On the Street Where You Live

Cornelia Carey

The Vermont Arts Council's second annual arts conference took place on June 16 and 17 in Montpelier, Vermont. This year's conference, titled "On the Street Where You Live, the Arts as a Community Resource," brought together over 100 artists, arts administrators, nonprofit board members and state government officials to talk about how best to engage the arts in the ongoing challenges Vermont communities face in the areas of sprawl, crime, education, at-risk youth, the environment, preservation, and transportation.

At the morning plenary session, "A Taste of Utopia: Arts at the Forefront of Community Development," three public art professionals — Gretchen Freeman, Jody Pinto, and Deborah Whitehurst — shared their vision of how the arts can play a much more active role in community development.

The founding executive director of the Phoenix Arts Commission, Deborah Whitehurst, explained how arts administrators in an era of decreasing support from the public sector must adopt a more community-oriented activism. Social engagement, whether in the role of the citizen-artist or the politician-artist, is what she credits for the dramatic increase in funding support for the arts in Phoenix. Important initiatives in that city were a direct result of Phoenix artists organizing a powerful lobby.

The Phoenix art lobby had a huge impact when it showed up en masse at public hearings, explained Whitehurst. Its positive influence led to the passing of an ordinance diverting one percent of the city's capital budget for buildings and roads to the arts. A strategy of supporting artists in public office also led to legislation creating a permanent state endowment for the arts out of revenue from Arizona's entertainment taxes.

Gretchen Freeman, a founding member of the Phoenix Arts Commission's Public Art Program, treated the audience to a slide show demonstrating the fruits of the actions described by Whitehurst. Over a five-year period, the Phoenix Arts Commission has completed over forty public art projects. Buildings, roadways, bridges, parks, and waste treatment facilities in Phoenix have been transformed by artists working with civic partners to re-envision public infrastructure.

New York City-based public artist Jody Pinto's early career as a political activist and rape crisis center coordinator led to her interest in creating art in the public sphere. She was interested in creating art that affected people's everyday experience. She sees her work as “guerrilla warfare” in that her goal is to have it quietly slip into the viewer's consciousness and change his or her view of things. She too treated to audience to slides of projects that she has been involved with over the years.

Following the morning plenary there were four breakout sessions for artists, educators, administrators, and trustees. This participant went to the session for artists, “The Spirit of Openness: Opportunities for Artists in the Service of Community.” Among those presenting were choreographer Hannah Dennison and Brenda Torpy, executive director, Burlington Community Land Trust (BCLT). Dennison, the artistic director of Cradle to Grave Arts, creates and presents large site-specific works that celebrate the people, history, and geography of communities. She described a collaboration among community members from a low-income neighborhood in Burlington, the BCLT, and herself. The project took place in a large former bakery that had been donated to BCLT. Prior to a major renovation and conversion of the structure into affordable artist housing, Dennison created a community performance piece that conveyed the history of the building, using local community members as performers. Among the performers were local teenagers who had been breaking into the building to skateboard down the interior stairs.

When asked why BCLT supported the project, Torpy noted: “I am committed to this collaboration with Dennison because I can see the fit between community development and community building goals. BCLT's primary goal is to encourage land reform and to get people to look at property from the perspective of social equity and community ownership. It's very important that we build community, and art is one of the very important ways that people can express and share a sense of community based on caring and valuing things together.”

The closing plenary, “Collaborations and Resources for the Future,” brought out the “movers and shakers” in Vermont state government along with leaders from the nonprofit sector to talk about how the arts can be brought to the table in all aspects of planning for Vermont's future. Among the panelists were the secretaries of human services, transportation, natural resources, and commerce & community development. According to Jim Higgins of the Vermont Arts Council, it was the first time that the arts community had pulled together an array of the state's secretaries to focus on how an arts perspective can be brought into all aspects of state government. The panelists offered advice on how to collaborate with their department and where to begin looking for resources within the state.

The Vermont Arts Council is to be applauded for assembling the panel of public art professionals who filled the audience with mouth watering possibilities of what can happen when artists are involved in community design and planning. Further, it was a tremendous coup to have so many of the state's secretaries sit down with the arts community to consider how their agencies might collaborate. Yet, this participant kept hoping for more than tantalizing cameos. Since the secretaries who came to the conference are in a position to make projects of the scale and vision of Jody Pinto's happen, why were none of them present for her presentation? Wouldn't it have been terrific for the secretary of transportation to spend half an hour with Deborah Whitehurst thinking through a challenging bridge project? A wonderful opportunity was missed.

Vermont faces tremendous challenges in the future, balancing its pastoral appeal with thoughtful development in order to avoid having the latter consume the former. Vermont's arts community must seize every opportunity to inspire the state's decision-makers with creative solutions that involve the arts at the forefront of community development.