Friday February 15, 2013

BRATTLEBORO -- We all feel pretty good about ourselves when some travel writer touts our area's lively arts scene or when Smithsonian Magazine picks Brattleboro as one of the 25 Best Small Towns in America. But is that enough?

Not for the three people spearheading the implementation of the National Endowment for the Arts Our Town Grant. They want to know the story behind the story.

"It's a little bit like Lake Wobegon, where you hear how ‘everyone is above average,'" said Rod Francis, planning director for the Town of Brattleboro, and one of those three people. "We could just riff off that or we could take a more adventurous path access different aspects of the community."

The NEA Our Town Grant is all about that more adventurous path. Last July, it was announced that the town and the Arts Council of Windham County were among 80 recipients of the grant whose aim is to support creative "placemaking" projects and to help transform communities into lively, sustainable places with arts at their core. The two-year grant came with a $50,000 award and the requirement for a one-to-one match. The Town of Brattleboro committed $10,000 to the match, and efforts are well under way to secure the rest, according to Francis.

So now the work begins. The first phase, titled the Brattleboro CoreArts Cultural Mapping Project is under way and welcomes your input.


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With the help of student consultants from the Conway School, the project aims to identify, tally, map and assess just what Brattleboro's cultural assets are and, beyond that, to ask the question: What makes Brattleboro vibrant?

The public is invited to participate in this, to share their stories and ideas about Brattleboro's arts and culture scene at a Community Workshop this Saturday from noon to 1:30 p.m., at the Brooks Memorial Library's Meeting Room.

Wait a minute. Don't we already know this stuff?

"It's true, the Smithsonian thinks we're great, but they probably never asked the questions we think to ask," said Zon Eastes.

"People have said ‘How can you be asking these questions? Everyone in the world knows Brattleboro is an arts community.'" said Kate Anderson of the Town Arts Committee. "I would say there is a very lively, vibrant, under-the-radar group of folks who are doing amazing things that we don't know about."

So the Brattleboro CoreArts Cultural Mapping Project aims to find out who these people are, what they do, where they do their work, where the venues are, what arts and culture organizations are in town all leading to some powerful existential questions.

"What is the life force that keeps people here?" Francis asked.

In addition to Saturday's Community Workshop, the Conway students will also be conducting focus groups and having conversations with various stakeholders in the arts scene and the community at large.

The idea is "to get at what the perceptions of the cultural landscape are," said Anderson.

What will come out this first phase? Some documents, an actual map, a report, something that might help people speak with a more unified voice about the artistic and cultural landscape here and identify and address common needs.

"One of the byproducts of collective intentionality is sustainability," said Eastes.

Whatever comes out of Phase I will be posted onto a website which is soon to be launched. It is hoped that Phase I will be completed in March.

Phase II will involve a series of panel talks and community conversations about the advisability or need for establishing and designating a Cultural District. The Brattleboro CoreArts committee members are not casting their lot in either direction, but their charge is to ask the question.

The final phase of the project involves the creation of a public art or performance piece around the idea of links between creativity and place. Details of how that project will be implemented and vetted are still being worked out.

That project is one way this grant will result in something more than another nice, bound report to gather dust on a shelf somewhere. Organizers have high hopes that the whole project will be an animating force in the town.

"This grant is actually in response to planning that's already going on," said Eastes. "This grant just fits with that. This project will appear as the next step."

Chief among those efforts is the new Brattleboro Town Plan, due for adoption soon.

"The significance of the creative sector in Brattleboro life is woven into that Plan in multiple places," said Francis. "It's keeping alive the topic of what kind of place Brattleboro is and what the role of the creative community is. I think there's wide interest in that topic."

The Brattleboro CoreArts website should be up soon. In the meantime, people with questions can take part in Saturday's meeting, contact Francis at rfrancis@brattleboro.org or get in touch with Town Arts Committee.