Artists as Vermonters, Vermonters as artists

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The author’s father, R. Lewis Teague, at work in his Vermont studio in 1959. (Hanson Carroll)

Artists as Vermonters, Vermonters as artists

Growing up in the state in ’50s and ’60s, a third-generation artist saw the inspiration and isolation that Vermont had on her father, a painter. In the intervening years, the environment here has become much more appealing for artists. And artists, in turn, have stimulated the economy and helped create a community.

By Allison Teague

What really is Vermont’s cultural landscape? Is the arts part of it? How are the arts supported, and what role do they play? How is our Vermont economy sustained by the arts?

Or is it?

These questions had one answer while I was growing up here during the ’50s and ’60s, the daughter of an abstract expressionist painter who painted largely in isolation, and largely invisibly.

And they have quite another answer today.

To my great delight, I discovered that Vermont has come to genuinely recognize the role and value of having artists living and working in our communities.

A significant component of the economy of the Vermont is tied, directly or indirectly, to having people practicing creative endeavors in our communities. And those communities, in turn, are increasingly filled with people who appreciate and support artists, creating an incubator and an infrastructure that makes Vermont an engine for the arts in ways that never would have been imaginable 60 years ago.

Making the connections

Advocates like Alex Aldrich, executive director of the Vermont Arts Council, are working at the state and national levels to help policy makers understand the facts and figures of the relationship and role of the arts to a healthy economy.

Aldrich talks from Washington, D.C., where he is lobbying policymakers for this sort of support. He notes that getting communities to see the connections between artists and thriving local economies is at the heart of the revitalization efforts and the creative economy initiatives now going on here.

“Once you begin to understand the social and economic dynamic benefits for communities to thrive in a place [where the arts and artists are seen as assets], you see the other connections,” he says.

These connections, he says, all “affect directly the quality of school and quality of cultural amenities in a place.”

One such connection — educational programs and services — resonates with me.

I think back to the ’60s and ’70s, and remember clearly my father’s involvement with a federal program that took him every couple of weeks to a new one-room schoolhouse, where he would introduce the children there to drawing in charcoal and pastels. No matter how poor the community, how few the supplies, they were always excited to see him when he walked in, he would say.

With his own supplies packed in the back of the Saab at oh-dark-thirty of the appointed day, his own excitement was palpable. This was a different Daddy from the one who spent each day in the studio the rest of the time. Returning in the evening, he would always have a story of one or two children who had been really turned on by something he had showed them that day.

Part of this, I am sure, was that he felt he was participating in his community and sharing what he knew.

But, mostly, it was for the one or two children whose eyes he opened to art each time that he did it.

Aldrich says the lack of art in a community can be reflected in “a failing school system and a significant lack of cultural opportunity… and vice versa. There is a correlation between wealth and a good high school and lots to do artistically and culturally.”

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Robert McBride, founder of the nonprofit Rockingham Arts and Museum Project, stands in front of the Exner Building in Bellows Falls, a building that offers affordable rent to a community of artists. (Allison Teague/The Commons)

 

Historical perspective

In Vermont, “what we have is a very happy circumstance,” Aldrich says, pointing to the influx of two groups: back-to-the-landers who came to the state in the 1970s (like the influx of artists who came to Guilford) and artists looking to leave urban life for an inspirational, quieter setting.

These two groups have woven themselves into a community that “appreciates a quality of life” and maintains “an appreciation of historical preservation,” Aldrich says. And that has created a unique environment — one ripe for a creative approach to community revitalization.

My father moved us from New York City in 1954 to a historic Federal-style house built in 1810 on a dirt road in central Vermont, situated on 175 acres. When he was just 30, polio left him unable to safely negotiate city life, and he and his new bride struck out for Vermont together.

I had my third birthday in our new house, and that winter, I got my first pair of ski boots, poles, and skis. We started settling in to a landscape and rural lifestyle, surrounded on every side by farmers. That life in Vermont has shaped who I am.

But Vermont did not understand art, or artists, as an asset to their lives and communities.

My father missed the cultural mecca that had been his home. He largely worked in isolation, and yearned for more — more connection with other artists, more connection within his community through art, and more friends who would like it enough to come and stay.

In those days, his friends who did visit — composer, writer, and artist John Cage and filmmaker Emile de Antonio, for instance — loved the beauty, the quiet, the slower pace. And he loved the culture they imported from New York, where culture was happening, the culture that they were helping to shape.

My father visited them as well, but he always returned to our home in Vermont and would give a sigh of relief.

“There’s no place more beautiful than here,” he would tell us.

Bringing the arts to Vermont

Starting in the 1980s, Vermonters began to understand that they needed a new approach to their economy, and Aldrich said that one man, Robert McBride, as at the heart of Vermont’s taking a look at a new model for community development. And it all happened in Southern Vermont, in Bellows Falls.

McBride saw Vermont’s culture, communities, and businesses holistically as he started becoming involved in historic preservation and community revitalization, creating a model that other Vermont communities could follow.

Formerly of New York City, McBride fell in love with Bellows Falls, and, in 1981, he ended up buying a house in the mostly-defunct mill town that sits above the Connecticut River that overlooks the historic canal and Green Mountain Rail Depot.

