In a normal year, this would be the week we'd publish Seven Days' annual Performing Arts Preview, a look ahead at what arts presenters have in store for Vermont audiences this season. Sadly, most of the series — shows for which you buy tickets in advance — have been canceled because large indoor gatherings aren't advisable during the coronavirus pandemic. Six months into the public health crisis, assistant arts editor Dan Bolles takes the temperature of Vermont's cultural sector and considers the economic impact on the businesses it supports. There's some good news...
Before I covered the state's arts ecosystem, I worked in it. My first job out of college was at the Flynn in Burlington, which in 1983 was just beginning its renovation from an art-deco vaudeville movie house to a world-class performing arts center. The only office space in the theater was the size of an accessible restroom — big enough for a desk and a copier. A small group of us used an office on College Street, above where Sherpa Kitchen is now.
As a full-time intern, I was in charge of marketing, membership and education — each of which has since become a separate department. I got a crash course in arts administration that has served me well as a journalist and business owner. I watched as the stage went from hosting "opportunity" rental bookings to one proudly hosting the Flynn's own season. And I saw Burlington transform from a sad commercial crossroad to a vibrant cultural destination where people wanted to be.
While the Church Street Marketplace set the scene, the Flynn brought business to its retail shops, bars and restaurants. Out-of-towners coming in for a show would make a night of it. It took a while for merchants to realize they should staff up on show nights, even midweek. The first annual Burlington Discover Jazz Festival, in the summer of 1984, dispelled any lingering doubts about the positive impact of this cultural activity on the downtown.
The Flynn's success attracted more artists, too, who flocked to the Queen City looking to perform their work. Pretty soon we had FlynnSpace and the performing arts center at Main Street Landing. Visual artists got on board, too, launching the South End Art Hop in 1993.
Towns outside of Burlington saw the benefits and also worked to create, or revive, a cultural niche. Some of them had their own version of the Flynn — a glorious venue that had fallen into disrepair over the decades. The Barre Opera House started hosting shows in the early '80s "in spite of the dingy walls, broken windows, lack of proper seats and heating," according to the venue's website. The Vergennes and Haskell opera houses were back in business by 1997. Renovations at the Chandler Center for the Arts in Randolph started in 1972 and continued for decades.
Jay Craven didn't have a building when he first started Catamount Arts in St. Johnsbury, but the aims of his itinerant performing arts series were the same wherever he presented shows: to create "ever more vibrant downtown areas" and "moments of shared community, and the goal of exposing individuals — who might not otherwise have the chance — to world-class cultural events more commonly booked in large cities," reads the mission statement of Catamount's successor nonprofit, Kingdom County Productions.
This is the environment that also spawned Seven Days. With our performing arts backgrounds — cofounder Pamela Polston's as a singer in a rock band, mine as a would-have-been ballet dancer — the two of us were eager to explore Vermont's cultural riches and share our findings with readers. In 25 years, the staff of the paper we created has never run out of artists, musicians, actors, dancers and impresarios to write about.
Those folks are up against a huge challenge this year — in which planning is almost impossible — but we have faith that their creations will be worthy of your support and Seven Days coverage.