When the Texas-based National Center for Arts Research set out to find the country's most creatively vibrant communities, it didn't have to research for long. The center has just released its first annual Arts Vibrancy Index, and among its findings is the following: Three of the top 20 "Hotbeds of America's Arts and Culture" (in medium and small cities) are right here in Vermont.
The NCAR analyzed information from the Cultural Data Project, the National Endowment for the Arts, the Census Bureau and other national and government sources; divided the nation into 900 distinct communities; and produced two sets of rankings. One is for the top 20 cities with populations of a million or more, the other for the top 20 with populations of a million or less. Vermont communities in the latter category are Barre, Bennington and "Burlington-South Burlington."
What qualifies a place as an arts vibrator, as it were? "The numbers are only the start of the story," writes NCAR director Zannie Giraud Voss in the report. As a white paper on the study explains, "The overall index is composed of three dimensions. Vibrancy is measured as the level of supply, demand and government support for arts and culture on a per capita basis."
The state's stellar showing comes as no surprise to Alex Aldrich, executive director of the Vermont Arts Council and de facto head cheerleader for the arts in the Green Mountain State. "Vermont is right at the top," he said when contacted for comment. "According to the 2012 census, we've got the country's third-highest ranking for percentage of artists that make up the work force. Second if you count only writers and fine artists."
The study coincides with the arts council's 50th birthday, a milestone it's marking with a yearlong celebration called Vermont Arts 2015, which will highlight the vast array of arts events taking place across the state. "This is the Year of the Arts in Vermont," Aldrich said, referring to a resolution passed by the legislature last May. "The [NCAR] report provides yet further evidence that the arts are a vital part of what makes Vermont special."
The NCAR researchers explain that their intention is "to stimulate a conversation about how cities vary in their arts vibrancy and what vibrancy can look like, not to engender competition." They add, "It's important to keep in mind that we take a per capita approach, which can sometimes lead to surprising results."
For example: You might assume that Burlington-South Burlington would rank highest of the three Vermont cities. Nope. Per capita, the top spot goes to Barre, which ranks as No. 10 of NCAR's top 20 list. The report's writers combine Barre, Waterbury, Woodbury and Montpelier into a single community, and note such cultural attributes as the Vermont Philharmonic and Studio Place Arts, a nonprofit visual-arts center overseen by executive director Sue Higby. Astonishingly, Barre ranks No. 1 in federal arts dollars per capita, and places in the top 5 percent of cities on the NCAR "Arts Dollars" metric — a measure of demand for nonprofit arts and cultural programming.
"We selected Barre as the home for Studio Place Arts because we wanted to be a part of a city that had deep roots in the arts," Higby said in a phone interview. "It's wonderful that the area's investments in the arts and cultural heritage are receiving long-overdue national attention."
Higby added that NCAR's recognition "positions the state of Vermont to make more compelling marketing statements about its cultural assets to people around the country."
Bennington — which, for the purposes of the study, includes Manchester — nabbed the No. 15 spot for being home to "a diverse population of visual artists," including the Manchester Music Festival, Vermont Arts Exchange and Bennington Museum.
At No. 19, Burlington-South Burlington is noted for "the diversity of arts within a city of this size." (It should be noted that NCAR is operating under the impression that all three named Vermont communities are considerably larger than their actual populations. But all certainly qualify as "1 million or less.") The study highlights the city's "two major arts groups": Burlington City Arts and the "Southeast Arts District" — a misnomer for either Burlington's South End Arts District or the South End Arts and Business Association.
You'd think an organization called National Center for Arts Research, whose website is filled with the kind of statistics and dizzying number crunching that only financial analysts could love, would do a better job of fact checking the communities in its report. But NCAR misnames "Main Street Landing Theatres" and "the Flynn Theatre," and limits Burlington-South Burlington's arts highlights to the Green Mountain Chamber Music Festival, the Vermont Symphony Orchestra, the University of Vermont's Fleming Museum, and the Vermont Mozart Festival, which — oops — ceased making beautiful music back in 2010. No mention is made of events and organizations such as the South End Art Hop, Burlington Discover Jazz Festival, First Night, Lyric Theatre, Magic Hat's Mardi Gras celebration, the Vermont International Film Festival, Vermont Stage Company and many more.
Despite having apparently overlooked much of the area's cultural richness, NCAR's report ranks greater Burlington in "the top 10 percent of cities in the arts education, art museum, community-based arts, [and] symphony ... sectors for Arts Dollars per capita." Which is great — and, OK, it's not a competition. But we can't help wondering how much higher Burlington-South Burlington might have charted had the well-meaning folks behind the study factored in all the area's good vibrations.
Be that as it may, NCAR — the first such center of its kind in the U.S., based at Southern Methodist University in Dallas — describes its mission as "[acting] as a catalyst for the transformation and sustainability of the national arts and cultural community." And that's something we Vermonters can get behind.