John Killacky: The arts are essential businesses

Editor’s note: This commentary is by Rep. John R. Killacky, a Democrat who represents South Burlington in the Vermont House. 

The economic damage to our arts organizations is profound and will be long-lasting. Theaters, museums, galleries, music clubs, and community art centers were the first to close in the pandemic and will be the last to open. Vermont Arts Council and Vermont Humanities Council surveyed the field and found the cultural sector has already lost $14.4 million with future losses estimated at $21 million with no opening dates in sight.  

As Covid-19 forces us to live in a continuous present, planning has been impossible. Performances and gallery exhibitions scheduled months, even years in advance, were canceled, and future events are tentative at best. Thousands of arts workers lost their jobs and performing artists that depend on touring lost all income for 2020.

The creative sector employed more than 40,000 in our state. Arts organizations have been economic anchors for downtown businesses. When I ran the Flynn Center in Burlington for eight years, I can attest that the 1,400-seat theater often provided 500+ diners at near-by restaurants, in addition to customers for neighboring bars and coffee shops. 

Rutland’s Paramount Theatre and Brattleboro Museum and Art Center, along with other venues across the state are economic drivers in their communities as well. Vermont Arts Council’s latest estimate of event-related spending by cultural audiences totaled $44 million (not including ticket income) – a very significant amount for downtown businesses.

Summer festivals won’t be happening this year, and they will be sorely missed by residents and tourists in Dorset, Putney, Guilford, Weston, St. Johnsbury, and other towns. Mainstage venues in White River Junction, Barre, Montpelier, Burlington, and elsewhere will be hard pressed to offer fall productions. And museums and galleries across the state, including in Woodstock, Brattleboro, Bennington, Shelburne, and Stowe are struggling as to when they can welcome visitors again.

Emergency relief dollars from the federal CARES Act of $800,000 is being distributed through the Vermont Arts and Vermont Humanities councils, but this is not sufficient to stabilize the field. The governor has proposed a $400 million economic recovery package. However, the arts are peripheral in the plan and need to be deemed as essential as retail, food and accommodation services, and agriculture. Grants are needed far more than low interest loans. Even with skeletal staff, significant overhead costs are being incurred with absolutely no revenue generated at present.

Cultural organizations should also play a more central role in the governor’s $5 million set-aside to encourage Vermonters to explore the state and spend locally. Bread and Puppet Theatre in Glover should be a must-see on everyone’s travel itinerary. And the Hall Art Foundation in Reading is one of our state’s hidden jewels – exhibiting world-renowned artists in exquisite galleries.

As we begin to rebuild our social, economic, and civic lives post-Covid, arts are crucial for our well-being and community vitality. It may take years for the cultural sector to fully recover. Sadly, without significant investment, many anchor organizations may not be able to return – an incalculable loss to civil society. Vermonters need the arts, now more than ever.

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