Inspiring a Creative State
Featured Grantee: “Inside the Paramount”

This video includes closed captioning.

There’s a place in the heart of Vermont that holds the hearts of the community thanks to a talented team that put their hearts into their work and find joy in giving performers and patrons a place to love.

That place is the Paramount Theatre in downtown Rutland.

In 2008, now-Executive Director Bruce Bouchard brought decades of experience in acting, directing, and theatre management to his interview for the position at the nearly 100-year-old venue. Despite that, there was one thing for which he was completely unprepared.

"I walked into this theatre and went, ‘Whoa, whoa, damn.’ And this is my first formal theatre,” Bouchard said. In that moment, he knew he would be accepting the job, packing his bags, leaving New York and moving to Vermont. "When I fall in love with a space I’m sunk."

And the Paramount’s “wow” factor has grown since Bouchard took the helm. “My sense was it was an underutilized asset and I said, ‘Why don’t we take this bad boy and kick it out as far as it can go?’” Bouchard recalled.

Bouchard and Programming Director Eric Mallette are packing the Paramount’s 838 seats thanks to jam-packed seasons featuring numerous big name performers - ones that the audience wants.

"I take direction from the audience,” Mallette said. “Whatever the audience is buying is what we bring."

Paramount Board member Paul Gallo points out that the audiences are showing the Paramount their appreciation financially. “We bumped up from 300 or 400 members up to 850 members,” he said.

They’re also showing their appreciation vocally.

"They usually stand up and whistle and hoot and holler and give everything that appears in this building a standing ovation,” Bouchard said of the audiences. “Now is that critically astute? I don’t know and I don’t care!"

The Paramount reopened in 2000 after a roughly 25-year closure, during which it fell into a state of disrepair. Now, looking as it did in its original glory days - when stars from Harry Houdini to Ethyl Barrymore performed on its stage - the Paramount is entering a new age and expanding into the building next door. The soon-to-be multi-use performance space will be shared with Castleton State College. All of this renewed energy at the Paramount is infectious.

"The biggest compliment to me, and the one I like to share the most with our audiences, is what the artists say about them, and that is ‘I had just as much fun as they did,’” Mallette said.

"Now the people who didn’t want to take our phone calls before are calling us up to see if their artists can play our hall,” Bouchard said.

Bouchard says it’s easy to prove the Paramount’s legitimacy to big name stars when you have the numbers to back it up, and generous sponsors are leading the Paramount to what could be its best year yet. The running number is $192,000 simply for show sponsorships.

A recent benchmark study by the Vermont Department of Tourism and Marketing found that domestic day visitors bring at least $70 per person per day into a region’s economy. Tom Donahue, who heads the Rutland Region Chamber of Commerce, says the Paramount draws a steady stream of visitors to the area and ensures that the cash keeps flowing in.

"If you have an 850 seat theatre that’s full oftentimes for these events, that’s dropping $60,000 a night into your region, not counting the cost of the ticket. That’s just what’s spent locally the night of the performance or the day of the performance,” Donahue explained. "So you multiply that out by hundreds of performances and you’re talking millions and millions of dollars dropped into the economy locally, just from that one facility alone, per year."

But the Paramount is much more than an economic driver. It’s a living piece of Rutland history. “Just a month ago, we had a dance recital in here that my daughter was a participant of and she had a solo,” Gallo said. “And as a young boy I came into this theatre with my older brother and my father, a first generation Italian American, to see The Godfather.”

Mallette often thinks about the number of performers and patrons who have stood on the stage, sat in the seats, and enjoyed themselves in the space. “That stupid line, ‘If walls could talk…’ Can you imagine? These walls would scream.”

Bouchard knows that keeping the century-old theatre alive and thriving is a job that will never end.

"If you do get in this game, it’s not the place to sit back and be timid or rest on your laurels,” he said. “You always have to be reinventing yourself.”

Luckily for the Paramount - and Rutland - it’s exactly what he wants to do.

"A life in the arts,” he said, smiling. “What a lucky person am I."

The Paramount Theatre is the recipient of an FY2012 Arts Partnership Grant.

