Marlboro College

About Remarks at Brattleboro CoreArts Project Community Discussion

Exploring Brattleboro’s Cultural Landscape: Past, Present, and Future
Ellen McCulloch-Lovell, president, Marlboro College

January 11, 2014


As the young program director of the fledgling state arts council, I started traveling to Brattleboro and Windham County in 1970, and continued through the 80s. I visited string quartets in classrooms with Blanche Moyse who founded the Brattleboro Music Center (BMC), attended theater in what’s now the Hotel Pharmacy, encouraged a community group to turn the old railroad station into the Brattleboro Museum and Art Center, started the state’s artists-in-residence program with Claire Ogelsby in the Westminster West elementary school, met the influential folk singer and collector of Vermont traditional music, Margaret MacArthur, funded young theater artists Stephen Stearns and Peter Gould, and found skilled crafts producers like weaver Lucy Serkin (now Gratwick) and woodworkers Michelle and David Holzapfel, who were leaders in the growing crafts movement. I found political support for the arts in the influential figures of Senator Bob Gannett and Speaker of the House Stephan Morse.

I start with this, not for biographical reasons, but to remind us all that Brattleboro and the surrounding towns and rural areas have long been a cultural center, a seed bed for artists and arts organizations, way beyond what might be predicted given our population and income. Why? I wondered as I observed both the continuity and changes: The BMC still offers excellent concerts and classes; the New England Youth Theatre is a signature organization dating from the late 1990s; new venues like the Latchis, Hooker-Dunham Theater and the Stone Church offer opportunities for presentation; Main Street and other areas are lined with arts-related businesses, like Vermont Artisans, A Candle in the Night, Catherine Dianich Gallery, and Zephyr Designs; Vermont Photography Center and Insight Photography, the River Gallery School of Art, and others have grown up. The Cotton Mill is a creative cluster itself, housing the New England Center for Circus Arts, The Center for Digital Arts, Natalie Blake Studios, Steve Procter Ceramics, Vermont Jazz Center and at least 28 other artists and cultural product makers. Hundreds of volunteers sustain popular cultural activities that identify Brattleboro, such as the Brattleboro Literary Festival, Gallery Walk, and the Strolling of the Heifers.

Looking at other creative clusters in town and in West Brattleboro, traveling West to Marlboro, South to Guilford, and North to Putney, we find an astonishing array of artists, educational centers, and cultural organizations. I’ve observed that over the decades, this area has not only attracted artists, but has sustained cultural organizations with a high degree of civic engagement and generous philanthropy. I marvel at the vitality and number of cultural events, organizations and artists supported by this small population and visitors and can only conclude that there is an expectation and value-system that keeps cultural concern and support high -- higher than in other parts of our beloved state.

But let’s not forget the history and context that might make this so. We assert that Vermont has more artists per capita than any other state! As I’ve written in a chapter on the arts in the forthcoming book The Vermont Difference, I’m going to posit that there is a Vermont “creative spirit” that emerges in the innovation that is prompted by a scarcity of resources, a character of resourcefulness, and a talent for organization. From the earliest days, Vermont inhabitants expressed themselves beyond utilitarian survival. Just look at the beauty of the old barns and stone walls and how our neighbors stack their wood. Later, as life offered more time for reflection and artistic expression, Vermonters and visitors alike found inspiration in the dramatic beauty and climate of the state, as well as its fight for independence and proud spirit. We joke about who is a “real Vermonter,” but have to remember, that aside from the Abenaki inhabitants, every settler was “from away.” The much-valued independence of the Vermonter – native and new – has even been tempered by a communal sense, bringing isolated inhabitants together for protection and governance, worship, education and forms of enjoyment. So it has been for generations.

Those who arrive express themselves individually and in the context of community. At first, they brought their cultures from the British Isles and from French Canada. Former slaves came from southern New England to find livelihood. Abenaki descendents stayed. Immigrants arrived from Wales to the slate mines of Pawlet and from Scotland, Italy, and Spain to the granite quarries around Barre and the marble quarries of Proctor. They still come; the back-to-the-land movement of the 1960s and '70s is seeing resurgence in the second decade of the 21st century. Somali immigrants are settling in Burlington. Here, the School for International Training, part of World Learning, brings diversity through its many State Department and graduate programs. Many “newcomers” or “flatlanders” came to find a sane, simple life surrounded by beauty and stayed to make significant contributions: whether in government, business, education, innovation of one of Vermont’s new “green” enterprises, or in the arts. Vermont has long been retreat, home, studio, and study to artists, who come to create and often end up as citizens of the Green Mountain State. The popular author of the 1920s, Sinclair Lewis, reported living in twenty-seven different places until he found in Barnard the feeling of home he’d been searching for. Artists do not develop here or move to Vermont because they prosper on their art. As sculptor Paul Aschenbach declared at a trustees meeting of the still-new Vermont Arts Council in the early 1970s: “I don’t make a living; I live on what I make.” That could have been said by many a farmer, logger, factory-worker, or small business-owner as well.

