By Robin Smith, as seen on the Caledonian Record Aug 7, 2020:

Jody Fried, head of Catamount Arts in St. Johnsbury, offered that grim assessment during a remote forum Thursday evening that focused on civic and cultural institutions in the Northeast Kingdom.

These venues “are in the business of convening people,” Fried said.

They are likely the last to open as Vermont slowly resumes as close to a normal life as possible under COVID-19 restrictions, Fried said.

Those institutions that depend on income from attendance to pay for brick-and-mortar locations are struggling and face the most difficult time, he said.

“Up to 90 percent of those vendors will close permanently if this goes beyond a year,” Fried said.

Fried was one of a group of NEK residents who participated in a Caledonia County forum on “From Recovery to Renewal and Resilience.”

One breakout session was on civics and culture. The other was on food resources and access in the NEK.

Moderator Ben Doyle of U.S. Department of Agriculture Rural Development asked Fried to explain how Catamount Arts was faring, how communities can support cultural institutions, and what the future looks like.

Fried said that Catamount Arts closed March 15 and he expects it will remain closed for the foreseeable future. Most employees were laid off, although some in leadership continue to work on a very part-time basis, he said.

Those with overhead and infrastructure had to react very quickly to the changed landscape, he said.

Catamount, like others across Vermont, partnered quickly with other organizations to remain relevant and to help the community, developing drive-in concerts and movies on the Northern Vermont University campuses in Lyndon and Johnson, Fried said. College students are important to these institutions, he said.

Catamount has also partnered with Northern Communities Health Care to reach out to community members in isolation, he said.

“We felt strongly that arts and culture would be an important part … of recovery …” he said.

Every organization is doing the same thing by partnering in unexpected ways, he said.

But that isn’t addressing the fundamental problem for Catamount or other organizations with infrastructure, he said.

Catamount Arts owes $20,000 a month in expenses, Fried said.

Other organizations that are funded through grants or memberships may have an easier time surviving, he said.

“The success is how strong the relationship you have in the community.”

Fried pointed out that the $5 million set aside by the state for cultural institutions from the federal aid to Vermont is important but not enough. He said there have been $50 million in losses since February.

He sees long-lasting change ahead through cross-sector partnerships. Pushing programs online has value but generates very little money for local institutions, he and others said.

He’d like to see a local paradigm shift where cultural institutions are recognized as part of the essential infrastructure of a community.

The success of institutions will depend on how well each tells their stories to community members and leaders, he said.

Anna Rubin of the Fairbanks Museum said science museums across Vermont are working together now in a consortium.

Going virtual helps level the playing field, but competing with an online world saturated with really great content is challenging, she said.

Leah Hollenberger with NVU said the university’s local advisory committee is helping the university re-imagine what the future might look like.

Cultural institutions may take advantage of the university’s facilities and students can be of benefit and value to organizations and businesses, she said.

Everyone agreed that lack of internet access is holding everyone back in the NEK and should be a top priority for the state government.

Others suggested that cultural groups should seek partnerships with public schools, which also have facilities that could be used.

This forum was the first in the NEK out of 14 statewide organized by the Local Solutions and Community Action Team established by Gov. Phil Scott.

While called the Caledonia County forum, participants focused on issues across the NEK. NEK residents were and are welcome to join the next two NEK forums.

  • The Essex County forum is on Aug. 20, 6:30 to 8:30 p.m. on education and transportation.
  • The Orleans County forum is Sept. 3, 6:30 to 8:30 p.m. on building community unity and housing.

For assistance with registration contact [email protected] or call 802-223-6091.

The forum was facilitated by the Vermont Council on Rural Development