Commentary is by Karen Mittelman, executive director of the Vermont Arts Council in Montpelier, and Jody Fried, chair of the Vermont Creative Network and executive director of Catamount Arts in St. Johnsbury. First published by VTDigger on March 15, 2020.
Across the nation, theaters and museums are going dark in response to the COVID-19 pandemic. Arts organizations are closing to protect the health and welfare of their communities, often at the expense of their own financial security. In Vermont, the list of canceled concerts, festivals, workshops, classes, and other public events grows by the hour.
The long-term economic impact of those cancellations will be devastating for our state’s creative sector—and many local economies—if we don’t act quickly. The impact is particularly damaging for performing arts organizations, where lost revenue from ticket sales and event cancellations is already stretching the resources of many organizations close to the breaking point. But the ripple effects will be far greater. Local restaurants, hotels, bars, coffee shops, and stores rely on performing arts events for a substantial part of their revenue. Out-of-state tourists who come to Vermont for an arts event typically spend $46.35 in local businesses. (Vermont residents spend, on average, $23.45.) Vermont’s arts and culture industry leverages $44 million in event-related spending.
Although the virus only reached Vermont within the past couple of weeks, our communities are already feeling the impact; public health officials tell us that it’s only a matter of time before we will see more schools and businesses shuttered. In the midst of a public health crisis, of course our first priority must be to safeguard the health and safety of our people, especially the most vulnerable Vermonters. We applaud Gov. Phil Scott and his administration, and our legislators, for acting swiftly and decisively to respond to the pandemic in our state.
But we simply cannot afford to ignore the future financial health of Vermont’s creative sector. Vermont has a higher share of jobs in this economic sector (9% of all employment) than the average across the United States. A growing body of research nationwide tells us that the creative sector—the people and businesses that produce and distribute creative products and services—is particularly critical to economic growth in rural states like ours.
Art and culture are also essential to attract and retain the young people who are vital to Vermont’s future. We know that millennials spend more on arts and cultural experiences than other demographic groups, and look for places to live that offer vibrant downtowns. Arts and culture build the infrastructure for healthy, vibrant communities where people want to live, work, and raise their families.
And perhaps just as important as the economic impact: the arts will help us to heal. In the aftermath of Hurricane Irene, community arts projects invited people to share their stories and support one another. Artists are already mobilizing across Vermont in response to COVID-19, devising creative responses to the pandemic. Live-streamed concerts, online performances and film-watching parties, and family arts activities will help to ease the social isolation and fear experienced by ill and vulnerable Vermonters in the coming months.
Artists and arts organizations—the ones that can weather this crisis—will be there to enable our communities to move forward when the worst is behind us. We need the arts now more than ever, to remind us of our better selves, to help us to support each other with creativity and compassion. We call on private philanthropists and our elected officials to ensure that arts organizations are included in relief packages for small businesses, and that there is emergency aid available for individual artists (50% of whom are self-employed or freelancers).
We can’t afford to wait to confront the very real financial distress in Vermont’s creative sector if we want to ensure a stable economic future for our communities.