Vermont both attracts and nurtures talent; it inspires as well as challenges us in our everyday lives; it allows people to be themselves, while still expecting a sense of responsibility to the whole, whether it’s the village, the neighborhood, the workplace, or an artists’ association. Even so, our cultural life is more nurturing of individual forms –writing, visual arts and crafts, musical composition –than of group forms such as theater, dance, and film, which require a company to produce. Tracking the main innovations in the arts, we see the encouraging hand of the State, never as the main patron, but present as the partner in activities initiated by Vermonters. I will say more about the role of the Vermont Arts Council.

One of the earliest depictions of the Vermont landscape came from Massachusetts artist Alvin Fisher, who shows views of Brattleboro from 1829 and 1830. An influential artist of the civil war era was Larkin Goldsmith Mead of Brattleboro (1835-1910) who carved the original statue of Ethan Allen for the Vermont State House and whose statue of the goddess of agriculture sits atop that State House dome.  Thus the hand of a Brattleboro artist sits over the workings of the State. And we all know that Rudyard Kipling spent some of his most productive years in this area, writing The Jungle Book and other works that live on today. Perhaps it was the mills at the confluence of two rivers that attracted skilled craftsmen, those who arrived with the Estey Organ Company in the mid-nineteenth century, perhaps our location nearer Boston and settlements in Connecticut, perhaps the famous self-reliance combined with communitarian spirit, but we do nurture more artists per capita here!

Let’s look at some numbers – and I hope you are already familiar with some of them. The first economic impact studies of the arts began in 1978 and by 1992, the Vermont Arts Council, cooperating with the New England Foundation for the Arts (NEFA), found the overall state impact of cultural organizations and audience spending was $116.6 million. The innovative first study of New England’s creative economy looked not only at nonprofit cultural organizations, for those in the private sector such as galleries, commercial theaters, recording studios, as well as individual artists to describe the ecosystem of the arts. This, not surprisingly, included church organists and college music departments, art supply stores and pottery studios. This expanded definition of cultural activity and location gives us a more accurate and more vital look at the creative cluster. I was glad to see the “Brattleboro Atlas of Cultural Assets” sponsored by the Town and the Arts Council of Windham County by the Conway School, continue in that spirit. Vermont’s creative economy benefited greatly, starting in 2004, by the study and planning grants offered by the Vermont Council on Rural Development.

The most economic current data I could find at NEFA, however, measure the nonprofit sector. It’s still impressive. The 2010 study, using 2009 data, documents 18,000 cultural organizations in New England, with 53,000 people employed, and overall spending of $3.7 billion. The study aggregates the total spending of over 1,500 arts organizations in Vermont at $148 million, providing 3,200 jobs, or 1 % of employment. The report describes them as “a major industry in their own right,” which has “grown significantly since 2002,” having a “major. . .impact on the broader economy.” Arts attractions are destinations for visitors, who then spend more on meals, housing, and other items. The presence of cultural organizations attracts new residents and businesses to towns and the contributions of artists to “creative problem-solving” are noted in the report as “assets in building a strong economy for the 21st century.” Americans for the Arts’ Local Arts Index states that in Windham County the creative industries are 5.8 % of all businesses.

The Vermont Arts Council web site states that Vermont has 2,137 arts-related businesses employing over 7,000 people, or 6 % of the workforce and makes the point that only .042 of state funds are allocated to the arts. Given the strength of the cultural sector, given its ability to attract visitors and their spending and the evidence that engagement in the arts supports broader civic engagement as well as enhances understanding across cultures, I’ve always found it puzzling why Brattleboro as a town has not formed a closer, more prominent and stable alliance with this sector. There are signs of progress: the arts in the Town Plan, this Core Arts project, the waxing and waning discussions about an arts campus or an arts district, dynamic new leadership emerging. I hope that’s a question we can explore.

Another major force supporting Vermont’s artists and the public’s access to their creations is the powerful presence of the state’s 23 independent and public colleges. They hire artists as teachers, bring them in as artists-in-residence, train young artists, and maintain facilities for the creation and production of the arts. The college’s and our state university’s theaters, concert halls, dance studios, and galleries are sometimes the only, and often the best, cultural facilities in a region. This small state is home to 17 Vermont-based independent colleges, the University of Vermont, four State Colleges, and the Community College of Vermont, which operates in a number of locations, including Brattleboro. Each one is a cultural center and collectively, they provide more support for artists, art production, and audience development than any other source.

