A year ago, the Vermont Arts Council published the results of the 2016 Vermonter Poll. The study made clear that art matters to us in our public life, schools, and homes. A full 85% of Vermonters agreed with the statement, “I value the arts as an important element of life in my community.”

We shared this data with Paul Costello, executive director of the Vermont Council on Rural Development since 2000. He said, “This statistic doesn’t surprise me. It mirrors what we hear from Vermonters all around the state. In all the years I’ve been involved in work with Vermont communities, the arts turn up time and time again as key local assets, as a driver for the local brand, and as one of the crucial points of attraction for entrepreneurs, youth and new residents.”

How do words become action? How do we continue to make arts and culture a part of community life?

Not Just Talk

The Vermont Creative Network recently commissioned Claire Wheeler of Montpelier to survey Vermont’s town plans. Her first discovery was that 18 out of 251 towns don’t seem to make the plan publicly available. Claire looked at the remaining 233 for specific references to the arts, culture, creativity, and innovation (ACCI).

  • a total of 104 town plans mention ACCI using either single words or words in conjunction with others (cultural industry, cultural environments, or — popularly — creative economy)
  • close to 10% of Vermont’s town plans have a section or chapter in which some aspect of ACCI plays significantly
  • a total of 93 goals, 82 policies and 164 action steps related to ACCI were identified

This mural made at Burlington City Arts portrays life in the South End.

There are some direct references to the arts in community. West Rutland’s plan links past to present with, “The remains of the once booming quarries have fostered the growth of an arts community focused on marble carving and sculpture. An integration of the recreational facilities in West Rutland … with the historic and cultural resources in town will likely contribute to economic vitality.” Brattleboro’s plan includes a discrete arts and culture section with goals, policies, and actions. Montpelier put forth a lofty vision: “Social systems and human development is about education, recreation, health; it’s about the creativity we express in the world through the arts, music, and cultural pursuits, and the shared sense of community that is so important to our small town life.” Waterbury’s expression was straightforward: “When viewed as a tourist amenity, the arts are clearly an economic driver.”

Ask the Planners

Montpelier’s planning director provided additional information in a phone conversation. A new town plan is being written right now. This one includes a specific master plan for public art. The planning director previously worked in Barre. He referred to the abundance of granite sculptures there — both old and new — and said, “Art can be a celebration of a community; it can express both history and values.” Fifty thousand dollars are being set aside in Montpelier to commission public art. That, and another fifty thousand from an NEA Our Town Grant will support their plan.  A local organization — Langdon Street Alive — just received a grant through the Arts Council’s Animating Infrastructure Grant program to hang a light canopy over the one-block Montpelier street.

Revitalizing Waterbury also received an Animating Infrastructure Grant to commission a mural on a local trestle bridge. Their community planner is thrilled with that and with other public art pieces already in place. Art in State Buildings Grants have supported art at the Public Safety Building and two separate installations made by Sarah-Lee Terrat and Gordon Auchincloss at the rebuilt State Office Complex.

A trestle bridge in Waterbury is art-waiting-to-happen.

Waterbury’s planner talks excitedly about the benefits of the arts. “Economic benefit is certainly important,” he allows, “but all of the arts are enlivening and enriching. They bring community together.” He cites the Waterbury Arts Festival and the River of Light Parade. His words begin to echo the sentiment of the Essex Town Plan, which says, “A sense of community shall be fortified by the expansion of arts and other cultural opportunities.”

Opportunity

Essex Town’s community development director says the effort to move forward with any project has to be organic. “Town plans,” she explains, “are aspirational. The language in a plan can open doors for grant-funded projects.” It is a part of her job, and the job of other planners, to look ahead and to invite opportunity.

How many plans might be used to launch a festival, mural, or sculpture? Are other communities a hot spot waiting to happen? Where might creatives and innovators across the state look for the chance to build something new?

More can be drawn from the town plan study. The Network Steering Team will review and accept the document at a June meeting; a full report will appear with the July edition of Notes From Outside the Box.

Susan McDowell