Arts council embraces the small

With a new round of funding available for local creatives, the Arts Council of Windham County adapts and expands the program to meet the needs of artists during the pandemic

BRATTLEBORO — Applications for the second round of the Brattleboro Town Arts Fund are open.

The arts fund, a program of the Arts Council of Windham County (ACWC) with funding from the town, provides $1,000 grants to 15 community-focused projects that would not otherwise happen without this backing.

According to the fund's website, these projects can explore solutions to social or quality-of-life issues, support community building, expand accessibility and visibility for underrepresented artists and audiences, or highlight the town.

The other changes to how this year's fund is being handled is the amount awarded (fixed at $1,000) and that the projects should be completed within 90 days of receiving funding.

In addition to managing the program, the 11-member board of trustees performs the daily tasks of managing a tiny arts council in the middle of a pandemic.

And amid this chaos - and with the possibility and potential for artists to reflect these difficult times in their work - board members are also trying to re-envision the definition of these creative projects.

Shifting focus

Chair Sharon Fantl and Vice-Chair Chrissy Lee, who joined the trustees in 2018, said that the organization's decision to shift the Town Arts Fund - to focus on inexpensive, short-term projects that aim to help those most impacted by COVID-19 - comes as a direct response to the ongoing pandemic.

Lee explained that planning year-long projects or projects that rely on community gatherings are hard to accomplish alongside the uncertainty caused by the pandemic.

Instead, Lee said, this year's applicants are encouraged to create “small-scale efforts.”

“First-time grant seekers and people who may not necessarily even identify as artists” are also encouraged to apply, she said.

Lee added that during the pandemic, she has witnessed the development of what she describes as “small mutual aid” creative projects. Sometimes, the artists responsible for these works have received money for their projects, she said - but not always.

“So we're just trying to figure out how this funding can both create a resource for people who are doing this work already - maybe unpaid - and also to inspire people to take on some of these projects and be able to find a funding resource,” Lee said.

Fantl added that she would like to see the Town Arts Fund become a resource for projects across the arts and culture spectrum.

During this year, people's need for watch parties, book clubs, or online writing workshops are evidence that they have been turning to the arts as part of their pandemic survival strategy.

“I think we've seen over the course of the pandemic the ways that people have been turning to arts and culture, whether they know to call that what they're doing as that,” she said.

A pandemic packs a wallop

Funding for the relatively new Town Arts Fund was approved at the 2019 Annual Representative Town Meeting. The first round of projects were announced in early 2020 and was scheduled to take place in the spring.

Then, COVID-19 hit.

Most of the Town Arts Fund recipients were able to pivot their projects, said Fantl and Lee.

For example, Erin Maile O'Keefe of the Human Connection Project helped create Handy Stations this summer. The installations were located outside downtown businesses and offered hand sanitizer while also showcasing the work of local artists.

The pandemic has walloped most creative fields. Responding to the public health crisis has meant that arts organizations needed to stop in-person collaborating, stop performing, and stop opening their doors.

Many artists and arts organizations pivoted to online events in order to serve creators and community alike. Weston Playhouse launched a series of events under the banner of a reimagined 2020 season. For example, the theater commissioned 14 playwrights to create one-person plays and record them as a series of performances.

That series, “One Room,” where each writer “explores the events of this year by looking at our homes as spaces of possibility and creativity,” was released en masse last summer, according to the theater's website.

Doing a lot with a little

Unlike the ACWC, many of the larger arts organizations in Vermont have paid staff who have the time to plan new projects as well as seek new funding avenues.

As volunteers, Fantl and Lee have found pivoting under COVID-19 a little more challenging for the organization.

That lack of resources “has slowed down a lot of what we do over the course of the pandemic,” Fantl said.

But as much as the two trustees acknowledge the challenges of working on a small, all-volunteer-run arts council, they are also embracing that same smallness and the idea of slow creativity.

“I think one of the things that we've been able to do - in our own way, as a smaller organization - is to embrace to the best of our ability some of that slow approach and some of the emergent process that can come with that, since we're not trying to compete with larger funding organizations,” Fantl said.

“Partly because we can't at this point,” she acknowledged, “but also because that [slowness] seems aligned with the spirit of what the town arts fund is trying to do.”

The new vision for the ACWC, however, started before COVID-19 entered stage right. According to Lee and Fantl, approximately two years ago, the arts council was close to dying. In 2018, interested community members held a series of gatherings to talk about the organization's future.

An initiative to grow out of these conversations was Brattleboro's Town Arts Fund.

According to Fantl, the fund moved beyond traditional public art - sculptures or murals - and sought projects that could partner with social-service organizations. Applications opened in October 2019. Out of 39 applications, six received funding.

All six projects originally depended upon community participation, said Fantl and Lee.

Fantl said the ACWC and the award recipients held multiple meetings to discuss their projects. The projects that could do so reshaped themselves to fit within the needs of COVID-19 public health guidelines.

As Fantl and Lee open the 2021 round of grants from the Town Arts Fund, they are also looking at their own organization.

They hope to hold (online) gatherings that ask some existential questions: In this time of pivoting, are there ways they can improve the ACWC? Can other organizational models - besides the professional nonprofits or volunteer-run groups - serve the local creative community better?

Lee worries about creative work, workers, and groups that have been disappearing during the pandemic.

“I worry the most about the small efforts - not just volunteer-run organizations such as ours, but small collectives and culturally specific organizations,” Lee said.

Lee said that she respects how many funding organizations have lowered their requirements so more people can access financial support. But in many cases, she said, the bar is still too high for small organizations or independent creatives - one reason the trustees have decided to lower the Town Arts Fund award to $1,000 and ask applicants to focus on short-term projects.

Beyond 'art-with-a-capital-A'

Fantl has been based at Keene State College's Redfern Arts Center for the past 13 years. Prior to that, she worked in Massachusetts with the Somerville Arts Council.

This background has led her to feel there is a schism in the arts world, between art-with-a-capital-A and the wider universe that the creative fields inhabit.

She said that expanding that scope makes it possible to talk about “cultural workers and practitioners of all kinds and people who don't neatly fit [within artist categories].

“I think that there is, I hope, a growing understanding of the breadth of what creative work really is.”