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Vermont Arts Council Director to Step Down in the Fall


Published July 19, 2022 at 8:45 a.m.

  • File: Jeb Wallace-Brodeur
  • Karen Mittelman
When she was hired five years ago as the top administrator for the Vermont Arts Council, Karen Mittelman was charged with forging new partnerships with other cultural organizations and increasing the reach of the state’s primary arts advocacy and funding organization.

Mittelman, who announced Tuesday that she’ll leave her position at the end of October, built close relationships with groups such as Vermont Humanities and the Vermont Council on Rural Development. She launched a strategic action plan for the creative sector and doubled the amount of arts grant funding during her tenure — $8 million since 2020, according to the arts council.

And thanks in part to the unexpected challenges and opportunities created by COVID-19, Mittelman also played a key role in a surge of arts advocacy that resulted in $9 million in new arts funding this year.

Mittelman, who previously served as director of the Division of Public Programs at the National Endowment for the Humanities, moved to Vermont in 2017 to take the arts council job. At 63, she’s stepping down to focus on her writing. The council is launching a national search for a new director.

State Rep. John Killacky (D-South Burlington), who ran Burlington’s Flynn Theater from 2010 to 2018, said Mittelman has changed the way many of his colleagues in the Statehouse view the arts. With Vermont Humanities director Christopher Kaufman Ilstrup and others, Killacky said, Mittelman alerted lawmakers to the impact arts closures have on communities and the state.

"She has changed the dialogue away from, 'the arts are good for you' into, 'the arts are a huge economic driver and a huge percentage of the workforce in Vermont,'" Killacky said.
Mittelman said the pandemic aided her mission by directing attention to the importance of the arts and sending billions of dollars of federal COVID-19 emergency funding to Vermont. With social distancing imposed, she said, policymakers realized how much they missed the concerts, theater performances, museum exhibits, wine tastings and other cultural activities they once frequented.

“COVID accelerated awareness of how important the creative sector is,” she said. “People realized that it was a really important part of life we were missing.”

Killacky said his colleagues in the legislature started to take notice last year after Mittelman, who hired a lobbyist, had arts leaders testify about how pandemic closures and safety measures had cut into organization revenues and budgets.

“It hadn’t occurred to many of them. Even though they all are audience members in the community, they just thought that enough was being done,” Killacky said. “No one had really asked for more.”
  • File: Oliver Parini
  • John Killacky

Holly Groschner served on the arts council's board between 2013 and 2015, and again starting last year. When she returned, she said, “I was thrilled to find a whole new world of transparency and collaboration," something she attributed to Mittelman. "Karen understands that a healthy organization is a transparent organization."

Groschner, who was president at Vermont PBS between 2015 and 2020, added that Mittelman broke new ground for the arts council in other ways.

“I saw Karen provide opportunities to discuss racism in Vermont, to discuss making more affirmative opportunities for diversity in Vermont, and reach out to organizations that are sometimes competitors for funding and helped them find common ground,” Groschner said.
The $9 million that lawmakers appropriated this year for creative sector grants, Mittelman said, is unprecedented. It’s part of Vermont’s federal American Rescue Plan Act allocation, and the money can be used to cover operating costs, including rent, mortgage, utilities and insurance for creative economy businesses that suffered pandemic-related losses.

When the COVID-19 money is gone, Mittelman said, arts organizations could still be facing pandemic-related challenges, including half-full theaters, the added expenses of pandemic safety requirements and general uncertainty about the future. Donors, too, might start showing new caution now that the stock market and the economy are wobbling.

“Audiences are strong; Vermont’s numbers are good. But what happens in the fall and winter when we have to move indoors again and there is a new variant?” Mittelman said, “If you’re the executive director of a theater or a museum, how do you plan for that?”