Ten years after moving here, McBride founded the Rockingham Arts and Museum Project (RAMP). Under his leadership, RAMP has preserved and restored the Exner Block on Canal Street into low-income apartments that artists could afford.

RAMP has become a model in the state for partnering the arts and artists as assets, and how doing so can revitalize the larger community and bridge two cultures: dyed-in-the-wool Vermonters and the more recent demographic.

One thing both groups have in common is the decision — the same one he made — to stay.

“Why do we continue to live here? It’s the quality of life,” he says. “We like the people we meet. We like the scale of the community. Living within this [smaller] size of population, you feel like you have the ability to participate. It’s not as easy to feel a bigger connection [in an urban setting].”

Many transplanted artists like the structure of the New England town meeting, McBride also says, noting that the model of government “encourages a feeling of responsibility and participation.”

And if you go off the road in the winter, “someone’s going to come along, pull over in a big truck, hook you up and get you out,” he says — and they won’t ask you to pay them.

The creative economy

McBride sees “creativity in a much broader sense than the arts,” he says.

“We realize creativity is a language that we apply to living our lives, to problem solving,” McBride says. “And the more we can all get in touch with that part of it,” the more community problems can find creative solutions.

“But if you can get creative people around the table and come up with creative solutions, it’s interesting and fun, and everyone is participating [in creating a better community],” he adds.

He describes recent statewide projects and initiatives as “an effort to show the impact that arts and artists have so that people recognize that it’s an economic movement.”

McBride references a quote by Russian writer Viktor Shklovsky: “Art is a way of experiencing the artfulness of an object; the object is not important.”

“Is this a myth of the arts in Vermont?” he asks. “Are the perceptions true or false?”

Indeed, this is how my father saw his life in Vermont — as art, art in rusted tractor wheels, tilting wooden fenceposts, crumbling stone walls, and the ancient sugar maples that lined the property. He taught me to see that the way our neighbors had shaped their lives around the living and landscape, was art.

With this eye, I watched one neighbor milk his cows at night, another neighbor gather sap the old-fashioned way with horses and sled, and another whose living as a logger was coming to a close and who struggled to find another way to bring in income.

Art and economy

A lot has changed in the last half century in the perception of the role of arts in rural and community development. Preserving Vermont’s historic towns and villages has become more important to Vermonters, as has keeping the beauty of its waterways and its mountains. And that, in turn, has helped create a Vermont brand.

When I cross the border into Vermont from Massachusetts, I notice instantly that everything is greener, there are no billboards, and the trash found in almost all other states is absent. I always breathe a sigh of relief. It’s a visceral difference to me.

I know people value Vermont, and it shows. People who care participate in making their communities better. In almost any small town now, the historic buildings are getting fixed up and renovated with support from state grants.

Cultural activities and opportunities have gained traction, and entrepreneurs, businesses, nonprofits, and municipalities are discovering that it is in their mutual interest to explore cultural development in their efforts to bring their communities back to life.

And pilot cities, towns, and villages in the Vermont Council on Rural Development’s Creative Communities Program — including Rutland, Windsor, Bellows Falls, and Manchester — with a little advocacy, education, funding, and other support, are discovering that when there is a vibrant arts community in town, businesses grow up around it, jobs are created attracting entrepreneurs, young people who want to stay or come to the community, and the whole face of the community gets an facelift.

A 2008 Creative Communities 2008 final report highlights just such a transformation of Bellows Falls, from “a dying downtown” to a constellation of “public and private partnerships to take historic preservation around the square and along the river,” resulting in “music and cultural programs to turn the village into a regional market center.”

New businesses sprouted up around “an authentic Main Street [which] not only attract visitors but local residents looking for interaction with their neighbors,” the report says, concluding that the “revitalized life has attracted entrepreneurs who have launched successful, sustainable, and growing businesses.”

In 2011, Vermont became one of 12 states participating in the Cultural Data Project (CDP), begun by the Pew Charitable Trusts in 2004. The Vermont Cultural Data Project will be part of an “emerging national standard for data collection in the arts and cultural sector,” Alex Aldrich says.

While Vermont’s data project is incomplete, Massachusetts has determined that in three years, the state’s revenue from arts and culture was $1.68 billion. That’s a number everyone can sink their teeth into and understand.

Bringing it home

Aldrich emphasizes what is important to Vermonters in the end: connection, connection, connection.

“If an individual artist can’t make a living here, they can still connect to a larger population” beyond its borders using expanding options for technology, he says. Selling their goods online can offer new opportunities for Vermont artists, myself included, who can live here and connect to greater audiences around the world.

Governor Peter Shumlin’s broadband initiative is making it possible for people without computers to connect at their local libraries, many of these patrons using the library’s computers for research as well as communication with clients. Others can work from home and sell online at sites like Etsy.com which sells handmade arts and crafts.

Other artists come and go from Vermont, but like my father visiting New York, they always return.

Aldrich points out artists like musician Grace Potter of the Nocturnals.

“She keeps returning to Vermont to recharge her batteries,” he says. “It’s a place [where she can] go back to get away from this rat race of rock music and write her songs.”

“Vermont may not be a place to make art a living, but without Vermont, [artists] wouldn’t be alive,” Aldrich observes. “And those are perhaps the 18 most important words I’ve ever said.”

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