February 21, 2009
An Open Letter to the Trustees of the Vermont Arts Council
I am writing this as an open letter as I was unable to attend your public hearing in Burlington last evening because of a scheduling conflict. You have asked how you are doing and I write to address that issue.
Among the people that I know who have a deep affection for the Council and others who have worked there or been otherwise associated with it, there is general agreement that the Council has become largely irrelevant to Vermont artists and major arts presenters. There is of course a reluctance to say this at your hearings as some are still grant recipients and in these difficult days even the modest grants available from the VAC are critical.
What I have heard most often over the last decade is that the VAC has become a competing presenter and has largely ignored the needs of one of its most important constituencies–individual artists. Other complaints are ineffective outreach, large-scale expenditures to popularize the arts — a sort of “California craft fair” approach to art and arts creation — at the expense of funding and celebrating excellence, both among new artists and established artists, and grants to presenters that are barely worth the substantial application effort.
The VAC is also almost wholly absent in Chittenden County where it has been subsumed by local arts organization better filling the needs of the arts community.
My concern goes also to governance. Since my days as Chair of the VAC 39 and 23 years ago, I have not kept up with its governance. As is the case with many non-profits, however, I fear that the Board’s role is misunderstood.
I would like answers to the following questions included in your final report:
1. Does the Executive Director receive a thorough, objective performance review at least biannually that includes conversations with recipient and non-recipient artists and arts organizations in the field as well as key staff and trustees?
2. Does the Executive Director’s employment contract have a defined term that requires review and extension based on performance reviews by the Board?
3. Is the Board self-perpetuating, which is to say, is there a Board nominating committee that brings forth names independently of those proffered by the ED? Are Board candidates screened against the organization’s resource needs in different fields? Do Board members have defined terms and limits?
4. Does the Board regularly meet in executive session without the ED present?
Governance, transparency and accountability all derive from best practices that can be easily measured and assessed. With cultural organizations, however, relevance and impact are more difficult to quantify as they are manifestations of the spirit: community culture, ethos and individual aesthetic and, as such, must be reviewed subjectively across a broad array of disinterested people.
I write out of a longstanding commitment to the VAC’s mission as well as a belief that, as an agency serving a population with one of the highest per capita concentrations of artists in the country it can be closer to the hearts and minds of the artists it serves.
I look forward to receiving answers to the organizational questions above in your final report.
A former Chair