Imagination and Democracy: A Utopian Vision for Arts Education

“It’s not just that beauty is neutral with respect to justice. Beauty is, actually, very much leading us to justice… Plato was right; beauty is a call on us to create something better”
– Elaine Scarry

This is a story about how my understanding about the importance of arts in education has shifted over the last decade—from arguments about the intrinsic versus extrinsic merits of the arts to claims that arts participation increases test scores, literacy, reading comprehension, to theories of transfer to other subjects and, of course the argument advocating for art for art’s sake—I’ve advocated from many of these positions in various conversations and for a variety of audiences and stakeholders.

Over time, however, my focus began to shift from an arts-education centric mode as I became more immersed in the history and philosophy of education, foundational work around learning theories and education reform initiatives, from instructional strategies to loftier visions of what it means to be educated in this state, and in this country at this present time.

This shift has had the effect of lifting the veil of perceived neutrality from my worldview—particularly with regard to education. I have been influenced by educational thinkers such as Paolo Friere, Joan Wink and Parker Palmer—among others—to see education as both inherently political and radically about love—far from the technocratic, “objective” dialogues that are taking place in high-level education circles today. I discovered mentor texts that spoke of a view of education where the arts are valued because students’ authentic lives and experiences are valued and art-making is an inherently human way to express what it means to be alive and connected in ways that no other mode of communication can fully match.

How could the arts be seen as a nice but nonessential frill in schools where we purport to be charged with the development of citizens? How could those of us charged with advocating for arts experiences for all students be content with idea of “arts enrichment” and the afterthought mentality that comes along with that label? How can we abide “arts specials,” during which “academic” subject area teachers share common planning time, excluding the arts from the larger conversation about what and how to teach our students? How do the arts allow themselves to be relegated to before- and after-school programming—drummed out of the legitimate school day and serving only the self-selected? How could we not understand our own power and place in teaching students to perceive the world—not just as it is—but as it might be?

These days, I am delving into concepts related to imagination and democracy in our public schools, tied in large part to the important work done by Maxine Greene at the Lincoln Center Institute (LCI) This work has directly informed and shaped the education programs at the Flynn Center, where I now work, from their inception. LCI has a clear scope that focuses on providing aesthetic experience in public schools with an explicit purpose of fostering a more socially just, critically engaged democracy. It is heady and inspiring stuff.

When Sir Ken Robinson came to speak at the University of Vermont last year for the Rowland Foundation’s Conference on High School Transformation, he declared that we were living in truly revolutionary times. I most sincerely hope he is right. The current educational course our nation is pursuing is untenable and downright unacceptable. To maintain a single-minded focus on educational outcomes that can be reduced to test scores that look at how well a student can internalize the accepted cultural assumptions about knowledge and intelligence for economic ends without regard for civic or environmental responsibility is unconscionable.

On the one-year anniversary of Occupy Wall Street, with Chicago’s public school teachers in their second week of strikes and another presidential election looming, I hope that more Vermonters actively engage in education conversations that question why we structure teaching and learning the way we do; why teachers are not given more support to creatively innovate and custom-tailor their curriculums to their particular students; and why students today are trained to learn specific ideas, but not taught how to participate in a democratic society—or explore the legacy that explains why participation matters in the first place.

Achievement, Accountability, and Academic Rigor have a place in the conversation, clearly, but they ought not be the sole gatekeepers for educational experience unless what we hope for our children can be relegated to a scope so small and uninspiring. I am hopeful that creative and independent-thinking Vermonters can continue to carve a path through the unmitigated madness that is the current national debate in education to envision a better future for our children through conversations about the role of imagination in learning, of learning to see a better future and learning that we are actively creating our world through the choices we make, with implications for ourselves, our neighbors and our planet.

The arts might be one of the few tools powerful enough to help shift our education paradigm and lead the way to a collective future we hope may exist for our children.

Stacy Raphael is the former Education and Community Programs Manager at the Vermont Arts Council, now Associate Director for School Programs at the Flynn Center for the Performing Arts in Burlington. Follow Stacy on Twitter! @sraphael

The ‘Aegean Trio’ Moves to Vermont

Early this summer our development office received a call from the Vermont Arts Council that a couple in Massachusetts was looking to make a gift of a suite of three outdoor pieces of art to a college in Vermont. Carolann and George Najarian — donors and art collectors — chose Johnson State College based on what they had learned of us through our website. The piece called Aegean Trio was created by the late Vermont sculptor Judith Brown. This all felt like a gift from the deities. Colleges are often fortunate to receive gifts; usually they come from old friends and alumni; this gift came to us from people we did not know, people who had chosen us because they intuited that our priorities and commitments as a college, the values we place on art as a means of building and sustaining community, aligned with what they, too, believe about the role of art and artists.

