EDITORIAL: A $50,000 NEA “Our Town” Grant to Montpelier Making an Extraordinary City — More Extraordinary

by Nat Frothingham

For 200-plus years the City of Montpelier has been the capital and nerve center of Vermont state government — a hot spot for law and policy making, pressure groups and lobbying, political maneuvering and intrigue, protests, marches and parades.

But the city’s role as a government center is only part of what’s happening here.

Increasingly over the years, Montpelier has won something of a reputation for its spirited arts, culture, music, entertainment, nightlife and dining out scene.

Consider, and these are just some of the offerings in Montpelier: Lost Nation Theater, Capital Showplace and the Savoy Theater along and as an offshoot of The Savoy the annual Green Mountain Film Festival just now beginning as we go to press, Kellogg-Hubbard Library with its packed schedule of live events, Vermont College of Fine Arts with its student reading, exhibitions and special programs, the Center for Arts and Learning with the T.W. Wood Art Gallery and a downtown-wide music and dance and entertainment scene that on any night of the week covers the turf from blues to bluegrass, jazz to punk, ethnic to live-band karaoke at Sweet Melissa’s on Sunday nights and has anyone reading this ever boogied at Charlie O’s or ever walked through town on the first Friday evening of the month when downtown stores and offices become almost instant galleries?

Is there anything much you can’t see, hear, do or enjoy in the capital city?

Now, comes something promising.

In recent days, with the just-announced receipt of a competitive $50,000 grant from the “Our Town” programs of the National Endowment for the Arts the City of Montpelier in partnership with Montpelier Alive and the Community Engagement Lab along with artists and friends of the arts will take the city another giant step forward realizing its full potential as a city defined not just by business or government or education  but increasingly also as a dynamic center for public art.

Here’s what is about to happen.

As noted, the City of Montpelier has received a $50,000 grant. That grant is to be matched by a $50,000 commitment from the City, to be further augmented by another $50,000 in local fundraising.  When $14,000 in in-kind services are added to the $50,000 from the endowment and the $50,000 from the City the total budget available to the project becomes $164,000 over two years.

Here’s what that money will pay for.

First, $50,000 contributed by the endowment will be paid to Designing Local, a Columbus, Ohio arts consulting firm that will work with a range of Montpelier citizens to do the following.

take stock of the city’s heritage and values,

define for Montpelier what the idea of “place” has meant and means today,

look forward creatively with the help of artists, citizens and friends of the arts and develop a Montpelier Public Art Plan.

Second, another $50,000 contributed by the City of Montpelier is being set aside to advertise for and choose an artist and a work of public art that will be part of the to-be-constructed One Taylor Street Project. The long-envisaged One Taylor Street Project is a public and privately financed project that will be at once — many things: a gateway to the city, a transportation hub with commercial space and upstairs rental housing, and a public park.

As part of a phone call with Paul Gambill, founder and director of the  Community Engagement Lab in Montpelier, I pressed him on why it was important for Montpelier to embark on a two-year project leading to a Montpelier Public Art Plan.

“We don’t have a system in place for how the public can engage with art in everyday life,” Gambill said.

Then he talked a little about the work of art that is to be commissioned for the One Taylor Street project. Thinking out loud, he said, “It could be a wall painting.”

Then thinking about the kinds of ideas that might be generated in a two year public planning process, he said, “It could be a design idea for bike racks.” Or, “The City could set aside space for sculpture. It could be something as transient as a lantern parade.

As we talked about the public art planning activity what became clear was that the process was at least as important as what the process produces because if the public process is inclusive and inspires creative ideas, the result will be something that makes a positive mark on Montpelier.

Central to what happens in Montpelier is what has been described by Designing Local as “the centerpiece of the planning process — a series of five hands-on visioning workshops to be led by teaching artists from different disciplines. According to Designing Local, “These hands-on workshops will lead community members to create expressions of their vision for how art can increase their sense of place and community. It is these five workshops that “will culminate into a Master Plan and an installation of the first major city-funded public arts work (at the One Taylor Street Project).

The kick-off meeting for the Public Art Master Plan will take place in Montpelier’s City Hall on Tuesday evening, March 21 from 6 to 8 p.m.  The kick-off meeting is being described by organizers at a “pop-up” museum.

Said Amanda Golden of Designing Local, “We are asking people to tell us who they are, who they have been, and who they hope to be.” As part of the evening’s give-and-take, anyone who attends is being asked to bring in an object or objects “that represent, to them, the essence of Montpelier.”

“It could be the blanket you take to picnics at Hubbard Park, a scarf you bought at the farmers’ market, a necklace given to you by your mother, who was born in Montpelier,” Golden said.

All of us plan. We plan as individuals, as families, as communities. Business people and entrepreneurs plan. Government officials plan. Planning makes it possible for us to frame the future, to realize our dreams.

Public art can express who we are, where we have been, what we value and what we want to do or dream of doing.

Which is why planning in itself and planning for public art is essential.

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