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

Vermont Music And Theater Promoters Hope Coronavirus Aid Can Bring Live Arts Back

An empty stage and auditoirium with wood floors
Howard Weiss-Tisman
The Stone Church, in Brattleboro, has not had live music since the pandemic hit in the spring. Stone Church owner Robin Johnson worked with a national lobbying group to help advocate for the Save Our Stages Act.

The COVID relief package that President Trump signed this weekendincludes $15 billion for live music and theater venues. The news means some of the people who run bars, theaters and music halls across Vermont have a new source of hope that they will eventually be able to reopen.Like a lot of arts organizations around the state Next Stage Arts Project in Putney tried hosting virtual events during the pandemic.

Next Stage executive director Keith And Marks says that while people were thankful for the connection, there’s no substitute for being in an audience and experiencing live music or theater in-person, with others.

“Live arts — the living arts — have been absent from people’s lives,” Marks said. “And I think that has been the realization: that the vitality and sense of connectivity that we are able to experience collectively is missing when we are not able to gather. And I think that we are more connected to one another than we previously thought.”

"Live arts — the living arts, have been absent from people's lives. And I think that has been the realization: that the vitality and sense of connectivity that we are able to experience collectively is missing when we are not able to gather." — Keith Marks, Next Stage Arts Project

Next Stage moved into an historic church in Putney about ten years ago. Even after they renovated the building and put in a state-of-the-art theater, they kept the church bell up in the old church tower.

Marks said they started ringing the bell back in the spring, when people around the world were out banging pots and singing to honor health care workers.

And as the pandemic wore on and on, they kept ringing it — every night, at 8 p.m.

A man in dark clothing leans against a white counter
Credit Howard Weiss-Tisman / VPR
Next Stage Arts Project director Keith Marks stands in the lobby of the company theater in Putney.

“The bell is an auditory reminder for the community that we’re here and we’re here to serve them, and we are a beacon of light during this time,” he said.

The performing arts were not eligible for most funding in the original stimulus bill in March.

Arts venues across the state are hoping this new round of funding will allow them to survive while they continue experimenting with virtual performances.

This year, Higher Ground partnered with the Department of Tourism and Marketing to offer a series of concerts with high profile artists like Neko Case and Grace Potter.

Burlington's Flynn Center recently announced it has hired a new director — even after laying off about one-third of its staff earlier this year.

Vermont Congressman Peter Welch introduced the Save Our Stages Act in the U.S. House.

Welch said the money will hopefully allow these arts organizations to survive, and get ready for when we all can return to attending live performances.

“All of those wonderful organizations and small businesses, nonprofits — all of those ones that we have in Barre, that we have in White River Junction, that we have in Burlington, we have in Rutland, [like the] Paramount Theater — we need those to be there when we get to other side,” Welch said. “Because they are so essential to the quality of local community life.”

A spokesman for Congressman Welch said the program will be run by the Small Business Administration. He said details about how the money will be dispersed — and when — are still being worked out.

"We are, like, the worst business model for the pandemic. You're talking about pulling people in from far away, sticking them in a small room together, and getting sweaty and close. So, we shouldn't be open now." - Robin Johnson, Stone Church

Robin Johnson owns The Stone Church in Brattleboro, and during a normal week, he might have a punk band, a heavy metal act and then a bluegrass outifit, each filling his hall with enthusiastic listeners.
Johnson did some work for the nationwide group that lobbied Congress to support the Save Our Stages Act, and he said music venues like his will be among the last businesses that will be allowed to reopen .

“We are, like, the worst business model for the pandemic,” Johnson said. “You’re talking about pulling people in from far away, sticking them in a small room together, and getting sweaty and close. So, we shouldn’t be open now. And it was our argument that we’ll do our part and stay closed, and the government does its part and help us to stay solvent while we have to stay closed.”

Credit Howard Weiss-Tisman / VPR
Robin Johnson owns The Stone Church in Brattleboro.

An August Brookings Institute reportfound that Vermont's arts economy lost more than $200 million in sales between April and July of 2020, and was among the hardest hit arts sectors in the country.

As the year comes to a close, local arts organizations are getting a clearer picture of their own pandemic losses. At the Chandler Center for the Arts in Randolph, executive director Karen Dillon says the group lost about half its revenue in 2020.

Dillon hopes the new round of federal funding will help them bridge the gap until they can get back to indoor programming.

Dillon said if a performing arts center like the Chandler closes, the loss is felt throughout the community.

“We attract tourists. We attract people from other parts of Vermont. Like, it keeps people coming to this community,” Dillon said. “And that’s something that I think every small community that has a performing arts venue can say. The performing arts venue is maybe the anchor that brings in some economic resources that wouldn’t normally come to that community.”

And so Dillon says the Chandler will apply for the new federal aid to get through this winter and make sure they’re ready to fill the seats, whenever this long nightmare is over.

“I’m really hopeful. And even earlier this week I might have said, ‘Um, I don’t know, it’s fifty-fifty.’ Now I’m feeling really optimistic that we can get there,” Dillon said. “So I’m excited. I think people have missed being together in a way that’s going to be really exciting when we can all come back together, and explore where we live and meet our neighbors — all the things we haven’t been able to do this year. People are going to be eager to do that on the other side.”

Have questions, comments or tips?Send us a message or get in touch with reporter Howard Weiss-Tisman@hweisstisman.

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Howard Weiss-Tisman is Vermont Public’s southern Vermont reporter, but sometimes the story takes him to other parts of the state.
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