarterly e-newsletter. Each one focuses on a different topic impacting the creative sector, such as a discussion about the availability of broadband or the opportunity for creative people to meet their legislators.

Zon Eastes of Guilford, who has also worked at the Vermont Arts Council, told participants that the network and the newsletter provide ways of getting everyone onto the same page and sharing stories.

“Creativity is really at the center of what makes Vermont communities function,” he said. “It's not about economic drivers. It's not about health care. It's not about one thing - it's all these things together being creatively mashed together, and we're all at work in our communities making things go.”

Participants in the breakout session discussed a variety of topics, including how to bring their work to an audience outside the state.

Two suggestions: Sustaining the energy, funding, and programing of all-volunteer-run organizations - a problem some participants faced - and encouraging residents to ask their Selectboards to support community art through their town's budget.

Several participants stressed the importance of collecting better data on the creative economy.

“In places I've lived before, the other sectors usually didn't take the art sector seriously until there was data showing the economic impact,” said Keith Marks, executive director of Next Stage Arts in Putney.

Marks reminded participants that the creative sector supports a variety of other sectors - for example, hospitality and retail. Without metrics, it can be hard to communicate this impact, he added.

“It's not just a feel-good impact of the arts, but there's an actual cultural impact that's felt [by] restaurants and the local stores, and there's lot of economic drivers that really are supported by this sector,” Marks said.

Guinevere “Genny” Albert, executive director of Arts Bus, a child-education and -arts organization, shared how embarrassment had taught her a valuable lesson about performing during COVID-19.

Arts Bus recently performed a show outside for kids. One of the safety precautions organizers took was to spread large beach blankets six feet apart across the ground.

“I actually almost threw up before the first performance,” Albert said. “I'm nearly 50 years old, and I was wearing a kind of trash bag with a hula hoop and an upside-down shoe. I mean, come on.”

“But this year I thought that we have to push through some of that stuff and show people that if we accept the pandemic, and safety, as a condition of what we do - there are still ways to get our program out,” she said.

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