A group of arts organizations in Vermont plans to ask lawmakers for $17.5 million in the coming year to compensate arts businesses for losses they suffered in the pandemic.
The money — an unprecedented amount for arts spending in Vermont — would be invested strategically and repaid by economic growth in rural areas, Jody Fried, executive director of Catamount Arts in St. Johnsbury, told the legislature’s Rural Economic Development Working Group on Tuesday.
The Vermont Creative Network, a collection of groups and individuals that is working with the Vermont Arts Council, hopes to request $17.5 million for several programs that would bolster the arts this year. The bill is being drafted now, and the numbers could change, noted co-sponsor Sen. Alison Clarkson (D-Windsor).
The money would be a boon to Vermont’s arts sector, which supports 9 percent of the employment in the state, according to an estimate from the Vermont Creative Network. The network is made of up organizations, businesses, and individuals that are working to promote the state’s creative sector.
The largest investment Vermont has previously made in artists and art businesses was the $5 million grant fund dedicated to cultural nonprofits established last year as part of the state’s COVID-19 relief economic development grants program, said Karen Mittelman, the director of the Vermont Arts Council.
Mittelman said the money outlined in the Creative Network proposal would go directly to arts and arts businesses, not to the Arts Council.
The group has two sponsors on board now, Clarkson and Rep. Stephanie Jerome (D-Brandon). Mittelman said she has heard from other lawmakers who are interested in signing on in a few weeks, when the language of the bill is expected to be final.
Clarkson said she and Jerome are basing the bill on language from the Vermont Creative Network that includes several proposals, including one that would allocate $750,000 to turn vacant downtown storefronts into affordable art studios. The group also seeks $10 million for grants to theaters, community arts centers, galleries, museums and dance studios that need to engage audiences they lost during the pandemic and make changes to equipment and supplies to safely reopen.
Vermont arts organizations likely lost about $50 million as a result of the pandemic, Mittelman said.
A 2019 report from the National Governor’s Association found that rural counties with performing arts organizations have three times the population growth, and higher household incomes, than rural counties without those organizations.
It also said rural counties with design-driven businesses recovered more quickly from the recession. And two out of three rural businesses reported that arts and entertainment were important to attracting and retaining workers, the NGA report said.
“We have hospital CEOs and manufacturing CEOs who cannot attract nurses or doctors or lab technicians or manufacturing workers unless Vermont can offer vibrant downtowns, and we don’t have vibrant downtowns without arts and culture,” Mittelman said Wednesday. “Vibrant downtowns attract young people and creative entrepreneurs who want to build a future here.”
Fried, who is active in state economic development organizations, said the biggest crisis facing economic development in the Northeast Kingdom is the lack of job applicants.
“New workers will choose Vermont if we make a deliberate strategic investment in creative enterprises,” Fried said. “It’s not just theory. We have data from across the state and the entire country to support it.”
He added that he has seen in the Northeast Kingdom how people tend to move to areas that invest in the arts, and business investment follows.
“Compared to traditional forms of economic development, it has a much higher bang for the buck,” Fried said. “We are competing with rural communities across the country who already get this.”