More than the icing on the cake
Participants in the Vermont Creative Network’s IdeaJam were asked for their brief visions for a state that fosters a creative economy.

More than the icing on the cake

The Vermont Creative Action Plan takes another step forward as artists contribute strategies toward making creativity core to the state’s vitality

Three years from now, what is the one thing about Vermont's creative economy that should be different?

This was one of the questions posed to participants of last week's IdeaJam from the Vermont Creative Network, an initiative of the Vermont Arts Council which organizations, artists, and creative professionals statewide.

Karen Mittelman, executive director of the Vermont Arts Council, asked the question in a breakout session focused on policy design during the online event.

Members of Vermont's creative economy provided input into which strategies should earn the focus of the state's first creativity-centered action plan.

The Dec. 1 event was part of a series of online gatherings to build the Vermont Creative Network Action Plan. A final event, described as a “daylong meet-up to share results, plan actions, swap skills, and build connections,” takes place Tuesday, Dec. 15, at a time to be determined.

Once complete, the plan will inform the network's efforts to make arts, culture, and creativity central parts of Vermont communities - like designing state and local policy that supports creative projects or businesses, to name one example.

The draft plan also describes efforts to ensure that creative workers are engaged in leadership and community building and receive entrepreneurial training.

Strategies for action

Writer, artist, and anthropologist Dana Walrath, based in Underhill, in Chittenden County, said that artists can help communities recover from the COVID-19 pandemic and called for “a real mind shift.”

“Stories are how humans make connections to one another,” Walrath added. “They can be visual, verbal, just pure sound, music theater, [or] what have you, but this is how we form community.”

“And if our state/country/world is to recover, we have to create community and that's what artists can do so beautifully,” she said.

Walrath's desire - for those in the creative fields to participate in community projects and efforts to recover from the pandemic - was a theme carried over from last month's IdeaJam, which brought artists from across the state into regional conversations about what they wanted for their creative lives and businesses [“Action plan for the arts supports state's creative economy,” News, Nov. 25].

While last month's conversations acted as an arena for creatives to meet peers in their region, the Dec. 1 event focused on identifying strategies to be included in the action plan.

Participants broke into nine groups, each focused on a different strategy area: resources, education, policy design, municipal issues, community building, cross-sector collaborations, equity and diversity, networking, and marketing.

Each group tried to identify what its members felt was missing in their focus area.

In the breakout discussion focused on policy, participants talked about how artists and their work can be supported at the state level through policy.

“If we succeed with this really ambitious action plan that we are shaping up right now, what's the one thing you personally want to look different in Vermont three years from now, if we can really make some significant progress on policy change?” Mittleman asked.

Matthew Perry, director of the Vermont Arts Exchange in Bennington, said he would like to see a percentage of annual state and municipal budgets allocated for the arts.

The state could help municipalities build cultural plans, similar to their Town Plans, that outline the community's goals, he added.

Charles Norris-Brown, a writer and illustrator from Bellows Falls, pointed to the need for affordable housing and studio space for “fellow artists in this area who are really dirt poor” - a concept that he said was central to the overall success of a plan.

“I think it is really important three years from now to be able to see that the state and the region have been able to not only build up a cultural plan, but to put it into effect by finding ways to make it possible for artists to actually - not necessarily make a living as an artist - but at least to have the kind of support so that they do not need to give up their artwork,” Norris-Brown said.

Kimberly Gilbert, a regional planner with Two Rivers-Ottauquechee Regional Commission in Woodstock, agreed with Norris-Brown.

Secure and affordable physical spaces are “extremely important,” she said.

Musician Richard Ruane, from the Addison County town of Ripton, said health care was a big issue. Most creative workers have “spotty incomes.” This makes it hard for them to keep their health insurance. He also hoped that more funding would be available to attend conferences and take advantage of professional development opportunities.

Walrath said she wanted to see more creative workers, who “excel at thinking outside the box and coming up with different creative solutions,” involved in policymaking.

Despite this potential, creative workers “get brought in sort of as entertaining and decorations, or icing on the cake,” she said.

Perry responded to Walrath's comment, saying, “There's a great saying that relates to this: 'If you're not at the table, you're on the menu.'”

Creatives can play critical roles in policy

Based on a shared group Google Doc, which allowed multiple contributors from disparate locations to work simultaneously, a theme of supportive infrastructure appeared.

Creative workers need affordable health care and housing. They also need stable funding sources at the county and town levels. They need access to broadband. Artists also said they needed business and leadership training.

The conversations around infrastructure pointed to the overlap between the creative sector and other areas of Vermont's economy.

While many IdeaJam attendees discussed how they felt left out of conversations around business or social issues, they said they face many of the same challenges as other sectors of the community.

Perry, commenting that the arts in Vermont need a rebranding, said he would like to see the word “artist” replaced with another descriptor.

Mittelman said that she thinks the COVID-19 pandemic is helping to shift policymakers' perception of the arts.

“It's often very difficult for legislators who are confronted with dire economic problems and budget issues every day to think about the arts as something that's not just icing on the cake,” she said.

But she is noticing that the conversations she's having with lawmakers at the State House reflect a shift from the perception that artists want money to the realization that the creative sector can be part of the big picture of recovery from the pandemic.

“I think it's really important for all decisionmakers not to see the arts as just the people who are always coming with their hands out saying we need more funding, we need more support, we need this, we need that, but instead, [as people who are] really critical to coming up with solutions,” Mittelman said.

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