A note sent today to Burlington arts champions and the city councilors who have kindly conversed on these subjects.

Hey, All – 

Wishing a happy new year to everyone, with high hopes that we’ll see increased attention for transparency, inclusion, and a sustainable long-term vision by the city for its arts community. This note is a catch-up about my advocacy over the last couple months. The pace has been steady, but the sense of progress has been uneven until yesterday. 

Note that this email ends with a call to action, and one I hope you’ll welcome!

On November 18 I attended a BCA board meeting to advocate for a transparent public process to include citizens in BCA governance. I requested that the issue of transparency be included in the next BCA board meeting agenda.

On November 19 I attended a PACC (Parks, Arts & Culture Committee of the Burlington City Council) meeting. BCA was not on the agenda. I attended to make a statement during public comment that the outcome of the meeting with Doreen resulted in a plan to mutually advocate for a transparent process for citizens to join the BCA board and to jointly represent this effort as a positive evolution in local arts governance. This plan was described in my email of October 30 to everyone (attached). BCA was added to the PACC agenda at the beginning of the meeting and later made a presentation in which Doreen backtracked from this commitment by describing the outcome of the meeting as a plan for continued conversation, rather than a specific strategy that we had both committed to. Councilor Brennan asked Doreen several times what the outcome of our meeting was, so the BCA position (non-commitment to a specific plan) was made apparent.

I spoke with Doreen and BCA board member John Gonter in the hallway during the PACC meeting for about 45 minutes. John acknowledged our interest in a transparent process for participation in BCA governance and suggested that the BCA board might invite open discussion by citizens with BCA board members at a public meeting. Doreen responded that her listening tour was serving that purpose and a public meeting hosted by the BCA board was unnecessary. Doreen was very straight-forward in the opinion that a traditional commission was an undesirable goal. She described the commission process as corrupt, with city councilors choosing commission candidates from their wards or for other favoritism-related reasons.

On January 12 I made a statement to the City Council during public forum that described dissatisfaction with BCA leadership within the community and a desire for transparency and inclusion in arts-related governance. The statement is included, below. 

I’m here to make a couple comments about how the city could make smarter and fairer plans for supporting the arts with its annual taxpayer-funded budget for that of more than $700,000.

I work with creative people of all generations and artistic passions. Our city should be unleashing their joy with the riches it dedicates to the arts, but I have found sadness, disappointment, and fear in discussions about BCA that range from issues of personality conflicts with leadership to a sense of victimization. These conversations and my own disappointments with choices made by BCA leadership led to thinking about what the problem was.

I came to understand that BCA, unlike other city departments, doesn’t have a commission or any version of a public, transparent path for citizens to become candidates to help BCA decide about which arts it serves. I found BCA meetings hadn’t been warned by City Hall for years; that agendas and minutes weren’t posted, making participation by the public impossible in practical terms. There was no regular public forum on the agenda, no constituent services or contact information offered by the board, no ombudsman. I learned that the charter language that defines BCA sets it on course to compete directly with the arts community we assumed it should be serving as an arts office.

Change is needed to bring disenfranchised voices into the conversations about how the city supports the arts. All the stockpiled issues with BCA could be addressed constructively from within, with genuine representation and a supportive, community spirit.

A petition to create an arts commission was active for four days and gathered 350 signatures. The BCA director told me that a campaign was being prepared in response, in which “people could get hurt.” A moderated meeting with the BCA director resulted in an agreement for each of us to advocate for a plan to create a transparent process to fill some of BCA’s self-generating 21 board seats. I took down the petition and spoke at the next PACC meeting to celebrate our cooperation, but the director backtracked from her commitment without letting me know she’d made the decision to. My good faith was entirely misspent.

Little to no faith is left that the director of BCA is capable of creating this positive change. Trust is wrecked, and the quality of BCA’s private management of the city’s annual investment in the arts is being questioned by the artists it doesn’t serve. It’s your job to fix that, and my hope, on behalf of myself and the many artists who would gladly speak with each of you, is that we can be done identifying the problems and move on to fixing them.

Following the city council meeting I met with Steve Goodkind, Progressive candidate for mayor, to discuss local arts issues and current city policy toward the arts. Steve invited that I provide him with a position paper describing an ideal outlook toward the arts, written from the perspective of the mayor’s office. 