When we received news of this gift — and more so when I met the Najarians at Johnson State College and celebrated our gift with them — I was reminded of a text I read in graduate school. Lewis Hyde’s The Gift was written in 1983 and reissued in 2008 on its twenty-fifth anniversary. The author’s central assumption is that inspiration arrives for an artist the way a gift does — unbidden and often unexpected — and is not easily at home in a market economy. Market economies depend on sales and the use of currency. A work of art, Hyde posits, because it is essentially a gift, thrives on being shared. Hyde’s is an argument for keeping art in the public sphere. For our college, then, this is a double-gift: a freely given and unsolicited present as well as a work of art — an object lesson in Hyde’s theory.

We were nervous about whether Carolann and George would like the place we had chosen to install Aegean Trio. Our coordinator of arts on campus, Leila Bandar, considered several sites and ultimately recommended one that features the Trio near but apart from a building and looking toward a pond and the Sterling Mountain Range. As important, the placement fronts on a walking path and is within sight of another large-scale outdoor work. In support of the notion that we are only a small number of degrees away from each other, the Najarians, as it turned out, used to go for dinner and music at a Mideastern restaurant in Cambridge, Mass. The owner-chef is our arts coordinator’s father. So, we marked the arrival of the Aegean Trio and the Najarians — and their extended family — with dancing, Mideastern food and a very grateful art faculty who already look forward to bringing their students to observe and study this new addition to our art on campus.

Carolann and George, it turns out, love the Trio’s new home. They believe it needs the space it has now to be fully realized. Lewis Hyde thought of that, too. “The finished gift,” he wrote, “must be more than what was received.”

Our legal counsel was on campus this past week. He remarked — following a decidedly non-arts-focused meeting — “I love this campus; there is art everywhere.” Everywhere is probably overstating it; but we have made it a vital part of our college to see plain old hallways as gallery space, to showcase art from new or visiting artists, to include gallery talks — by student artists as well as more accomplished artists — as among the experiences that make up students’ educations.

For us, art is not ‘just a department’ or a set of courses, though art courses are routinely over-subscribed no matter what a student’s major. Art is a vehicle that reminds us that we share the earth and our histories over time and with a lot of other people. Because we cannot always remember or find the words of expression, we need to represent what we see and live. Those representations are the art we make and study and they underscore that our lives are not only private experiences; we hold more in common than what each of us lives individually. 

Not everyone will like Judith Brown’s Aegean Trio. One can argue that the medium — old scrap metal — fights with the classic figures that are portrayed. Others will argue that this tension makes the work successful. The characters depicted here — and in much of Brown’s work — are headless. What does that tell us about what she thinks of her (often) female figures? But, these are questions worth asking and arguing about. Shared art gives us something large and outside each of us to think about, to disagree about, to use as our own inspiration, to learn from, to send us back to the studio or on to a new museum.

It is this ability to provide common ground, to serve as a force large enough to hold our perceptions and divergent criticisms as well as our appreciations that makes the Aegean Trio a work of art and, truly, a gift.

Thank you to this week’s quest blogger, Barbara Murphy. Murphy is the President of Johnson State College in Johnson, VT. Also thank you to Glenn Callahan for the photographs.

Prison Partnership Puts Poetry Out Loud in Jail

“’Hope’ is the thing with feathers -
That perches in the soul -
And sings the tune without the words -
And never stops - at all –“

John paused, looking upward to retrieve Emily Dickenson’s final stanzas:

“And sweetest - in the Gale - is heard -
And sore must be the storm -
That could abash the little Bird
That kept so many warm –

“I’ve heard it in the chillest land -
And on the strangest Sea -
Yet - never - in Extremity,
It asked a crumb - of me.”

The small crowd burst into appreciative applause as a mixture of pride and relief passed over John’s face. He had picked a short but deceptively complex poem and it was clear that it meant something to him, too.

He and a dozen other inmates at the Northeast Regional Correctional Facility (NERCF) in St. Johnsbury had spent the last of couple of weeks preparing for this presentation, working closely with their instructors, Pauline Dwyer and Bill Storz of Community High School of Vermont (CHSVT), under the direction of Poetry Out Loud guest artist, Morgan Irons as part of the second annual Vermont Arts Council Poetry Out Loud partnership with CHSVT.

