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Cartoon U

State of the Arts

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The Center for Cartoon Studies won't see its first students until next fall, but the White River Junction institution is already offering some top-drawer comics education. This Thursday, Pulitzer Prize-winning cartoon superstar Art Speigelman drops by the Upper Valley for a two-part visit. In the afternoon, he stops inn at Dartmouth College for a free, public slide-talk and sign his latest work, a book-length, post-9/11 graphic essay entitled In the Shadow of No Towers. That evening, he crosses the Connecticut River for a $100-a-head sequential-art soiree hosted by CCS founder and Hartland resident James Sturm, a grand-slam graphic novelist himself.

Proceeds from the reception, which features a Q&A session, will go towards creating spaces for classrooms, labs, studios and a gallery in the 1929 Colodny Surprise Department Store -- no relation, it seems, to the historic Colodny Store that now houses Burlington College. The appearance is the center's first fundraising event, but Sturm says the school has already brought in about half of the $600,000 needed to open in September. One major donor is the widow of "Peanuts" creator Charles Schultz. There's also talk of a "significant contribution" from Peter Laird, co-creator of "Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles" and head of the Xeric Foundation, which helps promising cartoonists publish their own work.

Association with Speigelman gives the nascent institution enormous comics cred. His 1992 Maus, a book-length treatment of the Holocaust, is probably the work most responsible for legitimizing funnies' potential for gravitas. He "brought an intelligence and dignity to the medium," says Sturm. "In a lot of ways," he adds, the center is "a manifestation of what he's been doing in his own career. It's congruent with his goals about how he'd like to see comics accepted in the general culture. He has led the charge."

Speigelman isn't just a hot property among comics geeks. Word has it that folks at the University of Vermont explored bringing him to campus but were put off by the fee -- and the nicotine-loving artist's standard contract, which stipulates that he be permitted to smoke during the event. Those requirements weren't obstacles for Dartmouth.

Jonathan Crewe, who directs the college's Humanities Center, says he ran into Speigelman at a gallery opening in Manhattan and asked if he'd consider visiting. Timing was everything: Speigelman was already planning to come to White River Junction. Dartmouth is paying a "moderate fee," Crewe says. "We don't pay inflated fees. If you talk to people, they'll usually accept that." The cigarette thing was trickier to get around on the smoke-free campus. Crewe's solution: Call the appearance a "performance" in which smoking is an integral part. "Let's hope no one goes nuts," Crewe says.

Look for more Vermont visits by cartoon notables -- with or without tobacco habits -- once the CCS is actually up and running. The school's website lists a roster of likely visitors guaranteed to impress aspiring cartoonists, such as Chris Ware, Seth and Vermonters James Kochalka, Ed Koren and Alison Bechdel.

Expect hardy stock among the two-year school's pioneering mix of 20 undergraduate and graduate students. The first four applications, Sturm says, are graduating from the University of California at Berkeley, Cornell, Dartmouth and Bryn Mawr. Note to profs: Watch out that these high achievers don't goof off in cartooning class by hiding Kant behind their comics.

What's the score at the Vermont Mozart Festival? Perusers of the classifieds may have noticed an ad for an executive director -- just about six months after Pam Siers took that position. Then they lost two staff people. And the organization moved. Board members and temps have been staffing the series' new offices on the first floor of Burlington's Wells-Richardson building.

Is there any connection between these shake-ups and a recent flurry of managerial snafus -- corporate sponsors slow to sign up, the winter series schedule slow to be announced, ordered tickets slow to go out? "We needed to reorganize and restructure anyway" says board president Joy Facos. That means adding a second administrator to focus on fund-raising, PR and audience development, as well as turning a year-round staff position into seasonal employment.

As with lots of arts organizations, money is an issue. "It has been a struggle," Facos admits. "We will be doing an annual appeal." On the bright side, ticket sales have been brisk for the upcoming Christmas concerts. William Metcalfe conducts the Oriana Singers and the festival orchestra on Bach's "Magnificat," Haydn's "Mass in Time of War" and Beethoven's Elegy. Here's hoping that last selection puts the series' troubles to rest.

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