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A Cultural Commons

“They hewed this State out of the wilderness; they held it against a foreign foe; they laid deep and stable the foundations of our State life, because they sought not the life of ease, but the life of effort for a worthy end.”

— President Theodore Roosevelt, Windsor Fair Grounds, 1902

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In Vermont We Do What We Want

Vermonters never quit; we figure the best way way forward. We value independence and community at the same time (it’s actually our motto, “freedom and unity”). We put everything we have into being the best and being unique doing it. We’re smart and compassionate enough to work together, to value fairness and inclusion, and to end up making contributions that leave the world a better place than we found it. The quote above, by President Theodore Roosevelt, reflects the ethic of Big Heavy World.

With all that at the heart of Big Heavy World, we’ve made it our job to say it out loud: Vermont should be the state everyone looks at learn how to be the best arts community, ever. We should be the state that figures out how to build and share the tools that make it easy to be the best we can be, and share that bestness with each other. Because that’s the fun part.

Big Heavy World has learned a lot over the past 18 years. We’ve learned that values – the foundation of our actions as individuals and a community – can be overlooked when making decisions. We’ve learned that politics are real in the world and that self-preservation and advancement has an occasional but meaningful unhealthy influence on the experiences of our whole society. We believe our arts community deserves to have pride for doing the right thing, in the most efficient and sustainable way possible, and that combining our strengths and voices as individuals, we can raise the bar very, very high for others.

Let’s Go To the Bar

The bar we’re setting high, the example we’re setting for others to respect and follow, grows from the seed of our Yankee sense of fairness and our work ethic. We do the right thing, for the right reasons, respecting each other, and aspiring to be better than we have been in the past. We’re smart enough to build on the wisdom of the past, not suffocate in it, and our creative spirit is adventurous enough to strum new Vermont experiences out of the old.

Here’s a song we produced with Vermont musician Spencer Lewis and our congressional delegation at the time, Senator Patrick Leahy, Congressman (now Senator) Bernard Sanders, Senator Jim Jeffords, and former Governor Madeleine Kunin. They’re reading the Roosevelt inscription that hangs in the Vermont statehouse. Feel welcome to play it a lot. It’s on our ‘In Silver Light: Music of Vermont‘ CD.

Getting Real, Already

Here are a few initiatives Big Heavy World is coordinating to showcase all the blah blah blah above. It’s all blah blah until it’s real. Our volunteer crew builds real.

A Cultural Commons

Below is an essay written by a Big Heavy World founder and published by the Burlington Free Press. It’s got some local Burlington references in it, but gets the message out that our society is missing out on critical community infrastructure that we should be building and sharing. So, Big Heavy World is working through establishing a local version. We’ll keep you posted about that, but the conversations are too preliminary to identify champions or frictions yet.

“The arts encompass some of the most meaningful expressions humanity has to share — they embody our intellect, emotion and essential experiences in the most complete manner possible. The movement, color, words, melody, and the intricate languages of rhythm, composition and intention that art manifests itself with are a bridge between us as people. Understanding, compassion, inspiration, culture and civilization emerge from the bridges between us. But not all of these bridges are as ineffable as art; some, we have to build.

I had a simple thought the other day, which could not possibly be original, but bothered me until it clawed itself out: Roads are our transportation commons. Libraries are our intellectual commons. Parks are our recreation commons. Where are our cultural commons?

I direct a volunteer-staffed nonprofit dedicated to preserving and promoting music made by Vermonters. The organization supports musicians inclusively – regardless of their experience, success, or genre, and tries hard to assemble resources that help musicians achieve success on their own terms. We have an intimate and longstanding understanding of what many of those resources are. And we understand that in Burlington, where our community has been purposeful in mutually agreeing to build shared roads and shared places for learning and playing, we have not purposefully created spaces that foster the arts in all their variety, and with the necessary infrastructure to share them with ourselves as a community, inclusively – without a barrier to participation.

Burlington is a city that cares about the arts, and values the contribution they make to the city’s uniqueness, ‘livability,’ and the economy — values that arise from discussion of the arts in the municipal context, but that don’t make the firm statement that the arts reflect our humanity purely and should rise as a priority as we evolve to become a city that includes all our citizens in the aspects of life that matter most. In this modern age our respect for one another has matured and we’ve come to recognize that what we have to offer the world is only, in part, our contribution to knowledge, laws and our economy. Much more about ourselves is to be discovered through acts of community — acts of sharing our art.