In our area, we should also acknowledge the influence of public and private secondary schools. Just think of Brattleboro Union High School or the Putney School, their artists and arts facilities, and the exposure to the world of ideas and creative making that gives us the next generation of artists, audiences, and consumers 

If I get to make any recommendations at this forum, one would be for us arts advocates to recognize and build on the natural alliance between the arts and educational organizations. Just look at the resources of Windham County, with Marlboro College in Marlboro and Brattleboro, Union Institute and University, Landmark College and the School for International Training, CCV and Vermont Technical College. They recently formed a Windham County Higher Education Consortium to cooperate on internships for students and offer cross-enrollment, expanding the number of offerings for students at any one institution. The consortium recently won a grant from the Vermont Department of Labor through the BDCC that no individual college would have obtained. Is there a model here for area arts organizations? What are the impediments to this kind of cooperation, or aggregation of influence 

If you look at Marlboro College alone, you see that we spend most of our $14M annual budget in the area. On the faculty, at least one-quarter are artists, living and producing in the area, presenting their work in town and at the college, participating in local cultural efforts. The college embraced musicians of international reputation who left Europe in the wake of WWII; Blanche Moyse became the first music faculty member; she, her husband, and Rudolph Serkin founded the Marlboro Music School and Festival, which attracted other musicians and their patrons to this area. We host well over 100 free events featuring them, students, and renowned artists from the region each year. Persons Auditorium and Ragle Hall are used by arts presenters such as the Vermont Performance Lab and the Blanche Moyse Chorale. The visual arts faculty’s work was featured in an exhibition at the Brattleboro Museum and Art Center, and the Graduate Center shares space and a beautiful garden with the BMAC.

The tradition of artists finding home, studio, and refuge in Vermont continues. Think of artists Wolf Kahn and Emily Mason, so instrumental in the BMAC and the college, and musicians Jamie Laredo and Sharon Robinson of Guilford, who serve gratis as artistic directors of the BMC. 

We continue to attract and nurture innovation. Sara Coffey’s Vermont Performance Lab gives artists the valuable time to research and rehearse new work and uses Guilford, Brattleboro, Bellows Falls and Marlboro College venues. Within the county, innovations became established and renowned organizations, although always in need of financial support, such as Yellow Barn Music School and Sandglass Theater, while new experiments pop up, like Next Stage. It’s a vital and dynamic scene, yet fragile. Paul Aschenbach said “I live on what I make.” Eric Peterson, the founder of Oldcastle Theater in Bennington, one of the state’s few year-round theater companies, told me years ago: “Government doesn’t support the arts; artists support the arts.”

If we look at what gets in the way of greater planning, cooperation, visibility, and support, one answer may be that we are all – artists and administrators and business owners – so stretched trying to sustain our enterprises that there is not enough time left for the considerable effort of cooperation and innovation. Likewise our generous donors and board members are called to support and volunteer for many causes. That’s why Kate Jellema, director of Marlboro College’s nonprofit management programs, designed “Get on Board Windham County.” We must identify and cultivate the next generation of trustees and contributors.

Another factor that comes with the effort of sustaining our enterprises is that we run the risk of becoming insular, isolated from the innovations in other states, towns and even countries. We need to know and use the research I cited earlier; we need to know how other towns are embracing the arts, through artist live-work spaces, using tourism dollars, creating special tax districts, promoting festivals, attracting new creative businesses. Other places have brought attention and visitors to an arts district. Can we be more imaginative in our approach, defining and promoting a series of cultural clusters or hot spots?

I referred to the hand of the State. Although citizens have always taken the initiatives in cultural development, the Vermont Arts Council has been an important, long-term and stable partner. Where is it today? It has long given matching grants and acted as the main arts advocate to the State. With apologies for the history lessons, in the early days of the Arts Council we intentionally developed and support local arts councils to be hubs of activity and communication: to provide an infrastructure for the arts. Is it time to assess how and where those hubs are supported today? Many of you have told me that it costs you as much to apply for an arts council grant than you might be awarded. I’d like to see more of the arts council’s budget going out the door to arts organizations and artists and larger grants that can help sustain organizations while they innovate or grow.

How can the Arts Council of Windham County gain strength in planning and advocating for the arts, disseminating the compelling research, and providing the hub for cooperation in the sector, so we speak more loudly, with a more unified voice?

Why isn’t the creative cluster or industry, or higher education for that matter, a more prominent part of the Southeast Vermont Economic Development Strategy (SeVEDS)? With the nonprofit sector comprising 18% of the state’s economic activity it’s time that it was seen as an economic contributor, not a drain. To use that dreadful campaign rhetoric: we are makers not takers!

How do we strengthen the potential partnership between the arts sector and the town of Brattleboro? You will have better ideas than I. I’ve seen praiseworthy efforts at the BDCC, BaBB, and the Chamber of Commerce. I also see opportunity in new leadership emerging, in Rod’s participation in this Core Arts project, in a new Town Manager. We need to think like and act like a sector, find our collective voice and collective clout, contribute – not complain – stand up and claim the civic, innovative, economic and educational roles we play so strongly in Brattleboro and Windham County.

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