Will the Vermont Arts Council become relevant?

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By Jim Lowe
The Lowe Down

My first Lowe Down column, in the May 7, 2014, Times Argus and Rutland Herald, suggested that the Vermont Arts Council had become largely irrelevant to the state’s arts community. Since then, much has happened — yet with few tangible results.

With the promise of new management, will the council become a vital part of the Vermont arts scene?

The VAC (then called the Vermont Council on the Arts) was founded in 1965 largely to distribute funding from the newly founded National Endowment of the Arts. And this, adding funding from the state, is still largely what it does.

During the last couple of years, there has been a bit more noise at the VAC, notably the Vermont Creative Network. It has been bringing together creative types and organizations — not just arts — regionally throughout the state. Laudable, but for what, we’re still not quite sure.

The big change was the VAC’s executive director of more than 20 years, Alex Aldrich, stepping down in April, leading to the current search for his replacement. Will this bring about an end to the many years of creative stagnation?

A recent announcement about a 2018-20 strategic plan doesn’t lead to much optimism. “The board has adopted a set of values, a vision statement, and four goals to frame the new plan,” the announcement said. Those exceedingly nebulous “strategic goals” — pretty much bureaucratese for nothing — are:

1. Arts, culture, creativity and innovation play a significant role in shaping Vermont’s identity.

Yeah, so what? How does that translate to action?

2. Arts, culture, creativity and artistic literacy play a significant role in providing a well-rounded education to Vermont’s youth.

Arts education is one area where the VAC has proven both effective and important. And I’m expecting they can do even better.

3. Arts, culture, creativity and innovation play a significant role in shaping Vermont’s communities.

I think this is about the Vermont Creative Network. But doesn’t the VAC receive its funding to support the arts?

4. The Vermont Arts Council is structurally sound and financially sustainable.

There obviously can be no argument about this, though it is wise to continuously revisit structure and finances.

I have great respect for the staff of the VAC, most of whom I know personally, some for decades. I don’t take anything away from their hard work and passion for the arts. But they have long suffered from a lack of imaginative leadership. In fact, their own attempts at innovation have reportedly been stifled.

The arts in Vermont need substantial help, not lip service or feel-good programs. If it is to continue to be funded, the Vermont Arts Council must be relevant to Vermont arts. The state’s arts scene is a burgeoning and exciting one, yet it is extremely fragile. Fine artists are barely cobbling together a living — or not — creating much of what makes Vermont wonderful. Arts organizations struggle against financial odds to bring beauty to Vermonters. And schools are often stymied in bringing this creativity to our children.

With every move it makes, the Vermont Arts Council needs to ask itself: Is this the best way we can help the arts in Vermont?