Growing Local Culture
In the world of accelerated cities where art is accompanied by glitz and the role of creativity holds a lofty position above day-to-day life, a sentiment like that is inexplicable, provincial, quaint. It may not be easy for those used to art being something you merely hang on a wall to understand how industry, community, agriculture and heritage—or a stout, freckled farm boy— complete the creative economy picture.
Growing Local Culture
By Clara Rose Thornton
In the world of accelerated cities where art is accompanied by glitz and the role of creativity holds a lofty position above day-to-day life, a sentiment like that is inexplicable, provincial, quaint. It may not be easy for those used to art being something you merely hang on a wall to understand how industry, community, agriculture and heritage—or a stout, freckled farm boy— complete the creative economy picture. In Vermont, though, sustenance is creativity, and heritage is the preeminent paintbrush. Native Vermonters emerging from a winter unscathed, or new transplants inventively navigating business pitfalls in a tiny hill town exist as perfect examples. And, ironically, during what is being quoted as the worst global economic climate since the Great Depression, Vermont has discovered a way to not only keep surviving, but also thrive, through the simple act of nurturing this innate creative spirit.
Poet Robert Tristam Coffin once wrote, “Vermont’s a place where barns come painted / Red as a strong man’s heart, / Where stout carts and stout boys in freckles / Are highest forms of art.”
“Vermont has traditionally been invested in only certain aspects of its historic and cultural heritage-those surrounding agriculture and tourism,” remarked Alex Aldrich, Vermont Arts Council executive director. “It’s only been within the past five or six years that (state bureaucracy) has begun to realize there’s a great amount of power in the arts industries, and not just classical arts, but all arts, such as craft, music, dance, drama, theater and artisan foods.”
Batting naiveté, Aldrich added that, “Arts alone are not going to restore a community to fiscal solvency. The new thinking is that art is part of the discussion; it’s part of the planning.” This new way of thinking about art at the legislative level has its genesis in a 2004 report by the then-newly-formed Vermont Council on Culture and Innovation. In it, two basic tenets were put forward: 1) Public and private investment in creative enterprises yields favorable economic and social returns, producing jobs and supporting communities. 2) The development of the creative economy in Vermont is not limited to geography, topography, demographics or population density.
In the five years since the report, Vermont towns have run like wildfire with these two quite logical ideas. From villages as small as Readsboro (population 805) forming arts alliances, to Bennington commissioning artists to paint public moose sculptures, to the statewide sociopolitical initiative “Art of Action: Shaping Vermont’s Future Through Art,” which is a collaboration between the Arts Council and visionary entrepreneur Lyman Orton, residents have realized ways to capitalize on cultural resources once thought to be extraneous or isolated from the essential building blocks of commerce.
Vermont is the second least populous state in the Union, with only 621,254 year-round residents, and has the sixth smallest land area. Yet, as Aldrich put it, “We have among the highest percentage of artists in the country per capita. We have the largest number of non-profit performing arts and visual arts organizations per capita. Those are often the single thing in a community around which the community is built.”
Twelve towns are now officially designated “Creative Communities” and are looked to as models of economic revitalization. Two of these communities are located in Southern Vermont: Bellows Falls and Manchester. Beth Meachem, director of Visitor and Member Services at Manchester Chamber of Commerce and executive director of Greater Manchester Arts Council, said, “I believe that we need to be clear that the creative economy is not just about the arts. It’s about creative thinking and creative problem solving. The arts bring excitement to projects that would otherwise be mundane and unrecognized.”
Manchester is currently working on a “Making It In Vermont” initiative that reaches out not only to traditional artists, but also “artisan cheesemakers and our independent and entrepreneurial businesses to educate them about living and working here,” said Meachem. Bennington is set to host its second Moosefest this summer, a successful initiative linking local businesses that buy a moose sculpture with artists commissioned to paint the sculptures to the full extent of their creative whimsy. The 50-plus sculptures are then strewn publicly throughout town. In the summer of 2005, Moosefest generated over two million dollars in tourist revenue. Bennington Chamber of Commerce Execu-tive Director Joann Erenhouse attests that, “When people see something that’s whimsical, when they see something colorful and attractive that’s out of the ordinary, they’re going to stop and look. It makes your streetscape that much more engaging and possessive of vitality. Therefore you attract more people into that area.”
Can art help smaller villages at risk of deterioration increase quality of life and build tourism? A reversal of economic status through community arts is perhaps most obviously apparent in the formerly derelict
mill town Bellows Falls. Such communities are realizing that power is in numbers, and creativity offers the chance for citizens to amass in numbers unheralded.
Before the founding of Readsboro Arts in 2006 by England-born Debora Coombs, there had never been an arts festival in the town. Now, the annual summer event has helped fund the saving and restoration of the historic Bullock Building in the town center, and local businesses receive a jump-start from the swarm of visitors and residents in an area that “on most weekends is very quiet if not almost deserted,” observed Mary Angus, Readsboro Arts board member.
West Brattleboro has also formed an arts committee, an outgrowth of the wishes of Brattleboro’s Selectboard. Leader Doug Cox explained, “It grew out of an analysis of West Brattleboro’s economy and the kind of town it wanted to be. What we’re doing is not a direct response to the economic downturn; it’s people realizing that we’re moving into a new economic era.
We see that high-quality products that are quite personal — that have soul to them— are going to become more important and will have a higher place in the market.”
The development of a positive future is now seen through the lens of expanding existing resources —resources that are not the traditional foundations of industry, but rather are the more abstract and personal visions of citizens who collaborate on solutions to far-reaching economic issues.
In Vermont, the ingenuity that fueled personal and family subsistence has received a coat of artists’ paint. Or, as Erenhouse described it, “In a tough time like this, you can’t step back—you have to gear up and do more creative projects that are going to bring imagination and hope to your community.”