Time to market our arts
Jeb Wallace-Brodeur / Staff Photo
Alex Aldrich of the Vermont Arts Council addresses the crowd during the Poetry Out Loud state recitation competition in Barre last week.
Editor’s note: This begins a weekly series of interviews with arts leaders discussing the state of the arts in Vermont.
By Jim Lowe
The arts in Vermont have survived the recession better than in most states, according to Alex Aldrich, the Vermont Arts Council’s executive director of 16 years. In fact, he’s hard pressed to name one arts organization that went under during it.
“I can’t think of one off the top of my head,” he said. “There are some organizations that have gone through really volcanic transitions — and are still going through them.
“A lot people have done smart things,” Aldrich said. “For the most part, artists are really inventive when it comes to being creative responding.”
Aldrich is more concerned with the long-term impact of the recession.
“The tendency has to been to retrench and come back and hold your cards closer to your chest and not let anybody see how large the cracks in the wall really are,” he said. “The one thing I do regret is that when things get tough, they go back to the standards like ‘A Midsummer Night’s Dream.’ The ballet companies do ‘The Nutcracker.’”
If Aldrich had the recession to do over again, he would have pushed arts organizations to be more innovative.
“Let’s find some new stuff and play with it — and package it differently,” he said.
He cited two of the state’s professional theater companies that followed that direction during this recession: Weston Playhouse and White River Junction’s Northern Stage under its then-director Brooke Ciardelli.
“There are pockets of innovation that can and should be supported — and should be brought to the public at large,” Aldrich said.
For the future, Vermont and its artists need to focus more on marketing themselves to reach their full potential.
“I think we have allowed ourselves, not just the arts community but all of Vermont, to put the arts as an afterthought that doesn’t quite make it into the attributes (like) independence, outdoor resources, stewardship of the environment, that are our brand identity.”
“We’re seeing that as more and more our role,” he said. “Let’s go to Marlboro Music Festival, let’s go to the Weston Playhouse, let’s go to the Paramount, let’s go to the Flynn, find out who those audiences are, go out and get more people like that to come to Vermont — and see what transformation happens in our revenue base, in our audience base.”
The Vermont Arts Council was created by the Legislature in 1994. Its chartered mandate is to support the presentation of the arts in Vermont for the enjoyment of residents and visitors alike; to support the creation of art by Vermont artists; and to support arts activities in schools.
Of its $1.7 million annual budget, the state appropriation is a little over $500,000 and $700,000 comes from the National Endowment for the Arts. Some $120,000 is raised from private sources, individuals and corporations, with the remainder coming from collaborations with other state agencies through such programs as Cultural Facilities Grants and Art in State Buildings.
While most of the council’s money goes to grants for artists of all disciplines, arts organizations and educational institutions, Aldrich sees the organization as primarily a catalyst.
“The value that we provide to the field has more to do with the signals that we send, or our ability to get people together to talk about common areas of interest or concern, or opportunity, and being there,” he said.
This takes more than grants, which are limited by the state’s resources. So innovation is needed, and Aldrich cited an example.
Seven or eight years ago, renowned Brandon folk artist Warren Kimble, while on the council’s board, questioned Aldrich on the value of the grants.
“‘He said, ‘So, let’s say 100 people apply for 15 grants. Can I just ask the obvious question? How long do we expect to stay in business when we’re pissing off 85 percent of our client base?’
“It’s such an obvious question to ask,” Aldrich said. “We’re so mission-based that no one had thought to put the question quite that way. Because, to us, it wasn’t about the 85 percent who didn’t get a grant; to us, it was the 15 percent who did.”
So the arts council started developing programs like its “Breaking Into Business” workshops, which help artists and arts organizations over the long term.
“If you’re an artist and you want to have your work known, and you want people to buy it or pay to see it, you are a business person,” Aldrich said. “So getting people to understand that, in a very short time, three years, has resulted in about 175 artists all over the state who have a very different relationship with us.”
While the arts council will always be involved in supporting arts efforts through grants, Aldrich feels that it’s time to bring the world’s attention to what Vermont has.
“We’re very good, in the field, at promoting only to ourselves and our immediate audiences — who already know us,” Aldrich said. “It is not in any nonprofit organization’s bandwidth to get collective the way ski areas get collective supporting the ski industry.”
The problem is indigenous to the arts sector.
“We’re mission driven. If we get an extra dollar, we put it into programming,” Aldrich said. “I think we need to be able to do a better job of very strongly advocating, with our local arts organizations in particular, to help them get their boards to see that 3, 4, 5 percent of the budget for marketing and promotion is not enough. There needs to be a minimum of 10 percent, preferably 15 or 20 percent of the budget.”
He added, “What would happen if you did? We have that challenge. If we don’t have audiences, we don’t have a purpose.”
Aldrich sees his mission over the next 16 years is to help people understand the relationship between Vermont and its arts community and institutions like Marlboro, Burlington’s Flynn and Rutland’s Paramount.
“They create an ebb and flow of dynamism and creativity — and inspiration,” Aldrich said. “We’ve got to do a better job of attracting more audiences here, or we have to do a better job of connecting our artists out into the world where the audience is.”
After 16 years on the job, Aldrich maintains the same enthusiasm — and optimism — as when he started.
“It feels like less than three,” Aldrich said. “Every year here is different. Even when we’re doing the same kinds of grant programs, the people are different, the circumstances are different, who’s getting money and where we’re engaged is different.
“I’ve never felt like I’ve been spinning my wheels. It feels brand new every day,” he said. “I have never felt tapped out — which is really unusual. It’s never the same — and I love that — and I’m passionate about it.”