Amy Cunningham said the creative economy is bigger than people think.
The deputy director of the Vermont Arts Council was part of a panel discussion on art and community building at 77Art Saturday during the closing reception for the organization’s most recent residency program. Cunningham said groups like 77Art and the artists they work with are at the core of the creative economy, but the concept is broader than the traditional arts.
“It’s broad enough to include film and media, artisanal foods, the design sector,” she said. “It’s architects. It’s videographers.”
It also includes non-creative workers employed by creative organizations, she said, like a gallery’s bookkeeper, and all told makes up 8.6% of jobs in Vermont. Cunningham said that’s more jobs than in the transportation or information technology sectors.
“Although the IT sector’s salaries are much higher, obviously,” she said. “The point is, this is already an important economic driver.”
Cunningham said the challenges to growth in the art sector are similar to those of other sectors of the economy.
“I haven’t had a conversation where childcare, housing and broadband have not come up,” she said.
Cunningham said the state has identified several courses of action to improve the art world’s contribution to Vermont’s economy, starting with creating more opportunities for networking.
“I know that sounds frilly and extra,” she said. “There are a lot of people working solo. There are a lot of people working with clients out of state. It is uniquely important to create the opportunities for people to meet.”
Other steps include marking sure the creative sector is represented in state and local-level conversations about the economic future and coming up with four or five “cohesive goals” for the creative sector.
Tyler Richardson, executive director of the Rutland Economic Development Corp., said the art world has only recently become an area of interest for groups like his, which spent most of its history trying to attract and retain “big business.”
“One might unfavorably call us ‘smokestack chasers,’” he said. “That was decades ago. ... We’re a post-industrial economy.”
With that change in the economy has come a decline in the population for the region and a shift in tactics for REDC.
“What we’re really heavily involved in now is the attraction and retention of people,” he said. “We don’t have enough people to fill our jobs and it’s a crisis.”
Toward that end, REDC has been a part of the regional marketing initiative, attempting to get tourists to permanently relocate to the area. He said the arts community is essential to selling the region, and has more direct impacts as well.
“If I’m going to the galleries downtown, I’m buying dinner,” he said. “When I go to Art in the Park and see the cars from all over, people are coming from all over to engage with Vermont artists.”
Cunningham said galleries, studios and other creative spaces play a key role in filling empty storefronts.
“The nature of retail is fundamentally changing,” she said. “Coworking spaces and art galleries and experiences seem like such a vibrant hope for the future economy of Vermont.”
Whitney Ramage, director of 77 Art’s residency program, said she hopes that bringing in artists from around the world and the resulting interactions will be a force for social change in the area. However, she said that change isn’t without some growing pains, as evidenced by racial issues she said some artists of color have experienced during the program.
“Last year, there were some insensitivities,” she said. “As challenging as it was for the artists who experienced it, I think it was an opportunity for some Rutlanders to learn and grow. It always sucks to be the person that someone is learning and growing at.”