Onion River Arts

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(HOST) Montpelier’s Onion River Arts Council closed after this year’s First Night events. It came as a surprise to many, since Onion River had been a cultural fixture for thirty-one years. Commentator Jay Craven reflects on the Onion River legacy.

(CRAVEN) As a colleague during my own days at Catamount Arts, I admired Onion River’s success in promoting public celebration through Midsummer and First Night. They spawned ground-breaking partnerships with Head Start and the regional Youth Service Bureau, and demonstrated the need for a reborn Barre Opera House by staging world-class theater, dance and music there.

I remember seeing dozens of Onion River shows, among them The San Francisco Mime Troupe, Queen Ida, Duke Ellington Orchestra, Joan Baez, Neville Brothers, Arlo Guthrie, Elisa Monte Dance Troupe…and a scattershot Dizzy Gillespie gig, where the trumpet legend entertained the rapt audience while keeping a sleepy eye on a televised basketball game just off-stage. To Onion River, these events were not just shows; they were powerful collaborations of community and culture.

Like all Vermont’s arts organizations, Onion River required sturdy board members and activist leaders who could think big, take chances and turn on a dime. These nimble impresarios require marketing, fundraising, organizing and curatorial skills that would place them at the forefront in any business. Yet, they work for subsistence wages, driven by a sense of mission.

A hundred years ago, George S. Kaufman and Most Hart wrote a play, “The Fabulous Invalid”, as a tribute to theater’s lustrous history of triumph and struggle. The term “fabulous invalid” is used to describe the American and British theater: perpetually on its deathbed, but always rising again to display its vigor and relevance. Just like arts organizations everywhere.

Indeed, the closing of Onion River poses questions for groups that continue. Without adequate public funding, can individuals fill the gap? And how about Vermont’s generous small businesses, when so many new companies are outlets for often unapproachable corporate chains? Will the next generations produce arts leaders who are prepared to develop the skills and make difficult financial sacrifices? And how do we cultivate new audiences – and funders? Can we develop diverse young audiences that embrace the vital and nourishing difference between commercial entertainment and cultural theater, dance and film?

During the 70s and 80s the Onion River Arts Council led the way in an uncrowded field. Today, partly because of Onion River’s success, the Barre Opera House produces events, Lost Nation Theater performs year-round and the robust Flynn Theater and Hopkins Center attract audiences that will travel. In Bellows Falls, Brattleboro, Vergennes, Hardwick, White River Junction, St. Johnsbury, Bennington and Brandon dynamic arts groups demonstrate vitality and broad impact.

For thirty years, the Onion River Arts Council was a pioneer in this movement that has changed the face of Vermont. Its demise is a sobering reminder of what’s possible – and what it takes to endure.

This is Jay Craven of Peacham.

Jay Craven is a filmmaker and teaches film studies at Marlboro College. He spoke from our studio at the Fairbanks Museum in Saint Johnsbury.

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