This letter was written collaboratively by visual and performing artists for the benefit of Burlington’s mayoral candidates.
To Burlington Mayoral Candidates:
Mayor Miro Weinberger
Miro, Greg, Loyal & Steve:
Below you’ll find an idealized arts policy position statement produced by close to a dozen local arts leaders collaborating via Google Docs. It originates with the firsthand experience of the authors and represents the interests of artists working across the spectrum of art forms. It was produced for your benefit as a candidate for mayor, to seek to engage you with these issues of immediate concern and with the citizens and voters who are affected by them. I’m glad for the opportunity to facilitate a direct connection between you and the artists who are working to create a fair and equitable arts mission for the city and a transparent process for citizen participation in arts governance. Please feel welcome to contact me any time.
An Idealized Mayor’s Position Statement on The Arts
Burlington’s humanity and vitality are revealed through the arts. They strengthen our sense of being a special place and they foster the community bonds that come from shared experiences. Burlington’s people are diverse, and so are the ways we find expression and the ways the arts contribute to our economy.
The city has invested many years and millions of dollars in enriching our community through the arts by presenting the arts for the benefit of all ages and economic backgrounds. However, our arts office has thrived in a very narrow band of activity dominated by a focus on the visual arts. And even within the realm of visual arts, there is a widely-shared sense that the arts office fosters and supports only a small coterie of local artists, concentrating mostly on artists from outside of Vermont. An emphasis on exclusively fine arts, moreover, has neglected the importance of traditional industrial artists and artisans in our community, who add a great deal to the culture and economic development of our city.
The city must create the supports that foster our community of artists in a way that includes every art form, and it must represent our artists’ talent and value to the public comprehensively. The performing arts, including dance, music, and theater, have expressed disappointment in their general exclusion from the work of the city arts office. These artists have looked for the resources expected of an arts office, and not found them. Visual artists in our community have also felt disenfranchised by the centralized arts office, and there is even a sense that the interests of the arts office are in competition with that of the artists working and living in the city.
We need an arts plan that:
- Champions Burlington’s artists working in all fields, inclusively, providing resources that help this community help itself;
- Provides a transparent, public means for citizens to participate in defining the mission and scope of activities of the arts office;
- Harnesses the power of partnership. Local arts organizations know the objectives and needs of their art forms intimately; only collaboration will produce a sustainable city-wide strategy for arts supports;
- Is dedicated to reflecting our character and value as a unique place to live and visit because of our arts community;
- Recognizes how powerful the arts are as a platform for community and economic development, city planning, a sense of place and high quality of life, and improving the lives of everyone exposed to them.
The personality of Burlington’s service to the arts was defined almost 20 years ago in terms that stopped short of acknowledging the wide scope of arts in the city. A mature definition of service for the arts by the city will firmly, boldly and clearly define an extensive and enduring commitment to every form of art; including music, performing arts, industrial and applied art, and culinary art.
The city can and must build on its success. To generate constructive mutual empowerment, enrich communication between diverse social spectrums, stimulate collaboration, and foster the transformative power of expression, a high standard of inclusiveness must be fused into the city arts agenda in a permanent way. Recognition and engagement with the entire arts community will provide the wisdom and experience needed to advance arts planning and programming in a way that reflects our values of fairness and respect for the diversity of our citizens. In this way the city arts mission will truly become ‘state of the art’.
An overview of the governance structures, missions and programs of other arts offices can be found at http://bit.ly/1D2pJdb (a living document).
The path forward:
The mayor will establish a non-BCA volunteer arts task force staffed by leaders who represent arts that have not been viably or responsibly served by BCA, to draft a proposed update to the BCA mission in city charter and propose a governance structure that is transparent and fair to Burlington’s community of artists. The task force should review accumulated citizen concerns with BCA that have gone unresolved due to the absence of a BCA ombudsman or accessible board.
The mayor’s office will investigate and report whether the current hybrid city department/501(c)(3) BCA structure is reasonably free of liability issues for the city. No one has a firm understanding of the authority of the BCA fundraising board or whether it’s a public or private entity, and the board has been unresponsive to critique re: lack of transparency.
City planners must prioritize preserving the affordability, livability, and character of the South End Arts District in the face of imminent gentrification. The only principled strategy for conservation and continued placemaking that prioritizes the needs of community artists is to pass meaningful legal zoning restrictions and protective designations that are developed collaboratively with South End artists.