On Monday, February 23, I asked Burlington political candidates the question below via email. Answers were requested to arrive by Friday at 3pm so they could be posted here and shared via social media with the wider arts community, coinciding with the final mayoral forum at Arts Riot. Responses have been published in alphabetical order without editing. Find contact information for all candidates at http://www.burlingtonvt.gov/CT/Candidate-Resources

“I hope for more inclusive goals for how tax monies support the arts and for a transparent public process that lets people from Burlington play a role in deciding the city’s arts mission, policies, and planning. Do you feel the current arts governance could stand improvement, and if so, what would the best strategy for that be?”

I respect and thank the candidates who took the time to consider the question and engage with the concerns of the arts community; their time and thoughtfulness are valued, as well as their intention to provide Burlington with public service through elected office. It’s meaningful that each candidate recognizes artists (of all art forms) are stakeholders in our city’s wellbeing.

Responses from Candidates for Mayor

Steve Goodkind (Progressive)

While I believe the BCA does a great job in promoting the visual arts, I share the view that we need to do a lot more to promote the performing arts. One way to accomplish this is through my concept for restructuring city government. The basic idea is to combine existing resources such as staff, equipment, space and revenues to more efficiently deliver services. Here is a simplified version of how it could be implemented to better support the arts. The first step is to establish a “greater” city arts department, which could possibly include separate divisions for visual and performing arts. Existing staff, building resources and tax revenues would be shared to support both groups. The goal would be to see the same level of support and promotion of our performing arts community as we have for the visual arts. Governance is a bit more complicated because BCA’s board does a lot of fundraising to support the organization and is currently focused on visual arts. We don’t want to lose this and the performing arts have nothing like it. There needs to be a lot of engagement between the current board, members of the performing arts community and the city administration to devise a governing structure that works. From this could emerge a mission statement, policies and a planning process that supports all of the arts and allows the public input into the process that we expect.

Greg Guma (Independent)

Burlington City Arts has made a vital contribution to the city over the years, supporting countless creative projects, attracting funding from private sponsors, and extending the reach of the arts without straining the city budget. But now, after more than 30 years, BCA should transition from being an office, accountable only to the mayor and a private, self-selected board, into a real department with a commission. The current definition of its role as “the city’s cultural planner” — asserted by its director in the 2013 Annual City Report — makes clear its broad influence and cries out for public oversight. I want to see BCA become a permanent part of government, but also more balanced in its programming and support of artists, and more transparent in its decision-making process. In addition, BCA’s involvement in the planBTV process should not extend to promotion of specific projects, and the prospect of a new public arts center in the South End — or at another location — should be publicly acknowledged and discussed.  

Loyal Ploof (Libertarian)

First, as a local filmmaker, I highly support the arts in Burlington. I do believe the art governance could improve, and in my opinion the best possible way to support the arts is to remove the government interferences that hinder artists. A great example of this is the SEABA group in the South Endl; look how they thrive and grow every year with their Art Hop festival, all organized by a non government organization. Support the small business owner artists of our great eclectic city of Burlington, and let them prosper!

Miro Weinberger (Democrat)

For many years, Burlington City Arts has enriched our lives and secured substantial grant and private resources for the arts and artists in Burlington. We should be mindful of this successful and valuable history and the entrepreneurial character of the BCA board as we consider any changes to BCA’s governance and activities.

I believe all institutions have room to do even better and should strive for continuous improvement. Further, I am aware and appreciative that concerns, suggestions, and hopes about Burlington’s arts future, including a desire to improve the board nominations process, have been offered by community members. I continue to support a review of the board nominations process and expect that we will make changes that improve the process relatively soon.  

With the NEA-funded planBTV South End process, a City-wide 10-Year Capital Plan that we have been working on for a year, and an Artist Market Study, we are focusing on important assessments of our current arts community needs and resources. As we complete these assessments in the months ahead, together with Burlington’s many arts organizations, we will be well-positioned for a discussion about the future of the arts in Burlington. I look forward to that discussion.

Responses from Candidates for City Council

Selene Colburn (East District, Progressive)

Yes! YES! I would love to see more transparency, discussion and planning around the city’s arts support.

The proposals I’ve seen most recently focus on changing the appointment process for some, but not all, of the seats on the Burlington City Arts board. I have questions about whether or not this is the best approach — I’d like to see us think a lot bigger than that. In my experience, City Council appointments tend to be overly politicized. I’ve also had the experience of being on the library commission, which was governed by a mix of self-perpetuating trustees and council-appointed commissioners. That board has now voted to dissolve the trustee structure altogether with, I think, some inherent risks regarding the resulting diversity of opinions and political affiliations represented on the commission. So, I look at those proposals asking council to appoint three or even five members of the BCA board and, frankly, I wonder what that really gets those of us who want to see artists’ voices raised higher in policy making.

