Vermont Arts Council Turns 50

Artist Chris Miller

Artist Chris Miller

by Carla Occaso

The first legislative general fund allocation for the Vermont Arts Council in 1965: $500.

Fiscal Year 2015 legislative general fund allocation: $654,439.00

MONTPELIER — If you have seen a public building or a road construction project created or renovated in recent years, you probably noticed sculpture or other art forms intermingled with the brick and mortar. Court houses, bridges, rest areas, state offices and city centers were all recipients of arts projects vetted and funded through the Vermont Arts Council, as long as the construction budget was big enough — $1 million initially. Individual artists and nonprofit organizations also get funding from the council, which is celebrating its 50th year.

The 1965 legislature voted the Vermont Arts Council into existence with a $500 allocation that was free of a lot of guidelines except to promote and preserve excellence in art. Compare that with fiscal year 2015, when the state allocation was $654,439 and the total operating budget hit $1.8 million. Back in the 1960s, then-governor Phil Hoff lent his full support, and wrote the following in the council’s first annual report issued in 1966, “We acknowledge today that if the arts are not an immediate and significant part of a man’s life, he has been deprived of his heritage.”

Kira Bacon, communications manager of the Vermont Arts Council

Kira Bacon, communications manager of the Vermont Arts Council

The Bridge recently sat down with Kira Bacon, communications manager for the Vermont Arts Council, to find out about how they plan to celebrate this milestone. To mark the 50th anniversary of public funding for the arts, the council decided to “really shine a spotlight on what is going on out there and to put a virtual tent around this incredible integrated arts culture throughout the state” rather than create a single event,  said Bacon. A number of arts projects have been designated as “2015 arts events” and will be identified by the 2015 arts logo designed by the council. Those events include Lost Nation Theater’s performance of “Eurydice,” a variety of art exhibits, a granite exhibit in Barre, and a craft conference at Goddard College. The schedule is online at vermontartscouncil.org.

The council seeks not only to promote multiple arts events all over the state for the enjoyment of locals, but also to attract outsiders. “We have a public relations effort to focus on media, primarily outside the state, to try to build the arts as part of the Vermont brand,” Bacon said, explaining that people might come here primarily to ski, but once they get here, the council wants to make sure people can find out about the performances, exhibits, and events. “It is a pretty new thing for the arts council to have that as part of our mission,” she said, speaking of the council’s foray into travel marketing.

As for taking a specific time to observe the actual anniversary, Bacon said the council officials will hold their annual meeting in June and will take the time to revel. “It will be an outdoor celebration in our sculpture park in Montpelier. We want it to be something that is open and inviting to everybody. We are creating the anniversary club,” Bacon said, while also noting it is also the 50th anniversary of the National Endowment for the Arts. Public funding has allowed many arts organizations as well as individual artists to develop new work.

For example, recent grantee Heather Bryce, of Montpelier, a dance choreographer, said the $3,000 creation grant she received through the arts council this year is allowing her to develop an exciting new outdoor performance. Bryce wrote to The Bridge in an email: “It’s a site-specific piece that will be performed at Wrightsville Reservoir in Middlesex on August 15 at 7 p.m. We are inviting the community to participate directly in the performance of the piece (the performance is titled ‘Lonesome Bend’ after the name of the town that used to be where the Wrightsville Reservoir recreation area is now). The piece is focused on the themes of home, displacement, homelessness, flood, and the history of the site. As part of the project I’m conducting interviews in the community that will be integrated into the musical composition for the piece.”

The grant money has allowed Bryce to collaborate with other artists and avoid charging for tickets. “Part of the mission of my company, Bryce Dance Company, is to make a work that is accessible to populations that are often not able to see contemporary performance art. The ability to present this performance for free helps us meet our mission,” Bryce said. After this summer’s performance is done, Bryce hopes to continue bringing dance to “underserved” communities.

Bryce and artists like her perpetuate the initial artistic mission of the arts council, but arts funding for public works is relatively new. State-funded arts have been part of most new construction since a law passed in 1988 made it mandatory. According to an official document titled, “Vermont Art in State Buildings Programs Guidelines and Policies, “The Vermont Art in State Buildings Act (No. 267 of 1988) was passed … in recognition of the needs to encourage the work of Vermont artists, to enhance and preserve our cultural environment, and to provide artistic enrichment for Vermont citizens and visitors. The intent of the program is to improve the character and quality of state buildings in order to create an environment of distinction, enjoyment, and pride for all citizens, and to encourage the donation of works of art to the state for its permanent collection or for exhibition in state buildings or facilities.” And so the program has survived and grown through good economic times, natural disasters, and recessions.

One recent example of publicly funded art is the Vermont Psychiatric Care Hospital in Berlin — a building that was pushed into existence in 2014 through necessity. In August 2011, Tropical Storm Irene flooded out the previously habitable state hospital in Waterbury, which led to a crisis caused by lack of facilities for psychiatric care. The new building atop Hospital Hill in Berlin looks airy, well-lit, and purely functional, but, out of view with one exception, are the works of a team of sculptors chosen and paid for by the arts council.

Sculpture by Chris Miller

Sculpture by Chris Miller

Only one of six sculptures is visible from the outside — a granite rendering of a tree stump. Sounds boring, if not unsightly, but this sculpture is impressive in the display of skill used for its creation. I was intrigued when I noticed it for the first time while working on this article. I had driven past the building for over a year without noticing it. When I pulled into the driveway and inspected the sculpture, I saw at its base a sculpted rabbit, a big-eyed owl peering out of a knot hole, and bronze robins tending to their delicately sculpted nests. Chris Miller, of Calais, was the lead artist on the psychiatric care construction project, and it was he who created the piece chosen to be visible to the public. It is titled “Habitat Tree,” and — if I may read into it and why it was chosen — it depicts a structure that is shelter and home to all kinds of creatures, just as the psychiatric care hospital was built to bring shelter to those in need.

The Vermont Arts Council has many programs, deadlines, and a calendar of events, all of which may be perused at vermontartscouncil.org.

During the 1965 state legislative session, the Vermont legislature passed H.255, An Act to Establish Recognition of the Vermont Council on the Arts, Inc. and to Make an Appropriation therefore.

That appropriation was $500 per year for the next two years.

In September 1965 P.L. 89-209, The National Foundation on the Arts and Humanities Act became law.

Federal funds of approximately $50,000 per state were to be allotted for conducting surveys, planning, and sponsoring programs on a matching basis. Only the agency recognized as the official state art agency would be eligible to make application for these funds.

In November 1965 an executive secretary was hired by the council with the charge to open an office in the capital city and to investigate the application procedure under P.L. 89-209. The council’s first employee was Arthur Williams, a former representative in the legislature.

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