As we sat in the Learning Center, surrounded by floor-to-ceiling bookshelves, we were treated to poems by Walt Whitman, Robert Frost, Theodore Roethke, William Carlos Williams and W.H. Auden—among others. One student had introduced the group to poetry by science fiction poet Robert Frazier; another had prepared The Crocodile’s Toothache by Shel Silverstein along with a reading of Song for Celia by Ben Jonson.

The event was a low-key affair, with programs and posters printed up and homemade cookies and milk at the reception that followed—a notable contrast to the statewide event with nearly three dozen participating high schools that took place at the Barre Opera House in late March—but for those thirteen men, it was an experience that transformed their views about poetry and about themselves.

We had the opportunity to sit together after the presentation and the men talked to me about what the experience had meant to them. Walter talked about discovering that his poem When You are Old by William Butler Yeats had ultimately chosen him and connected him to emotions around his mother’s ongoing struggle with terminal pancreatic cancer; Joel talked about his passion for civil rights issues that had brought him to Dudley Randall’s Ballad of Birmingham, and how powerful an experience it was to embody that language and know it by heart. John said that at first he was embarrassed that other inmates would see him carrying around his Poetry Out Loud anthology and make fun of him—instead, they flocked around him at meal times and took turns flipping through it and picking out poems they liked, too.

They all nodded in agreement that less than half of them joined the class voluntarily—more than a few were skeptical that poetry would be of any use to them. But with heartfelt conviction, they answered that they would all jump at the chance to work with Morgan again and learn more poetry by heart. They expressed, one by one, their gratitude that the Vermont Arts Council—in partnership with the National Endowment for the Arts and the Poetry Foundation—supported this program.

And with that, our second annual Community High School Poetry Out Loud program came to an end. I have my sights set on expansion, however. This year’s students responded enthusiastically when I suggested we run the program in multiple Vermont prison sites and, through the closed-circuit television system, conduct a friendly poetry recitation competition between sites and crown a CHSVT Poetry Out Loud champion (as they are unable to compete at our state event for obvious reasons). We’ll have to chase down some funding for that…

As I drove away from the prison, I thought about Emily Dickenson’s “thing with feathers,” and was reminded of Maya Angelou’s own aviary allusion:

The caged bird sings   
with a fearful trill   
of things unknown   
but longed for still   
and his tune is heard   
on the distant hill   
for the caged bird   
sings of freedom.

Blog written by Stacy Raphael, our Education and Community Programs Manager

Keeping up with the Bellamys

The actor Ralph Bellamy had a long and distinguished career. In 1921, at the age of 16 and having been expelled from school for smoking, he ran away from home to join William Owen’s company of traveling Shakespearean Players. By the end of a lean and itinerant decade, he had made his debut on Broadway and, two years after that, his first screen appearance in a now forgotten picture called THE SECRET SIX, which also happened to feature a rising star by the name of Jean Harlow. Harlow — the original “blonde bombshell” — was dead at 26; Bellamy showed signs of going on forever. Like so many many actors — like so many artists — Bellamy never retired. (An argument, I would suggest FOR, rather than against, a career in the arts.) He was a familiar face on American television until the late 1980s. One of his most memorable appearances in later years was in LA LAW as a once brilliant lawyer whose mind is beginning to fade. His final movie appearance was in PRETTY WOMAN which came out in 1990. He died in 1991. He was 87.

Throughout his long career (since almost the dawn of “talkies”), Bellamy found ways to serve his profession. He was a founding member of SAG, the Screen Actors Guild, and served on its first Board of Directors. He was president of Actors’ Equity for 12 years. During the McCarthy era many of those who were blacklisted in Hollywood found work in the New York theater. Bellamy was instrumental in creating the system that allowed this to happen: by helping to devise ground rules to protect members against unproven charges of Communist Party membership or sympathy.

