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Times Argus & Rutland Herald Arts Editor poses the question for Vermonters

July 09, 2016
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reprinted with permission
Sunday July 10, 2016
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The Lowe Down

Are the arts tilting at windmills?

Jim LOWE

   Watching Weston Playhouse’s excellent production of “Man of La Mancha” last weekend, I couldn’t help but think of the struggle the arts and artists themselves go through on a daily basis. And, yes, it’s a struggle.

   That’s why they need our money; to make our lives better.

   The public has been inundated in recent years by studies that show the arts produce a large economic impact on their communities. And there’s no question that is true, but the benefit goes to the community rather than the artists and arts producers. Note that I do not say “arts organizations,” as those like the Vermont Arts Council are not dependent upon arts dollars. Of course, nor am I.

   But the arts, particularly the fine arts, offer a pretty poor business model. For Weston Playhouse to present a play, it must pay its actors — while not an “Equity” union rate, it isn’t much by world standards — stage technicians, production costs, directors, as well as theater operation folks and a marketing machine, to say nothing of rent and house management.

   Even Montpelier’s tiny Lost Nation Theater must pay all those costs. Yes, it does receive the use of City Hall Arts Center in return for managing the facility, and it is not an Equity house, so its actors are less expensive, Yet, those folks must pay rent, child care, etc., just like the rest of us.

   The Vermont Symphony Orchestra is in the same boat. In order to function, it needs a full-time administration to plan, produce and pay for its concerts as well as incidentals like office space and transportation. The professional musicians themselves, some 60, are paid only for the rehearsals and performances, so they must cobble together a living — with no benefits — by teaching and traveling to other orchestras and gigs. And most have families. 

   In the fine arts as in the popular arts, there are a few who are successful financially, but in Vermont, not many. I’m pretty sure Phish guitarist Trey Anastasio, rocker Grace Potter, and even VSO Music Director Jaime Laredo make pretty good livings without subsidies. (Laredo leads he VSO for far less than he charges elsewhere, or else we wouldn’t have him.) Even sold-out audiences at Weston, Lost Nation and the VSO wouldn’t come close to covering the cost of the performances. If box office were the only source of income, ticket prices would be prohibitive for the vast majority of Vermonters. One of the major reasons to give to the arts is to make them accessible to more people. 

   If working in the arts pays so poorly, why do folks make a profession of it? In short, because they can’t help it. Something deep inside compels them. For what other reason would highly educated folks wait tables — as many, many actors do — to support themselves until they have another opportunity to practice their chosen profession?

   And, of course, we want them to. We enjoy the fruits of struggles and their quest of “The Impossible Dream.”

   Jim Lowe is arts editor of The Times Argus and Rutland Herald and can be reached at jim.lowe@rutlandherald.com   orjim.lowe@timesargus.com  .

PHOTO BY HUBERT SCHRIEBL Are artists the Don Quixotes of today? Pictured are Michael Mendez and Geoffrey Wade as in the Weston Playhouse production of “The Man of La Mancha.”