Getting to the Root

If I am an artist in any traditional sense of the word, then my art is writing, and my medium is words created through the plying of the keyboard. My main genre is the essay. The word “essay” is from the French verb essayer, which means “to try.” The noun essai means simply an “attempt,” or a “try.”

When I fixate upon a topic and write about it obsessively, I am trying to get at some conclusion, some foundation, some root. I am giving it a try; I am practicing on my subject; I am attempting to make sense of it through meditations in writing. Because my main venue is this blog, I tend to include here all of my attempts as parts of the process involved in getting at that root.

The topic that I am fixated upon now, obviously, is the Vermillion Area Arts Council and the possible sale of the Washington Street Arts Center. The reason I am fixated on this topic is because I am invested very strongly in the organization, and because I very deeply care.

In some ways, my art, my words are intended as a gift–one of my donations to the Arts Council. While this gift might be perceived by the recipient like a particularly ugly and ill-fitting hand-knit sweater, they are my gift all the same. They were made for the Arts Council, and I have taken careful measurements over the years of my involvement with the organization. I have also sought measurement of the organization through others, in order to check that my perceptions were not too skewed.

What I have been trying to do, I think, is to get at the root of my frustration with some of the Arts Council Board and their actions. After attending last night’s meeting, I came away not with a sense of triumph, but a sense of loss. As I mentioned in my last VAAC-oriented blog, my partner was twice personally attacked–once for having done a large amount of research and observation in order to express his view that the proposed new building has serious structural damage, and once for not doing a thing to help the VAAC in the past three years.

Yesterday morning, on my drive to Brookings, it struck me that these attacks could serve as a template for discussing my frustration.

I was angry that night at the meeting–I was angry because on the Arts Council’s handout, the project on which I’ve worked hardest was labeled a “subsidy.” If you are sensitive at all to language, as I am, and you listen to the news, you will know that the word “subsidy” has a distinctly negative connotation. What it means to most people, now, is a large outlay of money to those who are undeserving of it. Is the community garden “subsidized” by the VAAC, or is the community garden part of the VAAC?

As Board members, we planned the community garden project for a year before we broke ground. We were waiting for the right time–when energy, volunteers, and sentiment coalesced around the project. At first, there were questions and doubts–of course, but there was also a real sense of positivity and commitment–especially with the coordination between community members and university students.

But even as we had meetings, even as we broke ground and involved several other community groups and began building and planting, the sentiment on the Board seemed to wane. During one of my final Board meetings as secretary last February, the Board president brought up the possibility of selling the lot we were developing to a man who would build apartments there. I was twice reminded that the garden group needed to keep enough money in our fund (money we raised mostly from leasing the plots) to “clean up the mess” after the project failed.

While some on the Board worked hard to help us realize our goals, others constantly denigrated the project, questioned its viability and purpose, and only showed their support when there was a photo-op with the mayor, planting apple trees with the Vermillion schools second graders and the Vermillion Garden Club. There is a kind of hypocrisy in that, after a lack of support from some on the Board, those same Board members were more than willing to take a measure of credit for the project’s success in spite of them.

The garden was growing and prospering and we were gaining new members for the VAAC and providing positive neighborhood and community feelings for the VAAC. Who was “subsidizing” whom? And does the VAAC deserve those members and good feelings when many have treated the project like a liability from its inception?

This past fall, I was invited to a Board meeting to give a report on the garden and farmers market. When I arrived, there was no president, no agenda, no structure to the meeting. There were two new Board members, but I was not introduced to, or by, anyone. After I gave my report, I was instructed not to put too much effort into the garden from that point on, because the property “might” be sold. My response was that a garden has to be tended–it cannot simply be left to grow into a tangled mess. Again, they told me, “well, don’t put too much effort into it.”

Later, I heard that some on the Board were unimpressed with our progress. “They had a year,” was the phrase I heard. We did have a year, and in that year, we showed the VAAC what was possible with commitment and organization and positivity. We didn’t turn anyone away, and we didn’t denigrate the efforts of our volunteers, even as some of the Board were denigrating our project.

I would not be surprised, but I would be disappointed, if last year’s excitement over the garden project has dwindled, and we are unable to garner the same support for this year’s garden. With the cloud of doubt the Board has raised over the project and possible sale of the property, I cannot help but think that if the project fails, it will be a self-fulfilling prophecy on the part of some of the Board. For my part, I will keep working, and try to dispel that doubt, but I do not think it will be easy.

It is also not lost on me that the community garden image on the VAAC’s new “official” website has been replaced by an image of VAAC Board members participating in the Relay for Life. While I don’t begrudge the Board’s right to participate in and promote such events, it strikes me as another hypocrisy in light of the many times the Board has asked, “What does the Community Garden Project have to do with art?” For the record, the mission of the VAAC is to promote both arts and humanities, and also for the record, part of the garden’s mission is to include sculpture when we have the funds to do so.

So, between my experience with this project, and the personal attacks on my partner at Friday’s meeting, I have come to realize that with some on the current Board, member-volunteers will be criticized for what they do and what they don’t do. They will be told they didn’t do the right thing, or they didn’t do it in the right way, and they will be criticized for not doing enough.

The failure of projects will be predicted from the first, and what projects do fail will be on their heads, and not on ours. It takes an extraordinary commitment to begin a project and to offer support in this climate of hostility and defeatism.

For those of us who have spent countless hours volunteering for this organization, this is incredibly frustrating. For many, this frustration has caused them to walk away from the organization completely.

This creates the very situation that the Board has found itself in many times before–lacking the volunteer support to do what needs to be done around the center. The idea of shrinking the Board from fifteen directors to seven was to reduce the need of the Board to do everything themselves. In theory, this can work quite well, but not if the seven cannot facilitate, encourage, and simply allow the members to do for the VAAC what they’d like to do anyhow.

With a volunteer organization, the Board should facilitate, rather than denigrate, the efforts of the membership. Not all of these efforts might be up to the expectations of the Board, but work done by members reduces the need of the Board to do all the work, which they know they cannot do.

I cannot (I will not!) stand to hear the Board complain that they don’t have enough volunteers to do the work of the organization when, in my experience, much of my volunteer effort (and the volunteer effort of my partner and others as well) has been disregarded or undermined, subtly or overtly.

Considering the number of volunteers that some in the membership have been able to round up in support of VAAC events and projects, it should be clear that it’s not that the members aren’t interested in helping out at the VAAC, but they’re just not interested in helping out a Board that seems not to appreciate them.


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