I’m in favor of a bolder process that would engage not just Burlington City Arts (BCA), but other local presenters and arts agencies, in a discussion about inclusive arts policy in our city. BCA did not develop its focus on the visual arts in a vacuum. They did so, in part, because other local presenters (like the Flynn Center) laid claim to the performing arts in the face of a perceived scarcity of funding resources. If we are asking BCA to step up and consider a more broad model of arts support — and I think that’s a worthy ask — we need to look at the complex system of existing arts focus and support in the community. I would like to see a task force or advisory council that includes plenty of artist representatives across disciplines (and perceived levels of “success”), as well as presenting organizations/non-profits and policy makers, to really look at the question of how the arts are doing in Burlington. We need to dig deep on the question of what we as artists (I’ve been a working choreographer for three decades) are contributing to our local economy, educational infrastructure and overall well-being. We need to ask what artists need to survive and thrive in a city poised for all kinds of growth. I believe that is the structural change that would best inform shifts in policy and funding around the arts.

I will add that as an artist I was asked to meet with BCA staff to discuss some of the challenges I’ve faced as a performing artist in Burlington, as part of their current listening tour. I found their questions to be thoughtful and receptive. I have heard the same from other artists in my field and have encouraged BCA to share what they’ve learned and are considering as part of this process, so that discussion can broaden in a transparent way. Thank you for keeping this important conversation moving. These are big, big questions that really can’t necessarily be answered easily in a blog post. If anyone wants to discuss further, I’d love to hear from you. You can reach me at scolburn [at] burlingtonvt.gov or 802-233-1358.

Mike Fife (Ward 5, Progressive)

As a running coach for at risk youth, I see the arts, similarly to sports, as an avenue for both youth and adults to find their voice and gain confidence. I should be clear that I’m not particularly well informed about the arts governance structure in Burlington (although I look forward to learning more!). I am familiar with BCA and their work which I think is an asset to the city. I do however feel that there are aspects of our public arts scene that could be more robust, specifically physical arts and performance spaces that are accessible, inviting and inclusive to lower/moderate income folks.

I would love to look at the data of who is currently being served by city funding for the arts, specifically what demographics and what types of art. If that data is unavailable I would try to make that request tied to funding. I think that a growing arts scene must work to serve all of our constituents. Based on results and input from the arts community and community as a whole I think we must look at what pathways for expression are not receiving the support they need and find ways to get that support.

The arts, both visual, physical and performance are an asset to this city. If elected to city council, I will focus on working with the multiple arts communities in our communities to help them get the resources they need to continue adding to the culture and value or our city.

Thanks and please let me know if you have more questions or would like to discuss more!  My e-mail is mikefifeforcitycouncil@gmail.com or call me at 802-862-1675

Sara Giannoni (Ward 3, Progressive)

While I have heard some information about Burlington City Arts there is still a great deal I do not know.  At this time my opinions are based on the subjective experiences of others, some of those experiences good and others negative.

I too would like to see transparency in any assessment of programs and use of tax monies.  I also think that it is important to clearly define what is meant by transparent.  The goal of “transparency”, while important, is used so often and has lost its meaning.  I would love to see the city set up a process, including leaders in the arts community in the development of that process, to assess BCA.   I would like to have that process shared with the public through updates on what will happen, updates as they happen, and what outcomes were found when the process is complete.

At this time it makes sense to me that there be a review of BCA’s mission and the goals of their various programs to assess if that mission and those goals are currently being reached.  I was excited to see the recent announcement of the creation of the Vermont Creative Network by the VT Arts Council, Champlain College Emergent Media Center, The Vermont Department of Libraries, and the Vermont Downtown Program of the Agency of Commerce and Community Development, to address the need for collaboration and strengthened relationships between different sectors of the arts.  I think this could be a fantastic model to follow for increasing BCA’s reach.  I would like to see if the work at BCA is or could help facilitate integration in our community among some who are isolated from others.  One of the reasons I’m running for city council is to help increase the engagement of citizens in government, and that extends to BCA and Burlington’s fantastic arts scene.  It is the cultural lifeblood of the city, and without true understanding of the resources city government is putting into the arts and how those resources are being used, we may be missing an opportunity to engage many in our community who could benefit as well as for potential partners to join in and increase the reach of the work.