On January 14 I attended a meeting of the nominating committee of the BCA board of directors. I was curious whether the issue of transparency in election processes would be addressed, and whether there would be an intention to fill empty board seats outside of a transparent process. There was no discussion of altering the protocols for election to the board beyond an invitation to be posted to the BCA web site and a discussion of preparing organizational information packets for board candidates. I learned that three board seats remain open, as they were when I first met with Doreen, and they would be filled following eventual discussions to be held in executive session following interviews with candidates by the board. Doreen was present during the meeting and did not raise the subject of transparency, and the agenda did not include a transparency/inclusion topic. Nominating Committee Chair Barbara Perry did make a plain statement that, “as a city councilor of 13 years,” she knew the traditional city department commission election process to be non-transparent, as the actual decision-making occurs in small caucuses of city councilors and is tainted by favoritism.

On January 14 the agenda for the January 20 meeting of the BCA board was posted to the BCA web site and did not include the transparency/inclusion topic.

On January 17 I spoke with Mayor Weinberger at Handy’s Lunch during breakfast. This was the first time that I sensed the Mayor understood the ‘big picture’ of what we’ve been seeking. He was gracious, engaged, and open-minded as I described:

BCA Operates with a predominately visual arts bias while commanding all arts-related resources and attention. Other art forms are neglected, with the disrepair of the city’s performing arts spaces providing evidence.

BCA has a mission, as defined in the city charter, of presenting arts for the enrichment of citizens rather than providing support or resources to the artists of the city. This is contrary to the expectations of a municipal arts office. The charter assigns BCA to “making available performance, gallery and rehearsal space; providing technical assistance and awarding grants and prizes.” BCA has been neglectful of these goals as they apply to the performing arts.

A Burlington arts office should provide universal resources to all local artists and invest in infrastructure that serves all art forms. Big Heavy World was provided as an example of an arts organization that aspires to inclusion and universal service to the community of its art form. A municipal arts office should accomplish these goal uniformly among the arts.

A transparent, public pathway to participation in arts governance should be created.

Doreen’s current ‘listening tour’ was comparable to an employee writing their own performance review.

The mayor and I were in agreement that BCA has been successful as an organization, while I made the point that these successes were in a narrow field of service and at the expense of other art sectors as they were neglected. He acknowledged that it was reasonable to consider both complementing the BCA mission with more inclusive service to the arts, and that additional resources to accomplish this were within the realm of consideration.

The conversation concluded with an invitation by the mayor to provide him, within two weeks and ideally within a week, with two items:

1) A list of programs that other arts office provide their communities. This would allow a compare/contrast with Burlington’s arts office programming and potentially highlight the argument for an arts mission with wider scope of vision and service.

2) An inventory of governance structures with which other arts offices function. These would be models that inform a decision about how to productively and positively expand local arts governance to transparently fill the voids in service that we’re identifying.

In the course of conversation I suggested that the city might choose to conserve an area of the South End to preserve affordable artist live/work space. A conservation district was a new idea to him and he made a statement of interest. 

ACTION ITEMS:

Would you be willing (please?) to contribute to a speedy and complete research effort to provide the mayor with the information he requested? 

Would you search arts offices online and contribute governance and program information to this public Google Doc? https://docs.google.com/document/d/1OcwaldXkFUFWPllw0VdjCsZmp4F62qUkofiYoQ7FwJ8/edit?usp=sharing

This document will become a one-page position and arts policy statement as we edit it together: https://docs.google.com/document/d/1qGhT4guFVZnF3yhIF9ma2FdTTEeEcNqzNj9G73npkv4/edit?usp=sharing

We’ll all benefit from this expanded understanding of the national arts office landscape, and will be creating a public tool that may become the basis for thoughtful positive change locally. 

I plan to attend the January 20 BCA board meeting, agenda attached, to be held 3pm-5pm on the second floor of the BCA Center. There is a short public forum if anyone would like to bring their message to BCA board members. I may make another statement, too, but will be there for the meeting regardless. 

Thanks for the time and love you’ve already given the community and for taking on the task of helping represent our interests effectively by contributing to the documents, above. We’re fortunate to have come this far in our message-making and I’m grateful that you’d have followed and cared about these topics. 

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