But Bellamy’s most singular contribution — and I can think of no other actor for whom this is true — is that he gave his name to a PLOT DEVICE. To this day, in a Romantic Comedy, a BELLAMY is the Other Guy (or indeed, the Other Woman). He, or she, is the prime rejected suitor of choice; in horticultural terms, the hardy perennial that will probably survive uncomplainingly in total and arid shade but whose flowers, if ever they should appear, would be small, probably brown, and utterly devoid of scent. The BELLAMY is the earnest, stodgy character that the guy or the girl nearly marries but who — by the gods of story — is destined to be left, dumped, deserted, abandoned, thrown over when the charming but unreliable lead (see Grant, Cary or Hugh) realizes his mistake and stakes his claim. As writer Billy Mernit has pointed out, the BELLAMY has a dual function: by presenting a conceivable alternative to the romantic antagonist (and thus impeding the central romance) the Bellamy helps to define who the protagonist is and who he is not.

Bellamys are paradoxes. They are at once expendable and indispensable. They are the core, the sine qua non, the supporting character without whom there would be no story. To borrow a famous line from Thelonious Monk, whose views on RomComs must remain largely conjecture, for all their outward conventionality, the Bellamy is the “inside” of the tune: “the part that makes the outside sound good.”  Because Ralph Bellamy performed this thankless task so impeccably, essentially patenting the type, what better way to be remembered?

Many thanks to Donald Rae, our guest blogger for the week: Donald Rae is the Executive Director of Focus on Film, the organization that presents the annual Green Mountain Film Festival. He teaches screenwriting at Burlington College, Vermont.

"Engage" with VSA Arts

Painting by Steve Chase“Welcome to VSA Vermont’s audio tour of the Engage exhibition.  Here language leads to midnight blue, an iridescent orb of misty light, crinkly stems, a downcast eye, clarity and intensity of pigment, the play of light and shadow, the imprecise edges of a forest, vertical strokes like blades of grass, delicate points, angular edges, undulating arms, geometric shapes, panes of color thick and rich, a sense of aliveness like the swarming of a hive.  Here you can listen to all the artist statements and to descriptions of 22 works of art.”

VSA Vermont’s Engage exhibition opens February 26 at the Amy E. Tarrant Gallery of the Flynn Center for the Performing Arts.  Engage features the juried artwork of 35 Vermont artists with disabilities.   

Here’s what you won’t find at Engage:  disability on display.  Here’s what you will find:  skilled, varied artwork, information in formats that that delight the senses, like print that’s large enough to read from the back of a crowd, things to listen to, things to touch, to read, to talk about.  Engage is designed to welcome visitors with and without disabilities, together, in the experience of art.

Participating in Engage is a paradox for artists who have disabilities.  Artists want to be recognized for their artwork, period.  So, why participate in an exhibition featuring artists with disabilities?  I’ve been talking to people I meet around town about Engage, showing images whenever I can.  Way too often, people are surprised that the artwork is so good.  That’s why I want to be doing this, to change minds, to raise expectations, to create conditions within the arts that are conducive to pride.  As Engage artist Gwendolyn Evans says, “It’s time to recognize artists with disabilities in a conversation that moves beyond our disabilities.”

I don’t mean to disparage people who are surprised.  We’re all learning together.  It was news to me when I began this project to hear the varied reasons why people who have blindness or low vision might want to attend an art exhibition.  In case it’s news to you, too, sighted artists can develop blindness and feel a thirst for sophisticated conversations about art.  People with blindness can become artists, can sculpt or paint with texture, sometimes remembering and crafting color.  People with blindness have children, friends and lovers who go to galleries, and who wouldn’t want to share important events with loved ones?  Come to the exhibition and see how inclusive practices enrich your own experience. And then let me know.  I’m dying to hear what you will think.

Join us for the Engage opening reception from 4:00 – 6:00 p.m. on February 26 at the Amy E. Tarrant Gallery of the Flynn Center.  Stay for a FlynnSpace performance from 6:30 – 8:00 p.m. by Vermont performers with disabilities, including storyteller, Rene Pellerin, dancer Lida Winfield, pianist Michael Arnowitt, poet Eli Clare and VSA Vermont’s Awareness Theater Company.  The Engage exhibition will remain at the Amy E. Tarrant Gallery through April.  For more information see:www.vsavt.org/engage

Many thanks to Judy Chalmer of VSA Arts for this week’s guest blog.

Inside Out, Through and Through

I hear the word community A LOT. I use the word a lot. This word so peppers my life that I started to think I should know exactly what it means.  As it turns out, it means a lot of things.

