Arts funding

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(HOST) In recent years, Vermont has developed a thriving arts community, but commentator Jay Craven says that a lack of adequate funding is beginning to reverse that trend.

(CRAVEN) After eighteen years of performing across New England, Vermont’s Circus Smirkus has suspended operations. Montpelier’s Onion River Arts Council folded after this year’s First Night celebrations. The Vermont International Film Festival cut back its programming this fall and the Vermont Stage Company nearly closed last spring. Kingdom County Productions recently lost two experienced and effective staff members to better-paying jobs outside the arts.

Many of Vermont’s most celebrated arts organizations are finding it difficult to sustain their visions. The state’s funding infrastructure seems inadequate to support even those that provide dynamic programming and lean administration.

The Vermont Arts Council and Community Foundation are posi- tioned as our key players for funding and technical assistance. They are vital and appreciated. But the funding they disseminate pales in comparison to needs in the field.

Reductions in arts funding mirror a decline in the idea of America’s public sector. Since the 1970’s the National Endowment for the Arts budget has dropped to $121 million – or about forty cents
per capita. If we add all city and state funding, The Smithsonian, The Kennedy Center, and others, American per capita spending comes to about six dollars annually.

Australia and Britain spend twenty-five dollars per capita; Canada and the Netherlands forty-six dollars; France and Sweden fifty- seven dollars; Germany eighty-five dollars; and Finland, ninety-
one dollars per capita.

Without stable arts funding, ambition can feel like a curse. Talented young people leave Vermont or turn to other careers, raising questions about succession into the next generation. And we lose the potential of the arts – to help foster vital communities, engaged learning, a stimulated economy, fertile public discourse, and a life-long role for our individual and collective imaginations.

Armed with little more than bulk mailing permits, arts organiza- tions appeal to our individual generosity, hoping that even during this season of world-wide calls for disaster relief, their merits will be considered.

But more is clearly needed. Perhaps the Arts Council and Community Foundation could initiate applications to major foundations to help strengthen the field. Maybe the state could establish a voluntary arts check-off on tax returns, for contributions to the Arts Council. Europeans built their film industries through a small tax on movie tickets.

During the past several years, Vermonters have met to discuss the merits and potential of our creative economy. The resulting report makes a potent case. It notes that eighty percent of Ver-
monters rate state support for the arts as “important or very important.” But the report does not address urgent problems
of underfunding, low wages, and instability.

Twenty years ago, The Windham Foundation convened a series of dialogues on the arts and other issues. It’s time, again, to assem- ble community leaders, arts activists, and business people to ex- plore new avenues for funding this depletable resource – before it’s too late.

This is Jay Craven from Peacham.

Filmmaker Jay Craven teaches at Marlboro College and directs Kingdom County Productions. He spoke from our studio at the Fairbanks Museum in Saint Johnsbury.

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