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VPR's coverage of arts and culture in the region.

'Will The Arts Still Be Here?': NEK Cultural Orgs Concerned About Surviving Pandemic

A crowd standing outside under a blue sky
Catamount Arts, Courtesy
A scene from the Levitt AMP St. Johnsbury Music Series, which Catamount Arts usually puts on but postponed this year due to the coronavirus. Given their social nature, Vermont's rural arts organizations are struggling as revenue streams plummet.

Arts organizations throughout Vermont are concerned about their survival. Perhaps nowhere is the struggle more severe than it is for small arts organizations in rural places, like the Northeast Kingdom. Independent producer Erica Heilman spoke with a couple arts organization leaders there.

In this pandemic, arts organizations were some of the first hit financially, and will be some of the last to recover, given their inherently social nature.?

They were not considered a basic need for meaningful emergency funding. Money from philanthropists went down with the stock market, and sponsorships from local businesses fell away because they had their own problems. And that pretty much covers all the revenue streams for arts organizations.  

So why does this matter? Especially in small rural towns where access to arts is already pretty limited?

"So this is a window to the larger world that is not normally available... I don't think we can overestimate the impact that this type of arts programming has on rural communities." — Jody Fried, Catamount Arts

Here’s Jody Fried, executive director ofCatamount Arts in St. Johnsbury, Vermont:

Jody: “The Northeast Kingdom and the north country of New Hampshire areone of the poorest areasstatistically in the United States. We don’t have a lot of resources, and we have a lot of folks in our area who just don’t have the opportunity to experience the arts the way that folks that are living in more urban or metropolitan settings. Folks that are living on dirt roads in the Northeast Kingdom that are isolated and being bused into school — they don’t have the same opportunities.

“So when they come, they just are critically important. And thinking of our kids, the school-time shows we present, where we’ll bring in artists or live performers to a venue and bus the kids in to see these performers — if they weren’t going to that event, they would never know that existed. They would never have that experience.

“So this is a window to the larger world that is not normally available to them. So I don’t think we can overestimate the impact that this type of arts programming has on rural communities.”

This is Jay Craven, filmmaker and director of the performing arts series, Kingdom County Productions Presents.  

Me: “Given the landscape that we live in here, in what way perhaps are arts particularly important?”  

More from VPR: This Band Plays Live Music, Online, From A Secret Location In The Northeast Kingdom

Jay: “Well I think there aren’t that many moments that we share. There aren’t that many places where we come together, certainly for experiences like this. Young people who can easily say, ‘Hey, this place sucks,’ right? ‘I mean nothing interesting is going on here.’ And then you provide an opportunity.

“I remember going up to a 5-year-old last year when we had the Shanghai Opera Symphony Orchestra performing Dvorak’s New World Symphony, and at the midpoint I went up and said, ‘What do you think?’ And she just said, ‘It’s unbelievable. I’ve never seen anything like this! This is perfect!’ A kid being there with adults having an experience of community that is shared between kids and adults is also so rare, and so the notion that we are providing experience to connect to what is good and what is beautiful as opposed to what is alienating and disconnected.”  

Jody: “You know we have a large concert, all of a sudden the political party and conversations that are raging on Facebook between folks drop away, and people come out and they dance next to each other. You have folks of all different political orientations. You know, you have farmers and mechanics dancing next to lawyers and doctors and school teachers. All of a sudden you have this place where people really feel what community is all about.

“Especially in these rural communities that are isolated by design by ridges, by rivers, by large forests, the arts is a way that it pulls people together across those physical boundaries.”  

"Collective funding is how we build roads. It's how we build schools. It's how we do the things we think are important to do. ...There is a living, breathing connective tissue that the arts make possible that need to be nourished." — Jay Craven, Kingdom County Productions Presents

Me: “In general does Vermont support the arts enough?” 

Jay: “No it doesn’t. One of the things we reflect upon is how fragile this infrastructure of the arts in Vermont is. Arts Council funding is extremely limited. Vermont is ranked like 38th out of the 50 states in terms of its support for the arts. The National Endowment for the Arts funding is 40 cents per capita. Vermont Arts Council support is less than a dollar per capita. We have not received a nickel from the Vermont Arts Council in years.

“And when we have gotten grants, they’ve been $3,000 grants, essentially towards a $300,000 program. So we have an elaborate infrastructure of donors. Diners, gas stations, insurance companies, banks, real estate agents. But at this particular moment, it’s impossible for us to confidently go out and try to wrangle that group of donors whose own businesses have been shut down. Our life’s blood that feeds us is in jeopardy.” 

Jody: “Arts organizations in the Northeast Kingdom are hand-to-mouth. We don’t have large angel donors. We don’t have large endowments. We depend on every penny that comes in. But when we have performances take place and folks come in and spend their money in the town, those small stores, the small restaurants, the gas stations — that injects into the local economy a significant boost that is just not available through other sources.

“And so if you think about the fact that every dollar invested in the arts is then multiplied by all this good will and does all of these other things in communities, if we went to $2 per person, you’re not just doubling, you’re going exponentially in terms of the amount of impact you have. And so this is an opportunity for Vermont right now, with COVID-19, for us to re-think how we value the arts in our community.”  

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Jay: “Collective funding is how we build roads. It’s how we build schools. It’s how we do the things we think are important to do. And we need to move beyond the idea that it’s only bricks and mortar that are worth doing. There is a living, breathing connective tissue that the arts make possible that need to be nourished.

“It’s also a way to keep young people here, to bring young people here. To provide jobs for the next generation of arts leaders in the state. And all of those things are in question. So when the dust settles and the pandemic subsides, what do we want there to be? Will the arts still be here?”  

Since these interviews, the Legislature has allocated$5 million in emergency recovery grants to arts and cultural organizations. But these funds represent only 10% of the losses experienced already by arts and cultural organizations since the beginning of the pandemic.

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Erica Heilman produces a podcast called Rumble Strip. Her shows have aired on NPR’s Day to Day, Hearing Voices, SOUNDPRINT, KCRW’s UnFictional, BBC Podcast Radio Hour, CBC Podcast Playlist and on public radio affiliates across the country. Rumble Strip airs monthly on Vermont Public. She lives in East Calais, Vermont.
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