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The Vermont Arts Council's new leader wants to lift up the 'most creative people in the world'

A man and a child walking out of a colorfully painted Ice Shanty
Vermont Arts Council
An entry for the 2021 Artful Ice Shanties Design-Build Competition held in Brattleboro is pictured. The competition has received grant funding from the Vermont Arts Council.

The Vermont Arts Council was a major advocate for artists and creative institutions during the heart of the pandemic.

The nonprofit doled out millions of dollars in grants and alerted elected officials to the impact that arts-related closures had on communities.

Now, a new executive director will help figure out what’s next for the council.

Susan Evans McClure most recently led the Lake Champlain Maritime Museum in Vergennes. Before that, she was director of programs and audience development at the Smithsonian’s National Museum of American History in Washington D.C.

Vermont Public's Jenn Jarecki sat down with McClure to talk about her new role and vision for the Vermont Arts Council moving forward. Their conversation below has been edited and condensed for clarity.

Jenn Jarecki: To start, Susan, what drew you to this job with the Arts Council?

Portrait photo of Vermont Arts Council executive director Susan Evans McClure smiling outdoors

Susan Evans McClure: Well, this is just such a tremendous opportunity to work and learn from all of the incredible arts organizations, artists, educators who are already working across the state. I'm really excited to be able to take my background in performing arts and arts education and museums, and be able to work across our whole state. Both supporting the amazing people who are doing great work, but also lifting up the creativity of everyday Vermonters. Vermonters are some of the most creative people in the world. I know I'm a little biased about that, but I think Vermonters are incredibly creative. The more we can do to both encourage that creativity and celebrate it — the better it is for all of our communities.

So Susan, the pandemic has slowed down and things in Vermont seem much closer to — and I'm using air quotes here — "normal." And I know you just started work on Monday. But what are your priorities with the Vermont Arts Council now that the creative sector is out of that sort of survival mode?

Well, while the pandemic may be winding down, and it does feel very different than over the past three years, it's still not exactly certain what the future will bring. And a lot of our arts organizations are facing an unknown future. So one of the big priorities of the Arts Council in the coming years will really be to help stabilize and create a sustainable future for all of our artistic communities throughout the state.

I think, of course, the pandemic taught us really the ways in which our communities value our artists and our arts and cultural organizations. We want to make sure that those are solid and steady for the future and are able to weather anything thrown at us in the future. Hopefully, nothing will be thrown at us again like COVID, but we want to be prepared in case there is. So, a lot of our focus will be on continuing to support the arts community and continuing to advocate for funding and support from state, federal and private donors to make that possible.

As we both mentioned earlier, you worked in museums before taking this job. I'm curious, what are some of the ideas or lessons you plan on transferring to this role from those experiences?

Yeah, there's so many overlaps between what I've done in the past and what we're doing here. I think the biggest one is really the focus on access and accessibility. At my time at Lake Champlain Maritime Museum, we got rid of admission fee and really had a big push to make the museum accessible to everyone. That's something that actually the Arts Council has been leading the way on for many, many years — increasing accessibility throughout the state. So, I'm excited to take some of those lessons of increasing access and working directly with community to the Arts Council and across the state. I think our arts organizations are strongest when they are in service to the communities in which they are located, and we have so many great organizations who are already doing that. And I'm excited to continue that work with them.

I'm curious Susan, what kind of art do you produce or engage with in your own spare time? And how do your personal experiences with art inform your work now?

So many years ago, I studied theater and studied musical theater and did a lot of that. I think what I learned in that experience was really some keys to communicating and how to see the world. My academic focus been more in theater and performance theory, so "How is everything that we do performing in some way?" I think that's really informed my work in museums and theaters and art centers. I've been able to look at audiences first. And that's something I hope to continue with the Arts Council — really thinking about the relationship between the organization and the audience.

To me, the best part about art, performance, museums is kind of that magic thing that happens when you bring together an audience, an event — whether that's a performance or a museum exhibit or an art exhibit. And then the space that it happens in, it creates this little triangle of location, content and audience. And the thing that happens in the middle of that triangle, where all of those things mix together and really magic is created — is the space that I love. And I got so excited about. And I think the more we can think about that dynamic between the audience, location and content, the better the work and experience is for the public.

Susan, we interviewed your predecessor, Karen Mittelman, when she stepped down last year. And she said that arts institutions are facing a "financial cliff" whenever federal COVID aid runs out. Can you update us on the current state of arts funding in Vermont, and also share how the Arts Council will help sustain those institutions going forward?

So the reality of the way arts and arts and cultural nonprofits in our state exist is sometimes through admission fees. Sometimes there's tickets. Many times it's donations, state funding, federal funding. And there has been a really dramatic and valuable increase in that during the pandemic. Now that that is winding down, there are some unknowns about the future. And our focus at the Arts Council will really be on how do we stabilize the organizations so that they are able to weather things for the future. That will be through continued advocacy for state and federal funding, working with organizations to make sure they have sustainability plans, working with other areas to make sure that Vermont arts organizations have the staff they need to continue to exist.

Vermont's arts and culture nonprofits are not immune to the challenges facing the rest of the state. But one of the things that's a little different about our field is that we're both impacted by the challenges that the state is facing, but we can also have a hand in solving them. So I want to ensure the work that the arts and our arts community are doing are really part of the solution to the challenges we're facing as a state. You know, if we're going to solve our housing crisis, we need people to design the houses. If we're going to solve our childcare crisis, we really need early childhood educators trained in arts education. We want to revitalize our downtowns — we need artists who live in those spaces. So the challenges that Vermont and Vermonters are facing can be solved when arts and artists have a seat at the table. And that's something that the Vermont Arts Council will continue to advocate for and help make possible across the state.

Lastly, Susan, how do you think the last couple of years have impacted how people perceive the arts in their daily lives? Do you think there's been a change there as we continue to move beyond the pandemic?

Well, I will say that in my former role as a museum director, the day that everything shut down in Vermont, the way I perceived parts organizations dramatically changed. You know, I never thought of my job as a director as anything to do with economic development. But as soon as everything was shut down, I realized that it was my job to make sure 15 people still were employed, because if they didn't work in that museum, they weren't going to be able to pay their mortgage or feed their families. So it really shifted my thinking around the vital role that arts and cultural nonprofits play in our local economies. So I think just the general idea of how arts and cultural organizations fit into our whole economy has changed, and hopefully that will be sustained for the future.

I also think that people, audiences, community members, realized — in challenging circumstances — what makes their communities great and what they don't want to lose. And one of the first things was they realized that they love having a place to go. They love having a place to connect with their neighbors. They love seeing live performance. They love going to museums. And as soon as those things were taken away, it really helped galvanize the community to say, "Hey, we want to support this." And one of our roles as a whole as the Arts Council, but also one of the challenges of the whole field that we'll be supporting — is how do we sustain that support out of crisis? So how do we make sure that we're not just operating from crisis to crisis, but instead, were sustaining our organizations and making sure we tell people what's really valuable about them, so that they continue to support them as they have supported them during the pandemic.

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