Jim Holway (Ward 4, Democrat)

The human mind is an amazing thing. Whether “Left-Brained” or “Right-Brained” we all benefit from both the scientific and artistic parts of the world around us. Funding the arts has all too often been an easy take-away when we are searching to stretch our dollars. Some say it happens because it is much more difficult to measure the benefits of incorporating music and the arts into the main stream of our youths learning experience. 

I have a son who’s involvement in the Essex Childrens Choir led him to perform in the Lincoln Center for the Arts. The experience not only enriched his life, our whole family enjoyed many experiences with them along the way.

Getting there can be an extremely expensive proposition. Imagine how many gifted children may not reach their potential and share their gift if we do not support efforts to extend scholarship programs and make a clear path for our youth to pursue their dreams, whatever they may be.

Further this community owes a debt of gratitude to Big Heavy World for all they have done for music in this community over.the years.

Michael Ly (Ward 7, Republican)

Burlington innovative arts scene is an extremely important part of the entrepreneurial fabric of this City.  As a business owner and tenant at the Karma Birdhouse, I am surrounded by entrepreneurial and creative artists who contribute to Burlington being an even more attractive city for future artists, young professionals, families, and budding entrepreneurs.  Burlington must be committed to a public process that solicits input from stakeholders who play influential roles in this scene, as well as the residents of Burlington who enjoy the benefits of the arts scene.

Chip Mason (Ward 5, Democrat)

Thank you for the opportunity to comment. I appreciate your efforts in promoting a public dialogue regarding whether the current governance model at Burlington City Arts works and whether BCA effectively represents all art forms. If I am re-elected, I would welcome the opportunity to hear more on this important issue and promise to keep an open mind and actively listen. 

At the present time, I have been actively listening to the concerns raised by SEABA and artists in the Pine Street Corridor during Plan BTV South End. I am encouraged by the active participation of artists in this process and their concerns regarding gentrification and being pushed out as development occurs. I am also encouraged by the involvement of Civic Moxie as a consultant. They have proven success in working with communities to preserve and protect emerging arts districts. I do not know the solutions, but I looking forward to the Plan BTV South End report and working to preserve and protect what makes the South End special.

Karen Paul (Ward 6, Democrat)

Thank you for the opportunity to respond to your question.  As the past chair of the Parks, Arts and Culture Committee of the City Council for four years and currently as a member of the Committee, I have long advocated for the arts in our community. It is critical that we all recognize the significant importance of the arts in our community’s rich culture and that we support the arts with resources, both in terms of financial funding but also in encouraging everyone to appreciate just how much of a role the arts play in the community as far as our livability, sustainability and our future as a City.  I do feel part of my role as an elected official is to promote that understanding.

I believe that we should always be open and welcoming to a process that allows for a genuine approach to public input and engagement. I also believe that the arts governance process would be well served by a wider spectrum of community input that embraces the structures we currently have and brings more voices to the table. There is a resolution that addresses this concept that I believe will be coming to the Council in the near future which would be a good first step to establishing a more inclusive process.

I appreciate the work that many people have done to bring this issue to the forefront of discussion and hope to do my part in supporting furthering that dialogue in a manner that supports the great work that our City has done to promote the arts as well as improve these efforts in a way that is beneficial to Burlington’s growing, lively, engaging and diverse arts community.

Adam Roof (Ward 8, Independent)

My idea of government is that it is the nervous system of a community. It makes decisions and performs functions based on complex and confusing systems; all of which aren’t fully understood. Sometimes it is healthy and performs well, and at times it is not. If government is the mind and central nervous system of a community, then the arts are the heart. A most major part of the system, for it gives it soul. The arts, much like public officials, represent the people. As a City Councilor I would most certainly prioritize the arts while considering funding, policy, and planning. I have a record of being an advocate for the arts during my time as a Trustee at the University of Vermont. Also, as a student my English concentration was in poetry and to this day it is still a medium I use to express myself. I can’t imagine a Burlington without a robust artistic culture. I would be a proud partner and advocate of the arts at City Hall.

