“There are two ways to be fooled. One is to believe what isn’t true; the other is to refuse to believe what is true.” — Søren Kierkegaard
Some things we hold dear, too fragile to take out of the drawer and risk the kitten will break it; too soft a secret to share, delicate and deserving of its own light in our memory. And some things we hold dear because we’re trusted to, and their preservation is our duty. This duty is shared by the leaders of a city, and if they are anything less than lions in defense, we fail.
When you believe your city is a good city, run by good people, there are some assumptions that your belief is built on. Tax money should be spent transparently. Decision-making should be fully informed. Decisions should benefit the most people possible, and do it efficiently. If you have a problem with government, your voice matters, because everyone values civic engagement.
Not in Burlington, and not with the arts.
For the last couple years a conversation was brought to the mayor, the advisory board of Burlington City Arts, and the city council. A number of artists and organizations in our community — not a majority — have had difficult relations with BCA. Groups have felt excluded or received treatment that they considered unjust. Some have felt that speaking up about it would compromise their livelihood. Some have made it clear that they feared a retributive response by the BCA director. Most agreed that the city was not choosing to support the arts community inclusively, but rather allowed attention and funding to travel to a limited range of art forms.
A good person, a conscientious person, a self-confident person, would ensure these concerns were addressed.
A civic-minded person would seek to help the mayor understand that these issues percolated under his watch, inherited by his administration, and present an opportunity to lead toward a solution that gives everyone pride in city leadership.
A compassionate person would ensure that the community advisors to the city’s arts department knew that artists invited a conversation that would help BCA steer toward mending relations and preventing future injuries.
A mature person would remind the city council that they held the ultimate responsibility for seeking resolution, and should engage with the concerns, and mediate or act as the ambassadors of democracy that they were elected to be.
A constructive person would seek consensus in their community about possible solutions and offer these solutions to city leaders.
The mayor, the leadership of the arts office, and the city council each in turn dismissed the concerns described above. Commitment to accomplish inclusion, transparency, and equity in arts governance is now sustained by artists, alone. Proposed solutions were ignored. (An overview can be downloaded here, Letter to City Council, April 12, 2016)
“In a room where
people unanimously maintain
a conspiracy of silence,
one word of truth
sounds like a pistol shot.”
― Czesław Miłosz
BCA has done work that makes the City of Burlington proud. It’s elevated Burlington’s reputation as an arts-friendly city and factually continues to enrich the lives of citizens through education, exhibitions, and programs that connect the young and old with artful experiences. The staff are earnest, dedicated, soulful people. I’ve described this opinion to the BCA director in terms that are this plain-spoken. In return for two years of seeking shared engagement with a challenging conversation that could move all of Burlington’s arts community forward toward unity, the BCA director described me as… “vitriolic.”
At a meeting of the Parks Arts & Culture Committee of the city council, councilors would not discuss the imbalance in how arts are served; rather, they invited BCA representatives to speak. The city council accepts the status quo without realizing that it’s bent at its base, without perceiving that its current success is at a cost to others.
The director of BCA told me during a BCA board committee meeting that ‘the lack of response is the response,’ a conscious dismissal of all the values underpinning democracy that this conversation sought to find expression for. Understanding this, the mayor continues to support his appointee.
Arts leaders are disenfranchised, their knowledge missing from city planning and their voices squelched by the city’s leadership. What are the city’s goals for its arts community? What values guide the city’s goals? How do these values connect to the goals, strategically? From these tiny questions the route to an unfractured future for arts in the city could be mapped. The city will not ask the questions.
When values, conscience, and a community’s voice are muted by its public servants, how do you ask, “Leaders, would you please lead?” How do you ask, “Will you be a lion in defense?”
In an April interview about the arts on WDEV I spoke about the essential ‘good’ we have and the greater good that could be achieved. Interview on ‘Open Mike,’ WDEV, April 7, 2016, published with permission.
I also asked Mayor Weinberger this question on Vermont Public Radio’s ‘Vermont Edition‘:
“Artists in Burlington have made it known to you that they perceive the BCA mission to be too limited in scope and that as an arts office it doesn’t yet meet its potential for serving all kinds of artists in the city. BCA has acknowledged that it mostly serves the visual arts and continues to expand exhibit space as it creates proposals for that use in Memorial Auditorium. What’s your strategy for ensuring that BCA reflects the interests of all local artists, including performers, and do you feel that the current mission is adequately inclusive and reflective of your administration’s ideals?”
“No man will make a great leader who wants to do it all himself, or get all the credit for doing it.” — Andrew Carnegie
This letter to Mayor Weinberger represents, at the time of posting, the most recent communication about city arts policy.
July 22, 2016
Mayor Miro Weinberger
City of Burlington
Burlington, VT 05401
Mayor Weinberger –
From the very beginning of your time as mayor I’ve reached out seeking to connect you with a world of sensitivities to arts policies that haven’t been part of the city government’s experience. Every conversation I’ve brought to your administration has been civil and grounded in a vision for Burlington that is inclusive and supportive of all creative energies, not a narrow band of them. The effort was meant to give you what you need to make informed, compassionate, fair and principled decisions about how the arts are served in the city.
The message was that collaboration empowers the community; that working together leverages the strengths of experience — of wisdom and patience and the technical arts of sustainability — that the arts community, not the administration, possesses. You’ve seen me seek a conversation with you and your staff that could have led Burlington toward enrichment of its reputation and greater success as an artful community. Your choice has been to sustain the systems and decision-making template that has existed for decades, that has prevented the city from meeting its potential.
When I described the comment “The lack of response is the response” and you declared your continued support for the BCA director, it struck an alarm. Calling out how that response lacked depth, I hope for you to realize that Burlington deserves better treatment, and deeper empathy, and responsible reflection on whether its arts are served fairly, and I’m optimistic that you’ll realize that I’m an ally while you decide. I have always been direct and candid because that’s how I give respect and recognize it.
When I asked on VPR whether you felt that the current BCA mission was adequately inclusive and reflective of your administration’s ideals, it was after two years of seeking to raise your awareness that there are concerns in the arts community, to the point of major groups being disenfranchised. If the arts had risen to any level of contemplation my question would have been a softball — you’d have owned it, but you weren’t prepared to describe a strategic relation to the arts, and that was apparent. If you’ve made the decision to discount what’s been offered for insight, you should, at least, pursue advisement that fills this gap that affects so many people. You are responsible for that, it’s what you asked for when you were elected. This is fair for you to hear, and doesn’t disqualify the other good work you do and have done.
A fairer investment in our arts community — a fairer arts office mission that purposefully includes all artists; involving local community arts leaders in decision-making; stepping respectfully back from the insulated and outdated model of advisory board election, and having a grasp that you should be the driver of collaboration and the empowerment of Burlington’s citizens will help. If you lack confidence — if the arts are outside your comfort zone or there are realistic, practical reasons that you don’t feel qualified to guide a forward-looking and sustainable mode of supporting the arts, please recognize this and engage the community that has been standing by to help you, even as they face what seems like the city’s bitter resentment toward change.
You’ve done good and meaningful things as mayor. I hope to see you make the effort to find insight and lead toward change that is based on values and challenges complacency and adequacy. We have the capacity to rise above, and a lot of people would be satisfied to know their mayor had a slow start with the arts but made an honest effort in the end.
Image: “The Roses of Heliogabalus” by Lawrence Alma-Tadema [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons.