BRATTLEBORO — Vermont's creative sector can contribute to thriving post-pandemic communities. To do so, the creative sector - and the people who work within it - require state and local investment.
So said speakers at the May 3 launch of CreateVT Action Plan.
The plan is centered around two ideas: that the arts are part of Vermont's essential infrastructure, and that the state and communities will benefit from funding and supporting the arts just as they do roads, bridges, and schools.
“We believe that arts culture and creativity are just as essential to Vermont's future as roads, bridges, and broadband,” said Jody Fried, executive director of Catamount Arts of St. Johnsbury, the only full-service arts center in northeastern Vermont.
“Treating arts culture and creativity as essential infrastructure means we will see corresponding increases in statewide investment and resources, enabling policies and education regarding the creative sector,” he said.
Vermont Creative Network, a project of the Vermont Arts Council, unveiled a 128-page report and action plan during an online event that included lawmakers and creatives from across the state.
“The CreateVT Action Plan envisions a Vermont that thrives through creativity, inclusivity, and innovation,” states the team behind the report.
Three years in the making, the action plan outlines the visions, goals, and agenda for strengthening Vermont's creative sector. Key to the plan is making creativity central to Vermonters' daily lives.
The plan calls for funding, entrepreneurial training, education, and leadership roles for those working in the sector.
The plan is broken into three guiding visions that are then divided into key goals. The plan also outlines advocacy steps to take at the local, state, and creative sector levels.
If successful, these actions would result in changes such as more funding, local and state policy that supports the creative sector, training, new leaders, cross-sector collaborations, and the dismantling of barriers and inequitable systems.
A sample of goals in the plan include:
• Expand, develop, and diversify accessible public and private funding streams to support the creative sector.
• Promote inclusive professional development and learning opportunities in all creative disciplines.
• Organize a statewide advocacy team and annual strategy.
• Support and promote inclusive access to leadership development and opportunities for creative sector members.
• Support the development of diversity, equity, inclusion, and accessibility strategies in Vermont's creative organizations.
• Connect creative enterprises to business and technical support resources. Expand and publicize creative networking events.
Senate President Pro Tempore Becca Balint, D-Brattleboro, said that after a hard four years of the Trump Administration and the pandemic year, she viewed the arts as on a path of unfurling.
“I want this roadmap to re-animate us, let us see the possibilities, where before just a few months ago, we saw limitations,” Balint said. “It can be a path out of this feeling tight and small and self protective, if we are brave enough to allow ourselves to be hopeful.”
Balint highlighted the ability of creativity, or “creative action,” to change a community.
Creative action “can challenge norms, it can shift our perspectives, it can change our thinking about ideas, both large and small. But what I don't want us to forget today is that creative energy, creative action, also delights us and offers us a lightness of spirit,” Balint said.
This action plan gives everyone in the state “permission,” Balint continued, to move beyond fear and self-doubt.
A broader-than-expected sector
The largest subgroups of Vermont's creative sector are design and speciality foods.
The sector itself, as defined by the report, is vast and includes industries that require some form of creativity or culture at their core: for example, two-dimensional art, performing arts, film studios, manufacturers, furniture makers, value-added food products, museums, and libraries.
All told, the sector provides 9.3 percent of all jobs in the state.
In 2019, according to the report, arts and culture contributed $1.1 billion to the Vermont gross domestic product (GDP), close behind retail and construction. Specialty foods and performing arts are two sectors in the state that are growing faster than the national average.
The Vermont Creative Network has broken the state into six zones, also called regional networks. In the Southern Vermont Zone - Bennington and Windham counties - 7.4 percent of the workers hold creative sector jobs.
A 2019 study conducted by Massachusetts-based economic development consulting firm Mt. Auburn Associates found that half of the people who work in the creative sector are in support jobs: museum custodians, prep cooks, or accountants for a creative business, for example.
Twenty-six percent of creative workers hold creative jobs in another field, such as an elementary school music teacher or marketing director for a hospital.
Finally, 24 percent of creative workers hold “traditional” creative jobs, such as architects, writers, chocolatiers, or painters.
The Mt. Auburn study also found that almost half of creatives are self-employed or freelance, which is higher than the national average. But, while most independent creative workers earn a median income of $25,408, their Vermont peers' median income is approximately half that.
The report team noted that globally, the creative economy is one of the fastest-growing sectors. Unfortunately, Vermont's growth rate of 8 percent trails the U.S. growth rate of approximately 14 percent. The growth rate for the Southern Zone is 2 percent, the lowest growth rate for the six state sectors outlined in Create VT.
According to the action plan, more investment in the state's creative sector would boost the economy.
Responses to the plan
Chittenden County Sen. Kesha Ram, D-Burlington, said she viewed the action plan as an invitation to “reground.”
Ram pointed out that the action plan process engaged a diverse and inclusive range of people.
“I felt really heard and validated and counted,” she said.
Ram said that this time - unlike so many other instances - she didn't feel like she “had to be that one voice” in the room to represent all people of color.
“And it's reflected in what you've produced, and how much intention has gone into it, how much of an invitation it is to the whole state, and how much it recognizes the harm we have to repair from this pandemic and the important, but challenging, racial reckoning we're having,” Ram said.
“And even when we look at ourselves, the ways that we may have - intentionally or unintentionally, most of the time” - shut BIPOC Vermonters and marginalized people out of the feeling of being an artist, having their public art displayed, having their art celebrated,” she added. “We're so much in a space of trying to change course, and to really rebuild the invitation to who should see themselves as a creator, and an artist.”
Ram said she would continue to do her part in the Legislature.
Rep. Sara Coffey, D-Guilford, the former executive director of the Vermont Performance Lab, said that organizations and individual creatives found new ways during the pandemic to connect with their communities.
These connections, such as streaming a performance online, “ease the isolation and the fear” that many people, especially vulnerable Vermonters, were experiencing, she said.
Coffey expects that artists will continue to help their communities move forward after the pandemic ends.
“And we must help this effort as we did with the rural electrification project and the way we're thinking about rural broadband, so we must invest in the rural infrastructure for the creative sector,” she said. “And we all have a role to play.”
U.S Rep. Peter Welch, D-Vt., said that creative enterprises support the economy, but the artistic endeavors also support people spiritually.
As society moves out of the COVID-19 pandemic and into its new normal, people are trying to understand their experiences.
“It's the challenge of an artist to help us understand the world that we are walking through together,” Welch said. ”So the arts have never been more important.”
Shanta Lee Gander, a Brattleboro multidisciplinary artist and nonprofit professional, participated in the plan's visioning process.
Gander described the action plan as a not-strict cookbook, where communities could use the recipes and add the spices that worked best for them.
“We hold ourselves accountable and become the creative sector within a Vermont that reflects the depth of diversity inclusivity and equity that is not only skin color, but across class, across a range of lived experiences and histories that dwells within the very bones of the state,” she said. “As we move forward, we engage with possibility and, most importantly, transparency.”
Along with a call to action, the plan and the participants at the launch invited community members to join the process and to provide feedback.
“Create with us,” stated the plan in its executive summary. “Creativity is essential to the cultural and economic vitality of Vermont. This plan is a portrait of our creative state. It's a roadmap to equitable growth. And it's a collective call to action.”