Scultptor Sean Hunter Williams, left, and State Rep Sara Coffey, D-Guilford, stand with his sculpture that was installed in 2020 at the Roxbury Fish Hatchery with funding through the Art and State Buildings program.
Courtesy photo
Scultptor Sean Hunter Williams, left, and State Rep Sara Coffey, D-Guilford, stand with his sculpture that was installed in 2020 at the Roxbury Fish Hatchery with funding through the Art and State Buildings program.

State programs help towns express their character through public art

Coffey’s bill advances in the Senate, on track to get more funding for art in public buildings

BRATTLEBORO — Art matters. And in Windham County, where many artists live and work, it is also a serious economic driver.

Rep. Sara Coffey, D-Guilford, a former dancer and award-winning arts administrator, understands that.

“One of the small things that I've been working on this session is a piece of legislation that that would impact artists but also the public and some of our state buildings,” Coffey said.

While Coffey, as chair of the Transportation Committee, has had her hands full this Legislative session writing a multimillion-dollar Transportation Bill, she has also quietly plopped an additional $25,000 into a bill to raise the funds available to the Art in State Buildings (AISB) program.

If signed into law, it would boost the program's funding from $50,000 to $75,000 per fiscal year, or about 3/1000 of 1% of the $8.5 billion general budget.

That funding is transferred from the project budgets for building or renovating state properties.

Since 1988, the AISB program has been administered by the Vermont Arts Council in coordination with the Department of Buildings and General Services and the Art in State Buildings Advisory Committee.

So far it has commissioned artworks from more than 60 artists to appear in 35 state-owned buildings and public spaces across Vermont, according to the Vermont Arts Council website.

Coffey's bill, H.102, acknowledges the role of public art, which “improves the character and quality of State buildings; enhances the workplace of State employees by creating an environment of distinction, enjoyment, and pride; and adds value to the cultural, aesthetic, and economic vitality of the State.”

The bill, therefore, seeks “to support Vermont artists and the benefits of public art by providing ongoing funding for the commissioning of works of art for installation in State buildings and facilities.”

Renovations of the Windham County Family and District Courthouse in Brattleboro in 2010 included “a beautiful piece by Julia Zanes and Donald Saaf,” she said, commissioned from the two Saxtons River artists through the program. A list of completed projects describes the work in the 30 Putney Road building as “etched glass windows, relief sculpture on the exterior of buildings, [and] paintings in hallway and stairwell.”

H.102 passed the House on March 30; it is now in the Senate Institutions Committee, which has held hearings on the issue and voted in favor of the bill. It was scheduled for a second reading in the full Senate on April 25.

Amy Cunningham, the interim president of the Vermont Arts Council, is delighted with the prospective funding bump for the program - its first pay raise since the law establishing the program was passed in 1988.

“The bill is a long-overdue update to this longstanding program to commission artwork in state buildings where there's either new construction or renovations happening,” Cunningham said.

“The art enhances the working environment of these buildings,” she continued. “It is really a source of pride for all Vermonters that we're building up a collection of really important Vermont-based art in state buildings throughout the state for all Vermonters to enjoy.”

Multiple funding sources

Artists should take note: The state now has several separate pots of money to support Vermont artists. The Art in State Buildings program is just one of them.

“That's using state capital money to commission a work in a state building or on a state property,” Cunningham said. “So it's a pretty specific thing.”

The AISB program is not about getting paintings on display at the Vermont State House, for example.

“That is handled in a different whole different way altogether,” Coffey said - a way that involves no taxpayer funds.

“The state curator is in charge of that; those pieces are commissioned by the Friends of the State House. And so that is not public money - it's really important that the distinction is made, I think, because there can be confusion.”

Another pot of art money lies in a program called Better Places, a noncompetitive, community-matching grant program run by the Vermont Agency of Commerce and Community Development. It is not exclusively about art; its goal is to empower Vermonters “to create inclusive and vibrant public places serving Vermont's designated downtowns, village centers, new town centers, or neighborhood development areas.”

The program provides one-on-one project coaching, local fundraising support, and two-to-one matching grants ranging from $5,000 to $40,000 to make community-led “place-making” ideas happen.

The wall mural on High Street leading into Brattleboro, inspired by Epsilon Spires and the Afghan Artlords, is a perfect example of creative place-making.

“I was actually so happy to be the lead sponsor on this legislation that that created this program in statute and began to fund it,” Coffey said.

Another pot of money is the Animating Infrastructure Grant program, also run by the Vermont Arts Council, which funded $15,000 in 2019 for the Downtown Brattleboro Alliance to support “Ask the River,” described as “a new kinetic public art installation.”

“It is specifically about integrating public art into infrastructure projects,” Cunningham said. “The big thing in Brattleboro is the exterior of the Transportation Center in downtown. It's a multifaceted project to activate that whole building with all kinds of arts and historical interpretation.”

Each such project is initiated by the community; it's not about an artist saying, “Hey, I want money to do this project.”

“For example, in Brattleboro they did a call to artists and asked for proposals,” Cunningham said. “It doesn't start with an artist. It starts with an identified project, and then we put out a call to artists for design proposals.”

In addition to hosting workshops and networking events, the Arts Council has other grants for artists, for “the creation of original work, time in residencies, skill development, and business training,” the organization's website explains.

In addition to the AISB program, Artist Development Grants support the professional development efforts of artists at all stages of their careers, Creation Grants support the creation of new work by Vermont artists of all disciplines, and Vermont Creative Futures Grants provide aid to artists who continue to struggle financially due to the impact of the COVID-19 pandemic.

The more, the better

“The more kinds of things that we can do like this, whether it's at the state level or at the local level, the better,” said Coffey, who added that she does this work because she is passionate about art and artists.

Prior to entering politics in 2018, Coffey ran the nonprofit Vermont Performance Lab, a rural incubator for cutting-edge multimedia and performance art. She has described the nonprofit during those 13 years as “working at the intersection of art-making and community.”

“Opportunities for artists is really something that I care a lot about,” she said. “I hope that we can continue to do more.”

Artists are “incredible contributors to making communities wonderful places to live and work and for visitors to come visit,” said the third-term lawmaker, whose district spans Vernon and Guilford.

“It's an exciting way to think about how artists can be part of how we improve our infrastructure, and also bring some beauty or whimsy or a way to express the character of a town or a place,” Coffey said. “There are all sorts of opportunities.”

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