BRATTLEBORO — On a tour of southern Vermont arts sites, Susan Evans McClure, newly appointed executive director of the Vermont Arts Council (VAC), addressed about 40 area artists and arts leaders at Brattleboro's Epsilon Spires on the evening of Nov. 27.
Leading Vermont's primary provider of funding, advocacy, and information for the arts, Evans McClure intends to hit each region in the state within the year to listen to its arts communities, to invite their success stories, and to hear their challenges and needs.
"I really enjoyed seeing the vibrancy of the arts and culture work happening in Windham County," Evans McClure said.
"There is a rich and vibrant diversity of performance spaces, artist housing, artist studios, maker spaces, creative for-profit businesses, educational organizations, and so much more," she observed. "The level of professionalism is also so high, and local and visiting audiences have access to world class art of all disciplines right in the region."
Evans McClure's background is deeply rooted in the arts and culture.
With a master's degree in arts in education from the Harvard Graduate School of Education and a bachelor's degree in theater from McGill University, she joined VAC after serving as executive director of the Lake Champlain Maritime Museum and of VSA Vermont, now Inclusive Arts Vermont.
Previously, she worked in program administration and audience development at the Smithsonian National Museum of American History in Washington, D.C.
"I've always been sort of secretly working in the arts, even in humanities organizations," Evans McClure said in a VAC media release. "So [joining the VAC] really feels like I'm coming back to my arts roots."
That may be why she casts a wide net when considering the arts, embracing not only the creator of a work but also the others involved, from the designer of its presentation to the staff who keep the presentation space clean.
Her work, and that of the VAC, she says, is to keep the arts alive and thriving as a potent contributor to the state's economy and appeal. Moreover, VAC supports arts in education with in-school programs aimed at building arts assets, and the organization supports a range of arts organizations and artists, helping them to secure funding.
"Our website has not only information on grant opportunities, but also resources for artists and organizations, including research materials, connections to partnering state and regional organizations, and a calendar of Vermont arts activities," Evans McClure says.
"Our staff [is happy to] directly connect people with opportunities," she says. Committed to the human connection and collaboration the arts afford, she wants to "make it easier to be an artist in the state."
Those connections even extend to her "out of office" autoresponder message.
"There are so many incredible events and performances in Vermont this season, and our arts and culture organizations need your support," her email replies. "Check out the Vermont Arts Calendar to see what is happening near you: vermontartscouncil.org/arts-calendar."
Where's the funding?
Being an artist anywhere in the United States can be challenging, given the low level of support this country offers in that sector.
A National Endowment for the Arts (NEA) report in 2000 on arts spending in Australia, Canada, Finland, France, Germany, Ireland, Netherlands, Sweden, the United Kingdom, and the U.S. shows that, in the research period, the U.S. spent $6 per capita in support of the arts.
In contrast, Finland spent $91 per capita and Germany spent $85 per capita.
The entire budget for the National Endowment for the Arts (NEA), McClure notes, equals that of the Defense Department's budget for military bands. ("Nothing against military bands," she adds, "but....")
Thus, state arts councils must scramble to do their work.
About the VAC budget, Evans McClure explains that "in most non-Covid years, our funding is around 45% state, 45% federal, and 10% private philanthropic funding."
The yield of hardscrabble resourcefulness is reflected in data from the sixth U.S. Arts & Economic Prosperity study (AEP6), an economic and social impact survey that analyzed data from 120 arts organizations across the state.
According to the survey, administered by Americans for the Arts, a nonprofit arts advocacy organization, the Vermont creative sector generated $158.6 million in economic activity during 2022 - $103.2 million in spending by arts and culture organizations and an additional $55.4 million in event-related expenditures by their audiences.
That economic activity supported 2,712 jobs, provided $112.8 million in personal income to residents, and generated $34.8 million in tax revenue to local, state, and federal governments.
"People come to our attractions and are spending money in other ways," the VAC said in a news release. "There were 1.4 million attendees to arts and cultural events put on by nonprofits in Vermont. Of those attendees, 75% were local; 25% were nonlocal."
The VAC describes what arts advocates call the multiplier effect.
"When people attend a cultural event, they often make an outing of it, with dining, parking and other related expenses spending an average of $34.53 per person per event, beyond the cost of admission," the organization continued. "Additionally, arts and culture strengthen the visitor economy with 79.4% of nonlocal visitors stating their primary purpose of their visit was specifically to attend an arts event or venue, spending $51.69 per person per outing."
The study also notes that both Covid and extreme weather had taken a toll.
With the recent flooding and continued economic recovery from the pandemic's economic upheaval, as well as changes in the job market, the AEP6 study also finds that creative industry expenditures are up around 30% and there are 36% fewer jobs. Attendance at cultural events is down 10% by locals - though up 50% by non-locals - and spending is up 27% per attendee.
"Vermont arts organizations continue to face uncertainty as we work to recover from the devastating impacts of Covid on the arts and culture sector," Evans McClure said.
And just as the Vermont arts scene was coming up for air this summer, flooding that rivaled that of Tropical Storm Irene in 2011 left many arts sites bereft.
It wasn't how Evans McClure expected to begin her tenure at the VAC.
"While audience participation and attendance is on the rise, artists, arts organizations, and creative businesses continue to face [uncertainties]," she said. "And continued national economic challenges are having an impact on the philanthropic giving that so many organizations rely on."
At the same time, "these organizations and artists have a tremendous opportunity and are doing incredible work to meet the ever-changing needs of our communities," Evans McClure said.