Ron Ruloff (Central District, Independent)

Helping the Arts may well be a worthy goal, the FFL displays artworks almost constantly, but the underlying problem is with the poor financial condition of and outlook for Burlington, which swings way out of its weight on many fronts. For example, contributions to the pension fund for city workers have been decreased to meet ongoing current expenses. Various city councilors plan to announce that the poor funding of the pension fund (currently at approximately 61%, it was 110% some 12 years ago, it lost over $33 million dollars in poor investments in the sub-prime mortgage debacle) will require major and massive give-backs by both current and future pensioners, on whose backs, and on the backs of bondholders who will not be paid the city is currently running. The city of Burlington is swinging way, way out of its weight, and in 5-10 years it will be a major new ball game, and you better get used to the idea. There are no money trees growing in City Hall Park, nor oil wells from which to derive income. Jane Knodell, my opponent, in her latest circular, wants to get city revenue from non-real estate (tax) sources: what might these be? 10% sales taxes perhaps, or a Burlington income tax, or maybe gifts from foundations, or from Santa Claus—she doesn’t say. She did say current revenues pay for current expenses, but that is dissembling, and an outright lie. If it were so why does she want to reduce the school budget, and the city’s operating costs? And how? Several months ago she stated in council that the school budget was a “bare-bones” budget (in reality it is loaded with patronage jobs created by the Progressive Party, including the entire upkeep of the Barnes School, which functions as Progressive Party headquarters.)

The city will likely wind up in federal bankruptcy court and will be forced to sell Burlington Electric and/or the airport, which it should never have tried to maintain to begin with. We’re a small town of 42,000 people, and not a metropolis. Burlington cannot be driven by a single issue, it has to encompass everyone’s legitimate needs.

Joan Shannon (South District, Democrat)

I don’t think that artists want to be “governed” but they do want to be promoted. I also hear from artists that they want to protect existing inexpensive studios where they can work. To that end, I am excited about the PlanBTVSouthEnd process because this brings the issue to the forefront; rather than leaving it to chance, which is what we have done up until now. I am also glad that the BTVSouthEnd project has been actively promoted by City Arts thereby increasing the participation of artists. I am also grateful to the artists for actively participating in the community engagement events and finding creative ways to engage the public. We want and NEED artists to continue to thrive, and we need to plan, so that they don’t get squeezed out. I don’t know what the solutions are, but I am glad we are tackling the issue head on, as too many other places have lost the artists in their Arts districts.

The City of Burlington and City Arts are doing better than most at keeping the arts alive in Burlington. However there is ALWAYS room for improvement. I have met several times in the course of the past year with different groups of artists. I really appreciate the time they have spent with me to inform me of their concerns. My main takeaway from these conversations is two complaints (other than rent concerns): City Arts should promote more local artists, and also that City Arts competes with artists. I also hear that people really like the artists that are attracted to Burlington because of our programming. But we should give more consideration to how we are promoting our local artists. I look forward to continuing the conversation with our local artists and finding ways to address their concerns. I greatly appreciate all the  artists who have reached out to me with their concerns and I am committed to trying to find solutions to issues that are raised.

Max Tracy (Ward 2, Progressive)

Jim- Thanks for reaching out and for asking these important questions.  

I would absolutely like to see more transparency and public process for allocating public money, not just for the arts but city wide. A number of colleagues on other municipal bodies in other cities have shared their incredibly positive experiences with participatory budgeting, a process through which more discretionary elements of a City’s budget are opened up to the public for more direct input on how and where that money should be spent to best serve the community.  I understand that this may be difficult in the context of BCA where a significant amount of their funding is fundraised from private donors, but opening up to more feedback during the budgeting process does not seem harmful, but rather helpful in achieving community goals.

In terms of the structure of governance, I am open to the idea of adding board members to BCA’s board with the hope of increasing artist representation on the board.  I look at this idea as being iterative in that it will prove helpful in getting more views to the table, but may not be a silver bullet for all issues relating to arts governance and funding.

At the same time, I think it will be important to take a step back and take a more comprehensive look at existing artist communities and organizations in Burlington and how they are and aren’t supporting different mediums within the arts.  BCA exists within a complex web of artist and arts based organizations in town that support different mediums in different ways.  While I am familiar with and regularly engage with many of the individuals and organizations, I would not pretend to have a comprehensive understanding of all that goes on in Burlington’s art world.  Given its size and complexity, I doubt that anyone could.  Still, I am believe that having a focused assessment of as much of Burlington’s art scene done by community artists coming from a variety of different mediums could prove helpful in understanding who is doing what and where the gaps lie.  Perhaps some sort of ad hoc artist committee tasked with doing such an assessment and reporting their findings back to the Council along with policy recommendations would be another helpful step in continuing to move this conversation along.  I am certainly willing to meet with artists at any time and listen to their concerns and ideas for making Burlington a better place to make art.

The photo at top was taken on stage after the Save Open Space Burlington mayoral forum at Arts Riot tonight. Left to right: Mayoral candidates Loyal Ploof, Steve Goodkind, Miro Weinberger, and Greg Guma. They’ve got their hands in the post-fight-school/team yell position, if you’re wondering. 

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