From dictionary.com:

  1. a social group of any size whose members reside in a specific locality, share government, and often have a common cultural and historical heritage.
  2. a locality inhabited by such a group.
  3. a social, religious, occupational, or other group sharing common characteristics or interests and perceived or perceiving itself as distinct in some respect from the larger society within which it exists (usually preceded by the): the business community; the community of scholars.
  4. a group of associated nations sharing common interests or a common heritage: the community of Western Europe.
  5. Ecclesiastical. a group of men or women leading a common life according to a rule. 

The ones I dig the most are 3 and 5. I think it’s important for people to find and know their own communities.  I’m happily a part of the arts community, and greatly appreciate the effect of art on localities and people.

Recent editions of ArtMail have featured stories about two separate grant-funded projects, each planned to be held in villages hit hard by Hurricane Irene (Waterbury-Duxbury School District and Chandler Center for the Arts). They are touching stories.  They involved people who had to decide if a festival should be held despite flood damage. They involved citizens who decided to set aside their pain and tumult to connect with joy and their fellows. The participants were deeply moved by the celebrations, and by the art at the center the activities.

Community seems to be a natural by-product of art. Is every artist who shares their work automatically a community builder? Every exhibit, concert, reading, and showing creates a group of people who will share in the experience. So, what is the role of the artist in a community? Lastly, how do we feel about the idea that “…the true task of the artist is to discover her or his relationship to a community, a community often in desperate need of the artist’s power to see the world anew.” (Historian Page Smith, from the foreword to Art in Other Places: Artists at Work in America’s Community and Social Institutions, an interesting-looking book available here.

The Arts Council is “working to advance and preserve the arts at the center of Vermont communities.” If we are finding a way to fund art and artists, it seems we can’t miss. Is it that simple?

Thanks to Susan McDowell, our Program Coordinator for writing this week’s blog.

Creative Placemaking — Making future treasures

I recently read a white paper on Creative Placemaking, written by Ann Markusen of Markusen Economic Research Services and Anne Dadwa of Metris Arts Consulting and published for the Mayors’ Institute on City Design, a leadership initiative of the National Endowment for the Arts in partnership with the United States Conference of Mayors and American Architectural Foundation.  “Creative Placemaking serves livability, diversity, and economic development goals. In Creative Placemaking, partners from public, private, non-profit, and community sectors strategically shape the physical and social character of a neighborhood, town, city or region around arts and cultural activities.  Creative Placemaking animates public and private spaces, rejuvenates structures and streetscapes, improves local business viability and public safety, and brings diverse people together to celebrate, inspire and be inspired.”

In the white paper there are a number of examples and case studies demonstrating how Creative Placemaking has made a difference in communities across the country.   I’m proud to say that there are many examples of Creative Placemaking right here in Vermont.  From the Orton Family Foundation’s Art and Soul initiative in the Town of Starksboro to the Town of Brattleboro’s Arts Committee, we can see the power of the arts at work in building Vermont communities.   In addition, a few weeks ago I attended the annual Fall Conference of the Vermont Planners Association in Newport Vermont where they highlighted Vermont’s new Complete Streets legislation. This legislation strives to make communities more walkable and liveable for all users.   Years ago the Vermont Arts Council began a collaborative project with the VT Agency of Transportation and the Town of Danville to envision the re-development and re-design of Route 2 through the village of Danville.  This collaboration used the concept of “context sensitive design” (similar to complete streets) and engaged artists in community planning.  By engaging artists in the community design process, the partners worked together to develop a plan that would enhance the essence of a small, close-knit rural community by providing a safe, attractive and comfortable pedestrian environment in the Village that celebrates its unique historic, built and natural features.  This project is now under construction and within the next year or two the community will see its vision come to life. 

I encourage all of us to think beyond the ordinary as Vermont faces the need to rebuild much or its aging or Irene-damaged infrastructure.   Many people felt a collective sense of shock and sadness at the loss of a number of Vermont’s covered bridges.  These treasured landmarks represented a deep connection to our place and history and let’s not forget - were a significant tourist attraction. We have an opportunity to rebuild the next generation of infrastructure with the same sense of pride and connection to place.  As communities envision new roads, bridges, buildings and community spaces, the principals of Creative Placemaking should play a key role.   Let’s make Vermont a destination, not only for its vast and diverse arts and cultural activities, but also for its wonderfully unique and special “treasured” landmarks that reflect the spirit of Vermont’s creative community.

This week’s blog was written by Program Director, Michele Bailey

Data and Essence and Art – oh, my!

