Love Letters from Vermont: The Arts Help Build Strong Local Economies

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When we last visited Brattleboro, VT, more than a dozen years ago, we thought: “Cool town, good bones, lots of potential.” But beyond a small number of off-beat shops and tiny bistros, there didn’t seem to be much happening, especially compared with “our” river towns, Lambertville, NJ and New Hope, PA. Here in the Delaware River Valley, Chamber of Commerce members, politicians and other interested parties had long since grasped that one of the area’s greatest economic resources was its large supply of artists. It’s that type of insight — understanding the power of a creative, arts-driven LOCAL economy — that has transformed Brattleboro and other Vermont towns into thriving destinations, despite the ongoing downturn.

Localism at Work

Vermonters apparently began recognizing the potential of art to revitalize local economies sometime in the early 1980s. The transformation didn’t happen overnight. But, over time, the efforts of state and local arts councils, renovators, business owners and, of course, artists, began to pay off. Brattleboro and many other Vermont towns and villages now complement outdoor recreational attractions (skiing, hiking, mountain biking) with a vibrant mix of small, independent shops, galleries and sophisticated restaurants showcasing locally produced foods.

The mix seems particularly successful in Brattleboro. For years, the town’s music venues — the Brattleboro Music Center, New England Bach Festival and Marlboro Music Fest — helped put it on the map. These days, there are quite a few excellent restaurants serving local and organic food. The town has apparently become a haven for jewelry designers, with shops offering everything from crystals and turquoise to high-end traditional pieces. The Arts Council of Windham County organizes a “Gallery Walk,” which directly connects art to the local economy by using shops and restaurants (along with a few bona fide art galleries) as exhibit spaces. (Those in search of art may find themselves making a purchase or two and visa versa.) Locals interested in developing their artistic talents can attend the River Gallery School of Art or seek out opportunities to study with area artists. And, rounding things out, Brattleboro has a farmer’s market, a year-round circus school, a museum, three theaters and a food co-op in a renovated, energy-efficient, multi-use building that recently won a “Smart Growth” award from the EPA.

Perhaps more than any one of these attractions, though, what intrigued us about Brattleboro this time around was a strong local “vibe” — the kind that told us “Brattleborians” viewed themselves and their individual enterprises as part of a larger, cohesive community.  Maybe it’s that vibe that has gotten the town placed on so many “best of” lists lately, like “Eight Great Places You’ve Never Heard Of” from Mother Earth News.

One Thousand Love Letters

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… And we definitely experienced that vibe when we stumbled upon a whimsical “art happening” in an otherwise vacant space on Flat Street.  Funded by Kickstarter, the online crowd-funding site, “One Thousand Love Letters” was a “participatory community art installation”1 created by Dalia Shevin and other local artists. Loosely connected to Valentine’s Day, the project invited people to wander in, make use of paper, pens, glitter and typewriters (it was a totally analog event with no laptop or digital device in sight) to create their own personal idea of love letters (to lovers, family members, favorite authors, a cherished motorcycle, you name it). While we were busy writing our collective love letter, the room was full of people of all ages, producing love letters that ran the gamut from romantic to spiritual to silly. Some people mailed their letters while most tacked them on the walls, creating a massive community collage. The only requirement was that, once you finished your letter, you had to update the love letter counter that kept a running tally. Our letter was number 1,506!

The event spoke volumes about Brattleboro’s connection to the arts — and its strong sense of place and community.

Localizing Your Locale

Like Lambertville, New Hope and other Delval towns, Brattleboro is a great example of what can be accomplished when people get the power of local.

If you live in a place that hasn’t yet realized its “potential,” perhaps a former industrial area or a nearly abandoned rural community, you may wonder what it would take to revitalize without obliterating the very qualities you’d like to see preserved. There’s no simple answer, but the key would seem to be finding what makes your area unique. You may not have a stock of local artists. Perhaps what you have in abundance is farm-fresh food or a strong community spirit or a great micro-brewery…or even a preponderance of people who work in the healing arts (spa destination?).

In the meantime, if you’re interested in checking out Brattleboro:

1 From an article on the project in “Gallery Walk,” Volume 12, Number 2, February 2013.

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2 thoughts on “Love Letters from Vermont: The Arts Help Build Strong Local Economies

  1. When I’ve been to Brattleboro, I have felt and sensed that “vibe” too, and I wonder what it is. It’s interesting that it’s pleasing even to ‘non-Brattleborians’ to perceive and be around.

    • Glad you’ve enjoyed your visits there. As a Vermont res, you probably get there more often than we do! I think there’s so much talk about “building strong local communities” these days, it’s just really nice to see that idea taking shape.

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