Burlington has made decisions that both support and impede the arts. It doesn’t occupy a purely supportive position and has not developed a common, inclusive environment for the sharing of art. For many years the city neglected improvements to underdeveloped performance spaces (Memorial Auditorium, Contois Auditorium) but fostered successful investment in contemporary visual arts (BCA Center). The city has designed a new City Hall Park that includes a future stage, but has also allowed our shared public bulletin boards system to disintegrate – or purposefully removed them, affecting hundreds of local artists and performers. Burlington has yet to resolve to decisively respect the principle that common resources for presenting and reflecting our arts are essential to who and what we are as a city.

The recent focus groups and forums hosted by ArtSpace and presented by CEDO and Burlington City Arts are an uplifting hint of the potential Burlington has for considering, and possibly acting on, the need for shared community space dedicated to arts that include music, theater, dance, and art of the shades between. The city council has been supportive of our advocacy to reinstate public bulletin boards that have been lost, and there is reason to hope the city will emerge from its current internal multi-department conversation with a policy to rebuild this common resource. Burlington’s many local private and nonprofit arts presenters offer diverse environments and programming that enriches our lives, but don’t embody the principle of a cultural commons – a shared, inclusive, accessible space where cost to present and participate is not a barrier.

We are lucky to have many opportunities in Burlington to make the arts part of our lives and more completely experience what it is to be human and share that experience. I’m hopeful – and am saying so, so that you might become hopeful, too – that a cultural commons will one day be one of them.”

Essay in BFP

Public Bulletin Boards

Another project that’s local to Burlington but embodies the cultural commons idea is our advocacy for the City of Burlington to restore public bulletin boards that have been removed or accidentally destroyed over time. In our city these public boards were removed and replaced with sculpture; removed during sidewalk construction; hit by trucks; and evaporated by magic. Big Heavy World wants them back, for really good reasons:

  1. They represent no barrier to participation for local arts presenters to promote themselves.
  2. They provide the opportunity for artists & presenters to represent themselves with graphic design that characterizes themselves in a way that newspaper listings of events can’t.
  3. They give Burlington’s cultural community a ‘face.’ Only established, funded organizations or businesses can afford display advertisements, and community calendar listings are only data, without any personality.
  4. They give pedestrian traffic a way to interact with the local economy relating to arts and culture.
  5. Local artists (musicians!) keep this face of local culture not only up-to-date, but up-to-the-minute. It costs the city nothing to show all our visitors how much we have to offer.
  6. If you’ve got a good reason to value public bulletin boards, tell us!

In a perfect world – coming from the perspective of supporting independent local musicians – we’d like to see the number of bulletin boards in the city grow, replacing those that were removed and instituting an obligation for developers to fund public bulletin boards during construction of downtown buildings. Public bulletin boards cost so little, but support the cultural and economic interests of hundreds of local citizens and create opportunity for thousands of individuals to participate in local arts.

Local champions of this effort have been the City Council and the board of directors of the Church Street Marketplace, Burlington’s beautiful center-city pedestrian shopping area. Burlington’s Public Works Department has been willing to help, too, by replacing a bulletin board that was removed during street work. But they were stopped. Resistance has come from Burlington City Arts (our city arts office) and the Parks & Recreation Department, under a prior director. They have reasons, and we’re working through them… maybe. The whole process has been going on for a couple years now. We’ve learned from it, and you could, too.

Our impression is that we’re working with smart people who have different reference points for building arts infrastructure. While some opponents think public bulletin boards are messy, we think they’re a glorious and accurate representation of our creative community and the economy that goes with it. Others haven’t wanted to be burdened with the effort of maintaining them but we think there are ways around every obstacle (get them sponsored and hire maintenance out with that funding? Quit complaining and put some effort into making your community better? We aren’t grumpy, we just play grumpy on TV!). We’ve heard that no one needs bulletin boards because we have ‘social media,’ but that doesn’t help us connect with the New York and Canadian friends we haven’t met yet, who are in town to discover how special we are, but can’t, because there are no bulletin boards.

The main opposing force has been a project to create standardized design and management guidelines for public amenities in the city’s Downtown Improvement District, after the model of Baltimore’s Sreetscape Design Guidlelines. It’s meant to make downtown “aesthetiically appealing” to attract new businesses. But the plan hasn’t materialized, and it’s prevented everyone from having the use and benefit of the bulletin boards that could have been replaced already – cheaply, and with a design everyone’s already familiar with. Stay tuned. We’re busy with this one!

At The End of the Day, We’ll All Roast Weenies Together…

…And the music around the campfire will be so good.

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© 2018 Big Heavy World & Respective Artists