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Outgoing leader of Vermont Arts Council says arts groups are facing a 'real financial cliff'

After five years as executive director, Karen Mittleman announced that she will leave the position in October to focus on other ventures. The Arts Council presenting the Vermont Arts Awards in Robinson Hall on October 23, 2019.
Todd Balfour - Balfour Studios
After five years as executive director, Karen Mittleman announced that she will leave the position in October to focus on other ventures. The Arts Council presenting the Vermont Arts Awards in Robinson Hall on October 23, 2019.

The Vermont Arts Council is looking for a new leader. After five years as executive director, Karen Mittleman announced that she will leave the position in October to focus on other ventures.

The organization's grant funding for artists has doubled during Mittleman’s tenure, according to numbers from the council. That includes artists and cultural institutions that have struggled during the pandemic. Mittleman also played a key role in securing $9 million in funding from the last round of federal COVID aid.

Vermont Public’s Marlon Hyde spoke with Karen Mittleman about her impending departure. She begins by reflecting on the challenge of keeping the creative sector alive over the last two years. Their conversation below has been edited and condensed for clarity.

Karen Mittleman: The last couple of years have been like a whirlwind for all of us in the creative sector. I think for us — since we're one of the state's lead funders — our first thought was "How do we mobilize to support the field through this crisis?"

And we went into hyperspeed mode. And my staff was amazing; by eight months into the pandemic, we had already given out triple the number of grants that we typically give in a single year. And that pace just kept on accelerating through the next year of the pandemic.

Marlon Hyde: The pandemic has calmed down a bit. The Arts Council seems to be in a good position, with $9 million in new COVID relief funding. So why leave now? 

Well, it's always good to leave on a high note. I think it's a good time to leave. I think a leadership transition at a time of strength is the right thing for the organization. With a really talented staff and an amazing board, and a very strong set of leaders in the creative sector, I think the Arts Council is poised to just get stronger and stronger in the next few years. So it's a good time for a leadership change.

And I think the next director needs to be somebody who wants to come in, and be in it for the long haul. Make a commitment for, you know, eight, nine, 10 years. And that's not me. I'm at a stage of my life when I took this job, I knew that it was going to be a shorter-term gig for me. And I described my role to the board when they hired me as the bridge between a longtime director — who had been executive director for, I think, 20 years — and I was going to be the person who would help move the organization to whatever its next stage of development was going to be.

Has the last couple of years exposed some cracks in the creative arts infrastructure here in Vermont? How does that community become more resilient in the face of other disruptions?

Investment in the arts and culture has been hyperlocal. I mean, Vermont's cultural landscape is amazing. As you know, you can drive around and every single town has an amazing library, a town hall, an opera hall, local jazz ensemble. The arts are just part of the DNA of every town and village across Vermont.

And that's both a strength and a weakness. It's amazing that we have this rich, deep local arts and culture landscape. But we also need a more coordinated approach to investing and sustaining that cultural landscape. So I think action on the state level and collaboration among funders, philanthropists and investors in the future is going to be critical. I think that's one of the cracks that's been exposed.

What's the future of the Vermont Arts Council? 

We are facing a real financial cliff in a couple of years when the American Rescue Plan funds dry up. There may be four or five key factors that every executive director of a business in the creative sector, or arts or culture organization, is staring at right now.

First, federal funds are going to be fully spent by the end of 2023-2024. Second, inflation and increased costs in general — increased labor costs, shipping costs, and materials costs — are putting a heavy burden on a lot of organizations. And they're also causing a drop in donations because donors are seeing what's happening with the stock market, they're watching inflation and they're feeling the effects on their pocketbooks.

There's also renewed uncertainty about COVID, with all the new variants that are emerging. So organizations are going into the coming fiscal year projecting hundreds of thousands of dollars in revenue shortfalls. The [American Rescue Plan Act] funds, the $9 million that we have to give out, and all the other state agency aids coming down the pike for creative sector businesses and organizations will be an amazing stopgap measure there. They're going to be vital funds to get organizations and businesses through the next year. But a 30%, 40% budget gap is just not sustainable as you look beyond 2023.

What do you think will help smooth things over once funds potentially dry up at the end of the 2023-2024 season?

Figuring out how the Arts Council can lead the field and help organizations to come up with a sustainable business model for future survival, and to face all the uncertainties of the future — that's a big job. If Catamount Arts, or the Paramount Theatre or another one of our anchor community arts and cultural organizations fails, the entire downtown fails. All of the ancillary businesses that rely on that theater or museum or historic site or community art center for their business — they'll be struggling too. I know I sound like a broken record, but our communities don't bounce back, and our communities don't thrive in the future, without the arts and culture.

What’s next for you?

For me personally, I'm itching to get back to my writing. And I'm probably planning a move to Pennsylvania to be near my kids and grandkids at some point in the future.

Have questions, comments or tips?Send us a message or get in touch with reporter Marlon Hyde @HydeMarlon.

Marlon Hyde was Vermont Public’s first news fellow, from 2021 to 2023.
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