Making the rounds
Evans McClure's southern Vermont tour took her first to the Bellows Falls Opera House and the Rockingham Free Public Library. In Brattleboro, she visited the New England Center for Circus Arts (NECCA), Brattleboro Museum & Art Center, maker spaces at High Street & Green, Mitchell-Giddings Fine Arts, In-Sight Photography Project, and the Vermont Jazz Center.
She and her colleagues also stopped at Next Stage Arts and Sandglass Theater in Putney, and Potash Hill, the former Marlboro College campus and enduring home of the Marlboro Music Festival that's currently incubating as an arts and culture hub.
Brian Mooney of Potash Hill reported that he had a "productive, positive visit" with Evans McClure and with Zon Eastes, Southern Vermont Creative Zone agent for the Vermont Creative Network (VCN), a VAC initiative that encourages arts and artists in six designated zones throughout the state to collaborate, cooperate, cross-pollinate, and advocate.
The Southern Vermont Creative Zone helped orchestrate the tour and meeting, along with Latchis Hotel, Downtown Brattleboro Alliance, Epsilon Spires, and NECCA.
"I was happy to share some of the history of this beautiful campus and to talk about Potash Hill's exceptional facilities, and our past and future place in the creative economy," Mooney said. "I will let someone else speak to the challenges. Right now, I'm focused on the encouragement, synergy, and opportunities before us."
He also observed that Evans McClure "has only been with the Arts Council for a few months, and already her leadership is bringing people together."
Others echoed those sentiments at the Epsilon Spires event.
There are, indeed, challenges, said NECCA Executive Director Jenna Struble. "Performing and visual artists struggle to make a living wage. Arts nonprofits struggle to pay a living wage."
"Other challenges in our region might be promotion," Struble added. "We have so many amazing things happening, but sometimes we struggle filling seats and are not sure why that is."
Many in the local creative sector believe the region has as much to offer as the Berkshires, home of Tanglewood Music Festival, Jacob's Pillow Dance Festival, and Williamstown Theatre Festival, to name just a few stars on that circuit. But the difference in this area is that "there seems to be a lack of good lodging options," she said.
"We are also challenged in a rural area with people getting to and from [a performance]," Struble continued. "And there is consensus that we would all like our area to be a robust year-round artists in residency destination, but lodging and transportation pose a challenge."
Of the 340 grants given last year by the VAC individuals, organizations, and businesses statewide, 80 - a full 24% of them - were awarded to artists and organizations in Windham and Bennington counties.
"We continue to have a strong commitment to ensure that Vermont Arts Council grants are distributed equitably across the state and continue to examine geographic distribution of funds," Evans McClure said.
For a list of FY23 funded projects and a map with a data visualization of the allocation of the grant funding, visit bit.ly/743-arts-grants.
More collaboration needed
Evans McClure's address was peppered with references to the Vermont Creative Network, and she urged participation for artists and organizations that hope to further themselves and their work.
A broad collective of organizations, businesses, and individuals, VCN participants work to advance Vermont's creative sectors along myriad avenues.
The VCN is a resource for networking and advocacy, she said, with the nonprofit committed to getting people together to engage around problems and challenges, solutions, and opportunities.
In a state the size of Vermont, where such interacting seems to be more doable, Evans McClure urged artists and leaders - those who're successful and those struggling - to "come together in the room."
"It can be isolating to be an artist," she acknowledged.
Moreover, Evans McClure says, numbers and data are needed to show the undeniably positive impact the arts have on our communities and local economies.
She urged the creative sector to "get braggy," get involved, and get a seat at the table where advocates, decision-makers, and bean counters convene.
"Just go sit at the table; don't wait to be invited," Evans McClure advised.
She further urged participants to get to know legislators, town officers, and other government and civic leaders and keep them informed. Let them hear your success stories and challenges, she said.
And she advised: Run for office - any office -local, state, or federal.
"Things happening at the local level can have a huge impact on arts organizations," she said.
Where the arts meet public policy
Among the tasks set out for the VAC this year, Evans McClure notes specific policy areas that the organization is working on.
With state programs aimed at downtown redevelopment, for instance, VAC wants to see arts, culture, and historic preservation included in the mix.
In addition, VAC is work on a film incentive program in an effort to encourage more filmmakers to produce their work in Vermont.
After several success stores were heard and a number of area arts collaborations praised, state Rep. Sara Coffey, D-Guilford, a former arts nonprofit founder and administrator herself, echoed Evans McClure, urging all artists and arts entities to make noise about what they do.
"It hasn't always been an easy road to advocate for the arts," Coffey said.
"When we put on our legislators' hats, we have tough decisions to make; when it comes to investing your dollars, we need your help to make the case," she continued. "There's some great momentum, though."
She added that, due to VAC leadership and because "Windham Country has really been pulling down the grants, whether from the arts council or [from other sources], what's happening here is really exciting."
Acknowledging the area's new generation of arts leaders coming together, Coffey reminded those assembled "that your state reps are available to you."
"It's a beautiful thing in Vermont that you have such access to us and that we can have your stories and data that give us a case to take to Montpelier," Coffey said. "We need to have the back of the VAC. They'll go in front of the House Appropriations Committee with 15 minutes to make their case. So what's needed is for you to write to your state rep. to tell them how much the arts matter to you and to share a really positive story."
Indeed, event co-chair Struble made the point: Where else in rural America can one see a world-class circus performance, take a woodworking class with radio personality Tom Bodett, and listen to musicians with a national or global reach, in a range of genres, all in the same week?
"Other states grapple with whether to fund the arts at all," reported Evans McClure. "That's not the argument here."
If she has her way, it never will be.
This News item by Annie Landenberger was written for The Commons.