There’s a certain give-up phrase we’ve all had to use when our story just isn’t making it. Maybe we start with the data (there were about thirty people standing on this carpet in the middle of a big room), throw in the essence (and what was funny and a little bit ironic is that he had just said…), then, realizing we’re somehow falling short, we dismiss the whole thing by saying “I guess you just had to be there…”

As the National Endowment for the Arts looks at the tools they use for evaluating the impact of grants, the Arts Council is compiling the information from our grantees and wrapping up our own summation for the last fiscal year. The Council is also putting together the Annual Report and continuing the process of strategic planning. In all of this, we are mindful of the importance of the arts in our lives and in our communities. There is always the question of how to tell the story, and this is important in our advocacy efforts. We make the case for continued funding over and over again.

I collect and organize data from our grantees, some of the data actually coded. For example, if someone has created a work of art they were funded for activity 04. If that work of art was a stone sculpture, they were working in discipline 05F. In the required final reports, we’ll find out how many people interacted with the project, separating out the number of youth. We also gather financial numbers: expenses, income and in-kind contributions. The accounting also includes fees paid to artists. The NEA and the Council refer to these as impact numbers. The numbers will have a huge range, like this:

Artist Residency outside of school (grant $1,500)

  • Individuals benefiting: 250
  • Youth: 104
  • Artists Involved: 5
  • Expenses: $2,950
  • In-Kind Contributions: $300

Music festival (grant $5,000)

  • Individuals benefiting: $50,000
  • Youth: 6,603
  • Artists Involved: 879
  • Expenses: $619,631
  • In-Kind Contributions: $315,923

What conclusions can be made from sheer numbers?

We also try to get at the essence of projects by asking open-ended narrative questions. We dig even further into some projects, producing profiles of our grantees

In that process of digging further, I was moved by the story of a residency that took place at the Highgate Apartment complex, and amazed by a writing circle held first at Northwest State Correctional Facility then in the Chittenden Regional Correctional Facility. (This week’s profile is about Writing Inside, a program for incarcerated women.) In both cases the number of people actually involved was relatively low; but these were important projects. An artist development grant is important, also, often reported with only 1 individual benefiting and 0 youth. Consider what that benefit is, though, to the professional artist who acquires a new skill or increases the effectiveness of their marketing effort.

Can the depth of impact be summed up? What do we look for and where do we look? Is there a measurement tool for something that might change the course of someone’s career, or other life circumstance? Is there a method to weigh a catalyst that helps a person re-think the circumstances around something as dramatic as their own incarceration? If there is, what does that tool or method look like?

Sarah Bartlett, from Women Writing for (a) Change offers these ideas:

There are at least three measures of impact I would offer as evidence of the power of our process: one is that the same women return week after week, drawn to the extraordinary opportunity to delve within, to learn from their past, to help envision and ultimately forge a future that follows different steps. A second is their complete reverence, even protectiveness, of the processes and purposes of the circle, manifest in how they approach those there only for handouts; manifest, too, in the weekly written comments in which they share their gratitude for this writing opportunity. Third is the fact that a number of the more dedicated writers continue to keep in touch once they are out – some seeking input on college applications; or feedback on a creative piece they wish to give as a gift…

We have learned, in the course of two years, that the creative outlet we provide grants them a safe vehicle for exploring what might otherwise remain hidden, frightening or inaccessible. By writing to images created by another, for instance, women can express the forbidden in the form of a response to the artwork. By creating their own art, they can reflect on what they see and find deeper meaning to their lives, their purpose, their fundamental values and beliefs.

Sarah’s ideas aren’t vastly different from these from Animating Democracy.

I have enormous respect for artists, and know that creativity is magic in its ability to connect, transform, heal, and teach. Music (discipline 02) is an important part of my life and is the art form that most occupies my soul. I still enjoy spending time making music and preparing for the occasional concert/performance/reading (activity 05) because I’m still learning from doing so. I really don’t know, though, how the impact of art can be measured. We can’t say “I guess you just had to be there.” Any ideas?

This week’s blog was written by Susan McDowell our Grant Program Assistant

A photo to accompany this week’s blog post by Susan McDowell.  Image courtesy of Women Writing for (a) Change.

A photo to accompany this week’s blog post by Susan McDowell.  Image courtesy of Women Writing for (a) Change.