BRATTLEBORO -- "We are a functioning artistic Mecca," said Jerry Levy. "I look at Brattleboro and Windham County, and we really, in terms of what we offer in the arts, rival cities, progressively artistic cities, of 50,000 or 100,000."

All well and good, but maybe Mecca needs a hand.

What can be done to leverage our Mecca was the central theme of a community meeting held Saturday at Equilibrium by the Brattleboro CoreArts Project and attended by about 30 people.

Titled "Cluster vs. Panel vs. Hub?" the meeting represented the first step in the Phase II of the two-year CoreArts Project funded with a $50,000 NEA Our Town matching grant.

From left, Anne Gadwa Nicodemus, Stephanie Fortunato, Eugene Uman and Rod Francis. (Jon Potter/Reformer)
From left, Anne Gadwa Nicodemus, Stephanie Fortunato, Eugene Uman and Rod Francis. (Jon Potter/Reformer)

Phase I resulted in "Brattleboro: An Atlas of Cultural Assets," a publication created by consultants from the Conway School of Landscape Design as an inventory, map and narrative of the town's creative culture.

Phase II, projected to run through December, will involve six meetings/panel discussions exploring ideas of cultural district designation and whether that's right for Brattleboro.

Saturday's meeting was the first of those sessions, and the CoreArts team of Kate Anderson, Zon Eastes and Rod Francis welcomed panelists Anne Gadwa Nicodemus (choreographer, arts administrator and urban planner), Stephanie Fortunato (deputy director of Providence's Department of Art, Culture and Tourism) and Eugene Uman (local musician and director of the Vermont Jazz Center in Brattleboro).

Those in attendance learned about cultural districts, where municipalities, counties or states designate certain areas as arts districts and enact legislation providing tax breaks, special zoning regulations and other incentives for artists in those areas.

But the conversation moved into other areas including what might be called the realpolitik of arts -- how to get things done with the leaders in place or change the leadership culture to one that's more arts-friendly.

"I feel like the (NEA) grant has our best interests at heart. ... But the grant doesn't appear to talk about how are we going to get the resources to implement the plan," said Uman. "How is this grant going to result in what we want?"

"Political will" was the answer from more than one member of the audience. Eastes said one of the goals of Saturday's session was to "learn from these experts so that our repeated life that we're living in Brattleboro for 10 or 20 years won't just repeat itself."

The panelists provided testimony to the effectiveness of working with community leaders across all sectors.

"A key to successful creative planning is the ability to mobilize political will and build consensus," said Nicodemus. "You have to reach some kind of consensus. What's in it for the selectboard? What's in it for the town manager?"

Fortunato described the real-world success of Providence's two designated arts districts. Though different from each other, both districts, which provide tax breaks and zoning incentives for artists and organizations, were created in large part to spur economic recovery and urban revitalization. Artists and advocates were able to bring political leaders, including then-Mayor Buddy Cianci (later sent to federal prison on racketeering conspiracy charges).

The arts community in Providence is "very politically active" and was able to organize and galvanize support for arts district enabling legislation. Once established, the arts districts have done their job of "really stimulating activity" and leveraging the power of artists.

"It does foster a sense of community because it ... built a sense of collective feeling for nurturing the arts cultural community," Fortunato said.

There was some consensus at the meeting about what an arts district in Brattleboro might look like. Those who spoke up agreed that drawing arbitrary lines on a map of Brattleboro and designating a certain portion of the town an arts district didn't seem to make a lot of sense.

"Brattleboro is part of a diffuse regional ‘rural city' and that the entire town is almost like a district," said John Loggia.

Whatever it is, Brattleboro left an impression on the panelists.

"My sense of Brattleboro is that it's host to some really amazing cultural assets ... but these assets are not being used to their full potential," said Nicodemus.

Work on the CoreArts Project is slated to continue through September 2014, with the Phase III devoted to a public art project.

For more information on the project and to read the Cultural Assets Map, visit www.brattleborocorearts.org