Performing arts events bring people together for experiences of shared community. In this age of virtual community where we congregate on the Internet with millions of others we will never see or meet, it’s especially vital – and comforting – to interact with people that live in or visit our own place.
Last summer, a free weekly concert series in St. Johnsbury demonstrated the power of performing arts to build and sustain community. The St. J. series attracted more than 8,000 people of all ages – and 3,000 dogs – during its 12-week run. The series was produced by Catamount Arts – with support from the Dog Mountain Gallery and park.
And it was made possible with the help of a $25,000 grant from the Leavitt Foundation, an unusual funding organization that invites communities from across the country to solicit votes from their local supporters, signaling their desire to have a free concert series in their town. The top vote-getting towns get the funding.
Competition for the grants is stiff, with 36 cities and towns competing for fifteen grants. Surprisingly, Catamount Arts and St. Johnbury came in second in last year’s voting, even though they were one of the smallest towns. And people showed up in droves for the concerts that staged a range of blues, bluegrass, funk, folk, soul, and rock n’ roll.
Catamount and the Levitt Foundation found common ground for their shared missions focusing on the power of music and the importance of place.
Events like this free concert series – and other dynamic arts events across Vermont – contribute substantially to a community’s view of itself and to young people’s perception that cool things happen where they live. I attended several of the concerts last summer and ran into dozens of people I knew, some of whom I hadn’t seen in ten years. Kids saw teachers hanging out in a new setting and many people came each week, regardless of which band was playing.
The twelve free weekly St. J. concerts took a lot of work - requiring staff and volunteers – and they cost more than $50,000 to produce. But the grant funding served as a catalyst to other donors and gave Catamount the chance to see what was possible for this intersection of community and culture. Without this support they might not have ever known.
Catamount is again asking people to vote, hoping to renew this creative and popular arts initiative. I hope they succeed.