Vermont Arts Council

Centered in Greensboro

The Highland Center for the Arts opened in Greensboro in May 2017. The Center operates with the vision of a balanced, year-round schedule of locally and nationally recognized artists and events suited to serving the community. The campus is designed to provide opportunities to create, exhibit, view, experience, perform, learn about, and talk about art. In one day there may be a sold-out performance in the ultramodern 250-seat theater, a rehearsal of local dance group, a film screening, tourists visiting the art gallery, and diners enjoying coffee and local food in the cafe. Executive Director Annie Houston took time from her busy schedule to talk about the new facility.

Arts Council: New spaces don’t just show up. What were the unseen efforts in the creation of the new Center over time? How did the organizers know this was a “Go!” in Greensboro?

Annie Houston: The creation of the Highland Center for the Arts required efforts that could minimally be described as, well … Herculean! The organizers recognized a need for space that encourages community and connection in the region, and developed a vision to address that need. They held on to that idea and maintained it as the ultimate goal – not allowing obstacles or objections to detract throughout development. The board of directors and HCA staff are closely tied to Greensboro and the Northeast Kingdom, and numerous individuals were dedicated to seeing this project through. Sometimes that meant providing feedback from the community perspective, sometimes it meant being on site in a hard hat making decisions that have shaped our space. It’s warm, open, and friendly.

Arts Council: What is going on now that lets you know this is a success?

Annie Houston: HCA sees success in the innumerable ways friends, families, first-time visitors, and neighbors connect here every day. That connection may be through art, culture, or refreshment. Maybe it happens through the enjoyment of an exhibition and artist’s talk in the gallery, a chat with a friend while sipping a morning latte, the thrill of a youngster exploring music and movement in an arts camp, or the excitement of seeing a favorite musician or production in our state-of-the-art theater. HCA is also achieving its goals to provide opportunities for local, regional, and national artists — musicians, poets, writers, jugglers, filmmakers, dancers, and more — whether through a main stage performance, plein air painting class, a film screening in our performance studio, or a poetry slam in the café.

Arts Council: There are a number of new arts facilities in Vermont. What’s your take?

Annie Houston: The creative economy is an important driver in the state of Vermont; Vermonters know the value of supporting local artists and cultural organizations. In the same way a rising tide lifts all boats, new arts facilities in Vermont mean more opportunities for artists and audiences across the state. All the facilities create more chances to connect with artists, more chances to connect with each other, and more chances for residents and visitors to participate in an array of diverse cultural offerings. This all lends to Vermont’s unique sense of place. For so many of our communities, particularly those with strong cultural identities, there is no question when one has arrived. You can just feel that you’re somewhere special with a story to share.

Arts Council: How and why are you building synergy with other businesses, nonprofits, or communities?

Annie Houston: The why is simple: we’re all working to achieve similar goals and objectives, we just have different ways of going about them. It only makes sense to partner, reduce duplication of efforts, and collectively use our individual strengths to have profound impact. The how comes through consistent conversations and asking ourselves the question, “Who should we be working with or should be part of the conversation that isn’t?” We’re thrilled to partner with groups like WonderArts and Ballet Wolcott, which offer youth programming at HCA. We’ve had great success hosting Hazen Union and Cabot High Schools, and are looking to broaden our relationships with other area academic institutions. We revel in the fact that we live in a locavore food mecca and can showcase our neighbors through our menu offerings: our eggs come from a farmer down the road, Hill Farmstead is always on tap, and Jasper Hill’s cheese tops our burgers. We’re proud to be a resource for businesses and groups in need of meeting space, and that we have the ability to host everything from a small working-group luncheon to a daylong symposium of 250 people.

Arts Council: If you had to offer a piece of advice for organizations considering building, what would it be?

Annie Houston: Plan. I cannot emphasize this enough. Plan, plan, plan, and expect the plan to change. For established groups thinking about a facility, conduct a feasibility study that focuses not solely on the brick and mortar components, but how your operations will be impacted. Also consider what effects this will have on your budget, staffing, programming, and ability to carry out your mission. For new groups like HCA, be sure to think about what happens once the doors are open: Who will your audience be? What will you offer them? What will success look like and how will you know you’re on the right track? Lastly, for all groups: involve the community. Include your friends, neighbors, and critics along the way. Gather feedback and use it to your advantage; differing opinions are a good thing, and often the suggestions that initially make your eyes roll are the ones that become instrumental in building your organization.

— compiled by Susan McDowell

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Highland Arts Center events are a part of Vermont Arts 2018.