Meet Karen Mittelman
The Council’s new executive director has been spending time skiing, kayaking, writing, and exploring in Vermont since childhood. Prior to moving here, Karen Mittelman worked for 19 years at the National Endowment for the Humanities in Washington, D.C. She arrived at the office in Montpelier October 16. With a brand new Strategic Plan in place and a budget that faces an unusually shaky future, Karen will have plenty to do. This is what she had to say about the challenges and opportunities that lie ahead.
Q. What are your top three priorities in your first six months on the job?
A. My plan for the first few months is simple: Listen. Reflect. Repeat. I’m eager to get to know Vermont communities and to talk with artists, community members, and partners. As I travel around the state, I’ll be asking several questions: What are the major challenges facing Vermont artists and cultural institutions and how can we best support them? Who among our potential stakeholders are we not yet listening to? And perhaps most fundamentally: How can the arts address economic and social challenges in our state and strengthen Vermont communities? So many of the projects the Council has supported demonstrate the deep relevance of the arts to our shared public life. I’ll place a high priority on amplifying this message, that art is critical to the vitality and well-being of our communities.
Q. How do you plan to reach out to stakeholders in Vermont? Who are they?
A. There are so many fruitful ways to connect with our diverse stakeholders – I’ll be attending public events, festivals, and exhibition openings as well as convening small group meetings to hear from the Council’s constituents.
The Vermont Creative Network also offers a great way to reach and collaborate with our many stakeholders The Network aims to advance the creative sector and to strengthen the infrastructure for the arts across the state, much like other alliances. The Farm to Plate Network is one I’m aware of. With the Arts Council as its backbone, the Network has six “Creative Zones,” each represented by imaginative local leadership teams. It’s a broad and diverse coalition that operates on the premise that collectively we can have more impact and energy than what’s possible when we work for change as individuals.
Yes, we need to be thinking about reaching out to our many stakeholders. At the same time, we need to be creating a solid infrastructure for the arts that is sustainable in the long term. There is an increasing focus on the creative economy in Vermont. That’s an area where the Council can play a key role as matchmaker and facilitator – connecting individual artists, cultural organizations, schools, and businesses. All are part of the creative sector but may not recognize their work as deeply connected.
Q. What do you consider to be the biggest challenges in implementing the Council’s new Strategic Plan?
A. At the heart of the strategic plan is a vision of the arts as intertwined with Vermont’s identity as a state. When people think of Vermont, along with the beautiful mountains, maple syrup, farms, and craft beer, we want them also to recognize the hundreds and hundreds of places where art, culture, and creativity are embedded in the fabric of everyday life. We also envision artists and creative organizations having a voice when key decisions are made about the future of our towns and communities.
That’s a tall order. Shifts in public opinion and policy – if they are genuine – demand time and resources. So the central challenge I see is the need to set priorities. With finite staff time and funds, the Council cannot be everything to everyone. We will need to identify the places where we can most effectively play a leadership role – those places where our funding can leverage additional funds from private sources where support to an individual artist or school or orchestra has a powerful ripple effect throughout the community, thus widening the impact of our investment. There is tremendous passion, talent, and years of expertise on the Council staff and I am confident that we can work with our partners to chart a meaningful way forward.
Q. As you think about your future as the Vermont Arts Council’s director, what most excites you?
A. I was drawn to this position right away because of Vermont’s extraordinary cultural riches. Arts and culture are in the DNA of this state, whether it’s a potter creating in her basement studio, a community theater where third graders are discovering that they love to sing on stage, or sculpture by internationally known artists displayed outdoors against Vermont’s spectacular landscape.
Vermonters have a deep sense of community and a commitment to place that I admire – especially having landed here from Washington DC, where nearly everyone is transplanted from someplace else and it’s hard to find a sense of belonging. I’m excited by the possibilities presented by those extraordinary cultural riches, while at the same time recognizing that it’s a very difficult and troubling time to be in the arts world. The people who know me best know that I’m not afraid of trouble. I took up zip-lining at age 50, and published my first novel at age 57. So I love a good challenge, and I’m excited to dig in with the terrific staff of the Council and get to work.
Q. The Council has made a commitment to the concept of inclusion. How would you define that concept and how do you see the Council taking a leadership role?
A. Art is ultimately about inclusion – because by its very nature it connects us to what is most deeply human in each other, regardless of our background or walk of life. You don’t have to have lived in 19th century Russia to read “Anna Karenina” and be moved. In fact, the brilliance of a good novel or painting or dance performance or sculpture is that it pushes right through those lines that so often divide us.
I love the James Baldwin quote about the power of art to create empathy. He wrote, “You think your pain and your heartbreak are unprecedented in the history of the world, but then you read. It was Dostoevsky and Dickens who taught me that the things that tormented me most were the very things that connected me with all the people who were alive, or who ever had been alive.”
Inclusion and equity are at the heart of the Council’s new Strategic Plan. We will take a leadership role by tackling inclusion on multiple levels. That means looking at the ways that we are delivering creative experiences, and where the barriers lie. What is it that makes some people feel welcome at an art museum or theater, while others believe it is not the place for them? It means working to break down those barriers – physical, social, mental, and political. It means opening up access to the arts for people with disabilities, individuals healing from trauma or mental illness, veterans returning home from war, and students whose schools can’t afford bus transportation for field trips. The Council’s vision is that everyone in Vermont has access to the arts and creativity in their life, education, and community. And we mean everyone.