The Vermont Performance Lab and Rockingham Arts recently convened a really engaging half-day meeting that brought together more than 120 creative support organizations and artists from around Southern Vermont. Held at the beautifully renovated Next Stage Arts Project in Putney, the purpose of the gathering was to support connection and momentum for the creative economy as an engine of economic growth.
The day began with an introduction to the Vermont Arts Council's position on the creative economy, and some insight into the amount Vermont audiences and tourists spend on arts-related activities. This was followed by an introduction to its "Creative Network," a statewide association of artist support organizations and artists. The role of the Vermont Creative Network is to identify ways to expand and deliver finance, infrastructure and identity building outcomes. Learn more about the Creative Network here. Zon Eastes, southern Vermont musician and regional representative of the Creative Network, provided a high level framework to describe the creative economy; NEFA program director Dee Schneidman followed with a brisk overview of topline data suggesting volatile dynamics in the creative economy - across New England and in Vermont.
Data-driven presentations were followed by a series of image-driven lighting talks that injected local examples of arts-led economic development activities into the discussion. Among the notable examples are the Park Street School project in Springfield and the Vermont Performance Lab's "Confluence" project in partnership with the Wyndham County Regional Planning Commission.
A few takeaways from the event include:
• The importance of benchmarking arts-led support for economic development. Strong indicators include local spending multiplier effects, growth of market access, and new business formation.
• Clarity around direct arts support and indirect arts support. It is easy in Vermont to make the association that any artist is a potential customer and thus they necessarily benefit from a program or service. Artists need targeted, reliable, and repeatable investment flows - into housing, workspaces, and income generating activities.
• Conversations about supporting artists remain driven by artist support organizations; artists themselves constitute 20-25 percent of the conversation, and this needs to change for their to be real buy-in and traction.
• Too often grants available to artists are miniscule and the administrative burden high enough that working artists -- particular emerging artists -- are discouraged from applying. Grant-making agencies need to streamline processes and encourage new actors.
• There are important gaps in data collection at the meta level. For example, it is unclear 1) the share of grant funds supporting operations for local arts organizations; 2) whether declines in grant-making account for declines in post-recession arts recovery; 3) the failure rate of arts establishments ie how many are closing each year.
Overall, the biggest takeaway at the Backpacker Guide is the need for a robust set of indicators that can be used, year over year, as a creative economy "dashboard" for the state, tracking gains and losses of workers, establishments, and cashflows over time. This will help anyone in the field understand that state of play, and where and how they can play a part in growing the state's creative sectors.
Read a VTDigger recap here.