Business & Economy

Vermont arts leaders push creative economy as vital to state’s future

Rainbow wall with sculpture that spells ART
Old metal tools spell the word “art” outside the ArtRageUs gallery in Brattleboro. Photo by Kevin O’Connor/VTDigger

Vermont arts leaders are calling for more government, business and educational investment in the creative economy as a way to help the state rebound from turbulent times.

“Creative people, businesses and ideas are key to helping Vermont recover from the Covid-19 pandemic and address major challenges like racism, climate change and affordability,” according to a summary of an action plan released by the Vermont Creative Network Monday. “Just like roads and bridges, creativity and innovation are essential infrastructure for Vermont’s future.”

The Vermont Creative Network, authorized by the state Legislature and administered by the Vermont Arts Council, recently completed a statewide study of the scope and economic impact of a cultural sector estimated to reap more than $1 billion annually.

About 9% of all Vermont jobs are in such fields as design, arts and crafts and specialty foods, according to the study, representing a greater share than the U.S. average. Nearly 50% of these workers are self-employed or freelance, compared to 40% nationally.

However, the Vermont creative economy’s 8% growth rate over the past decade is smaller than the nation’s 14%. Worse, the state lost 8,090 such jobs and $216 million in related sales in the first four months of the pandemic, another study found.

“Our research demonstrates the substantial economic power of the creative sector and a compelling need to invest in the sector’s future growth,” said the action plan summary. “Our state’s reputation for innovation is a vital part of the Vermont ‘brand,’ attracting tourists and entrepreneurs, driving economic growth, and anchoring vibrant communities.”

The 128-page plan calls for “robust” public and private funding and local and state policies that support creative enterprises, more educational help in developing such abilities and appreciation, and further growth and diversification of the Vermont Creative Network.

“A lot of times when we talk about the arts now, we talk about how it helps the economy,” U.S. Rep. Peter Welch, D-Vt., said at an online unveiling Monday attended by nearly 200 people. “There are economic benefits, but there are spiritual benefits as well. People want to live in active, vibrant communities and are attracted when there’s a lively artistic scene.”

Vermont Senate President Pro Tempore Becca Balint, D-Windham, noted the particularly troubling headlines of the past year.

“This is the time when we are starved for this work,” Balint said. “I see it as a creative road map for our state.”

State Sen. Kesha Ram, D-Chittenden, the first woman of color to serve in the Senate, feared she’d be the only person of color in the creative network’s process. She was pleasantly surprised at the study’s reach.

“It was just an incredible, diverse, inclusive range of people,” Ram said. “It’s reflected in how much of an invitation it is to the whole state.”

The Vermont Creative Network began in 2015 as a 50th anniversary project of the Vermont Arts Council, a nonprofit partner of the National Endowment for the Arts. Its creative alliance aims to serve as the arts equivalent of Vermont agriculture’s Farm to Plate Network, all to help imaginative, inventive individuals and institutions grow audiences, promotional efforts and financial support.

“This is not a direct cookbook — you add special ingredients along the way,” Brattleboro writer and photographer Shanta Lee Gander said. “You do whatever works for your community with this plan.”

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Kevin O'Connor

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