The nonprofit Vermont Arts Council is the country’s only state arts council not a part of state government
by Virginia Lindauer Simmon
Among the things Alexander L. Aldrich, executive director of the Vermont Arts Council for 17 years, has helped achieve is the successful involvement of the arts in transportation planning. The Arts Council is housed in the building that was the childhood home of Sen. Patrick Leahy.
Alexander L. Aldrich had an early introduction to the arts: His mother founded one of the first local arts councils in New York state back in the early ’60s. “But one of the things she did had perhaps more influence than she would have liked,” says Aldrich, now the executive director of the Vermont Arts Council.
“I took piano from the time I was 5,” he says. “I was terrible at it. As much as I was involved in music later, I didn’t have the hand-eye coordination. But she signed me up for an ensemble class with kids my age and younger. What she didn’t know was I couldn’t read music, even though I was taking music all those years. “The director said, ‘What are you doing in this class?’”
His mother signed him up for an art class. Aldrich hesitates for effect, then adds, “It was a life modeling class. I was in eighth grade, and my mother later described the conversation with the art teacher. The instructor asked if she was sure young Alexander was ready for this class. She said, ‘No problem, he’s taken piano for years, and been involved in the arts a long time. It never occurred to my mother that life modeling meant nude figure drawing.
“I remember being the center of my universe, and friends immediately called up their moms and said, ‘Can we take an art class?’”
“Alex has a delightful sense of humor and will use it on himself,” says Margaret Kannenstine, a Woodstock painter whose work appears in corporate collections and several museums, including the Fleming and Dartmouth’s Hood. Kannenstine was board chair back in 1997 when the Arts Council hired him. “Hiring him was the best thing I ever did on the Arts Council.”
Aldrich did not continue his art studies in college, but he worked summers at the Saratoga Performing Arts Center from age 17. “I liked the whole ecosystem that goes into putting something on the stage,” says Aldrich. “What the audience sees is like the tip of an iceberg: There’s so much that goes on — backstage, the box office, communications department — and I got a good sense of all that entailed.”
He entered Harvard and earned his bachelor of arts in English and American Literature — “a typical BA,” he says. After graduation, he managed a couple of small performing groups in the Boston area for two to three years before heading to the Yale School of Management to study business. He graduated in 1985.
Following graduation from Yale, Aldrich immersed himself in the arts, first at the National Opera Institute (now called the National Institute for Music Theater) in Washington, D.C.; then three years later, as executive director of the Arlington, Va., Symphony; and then assistant director of the music program at the National Endowment for the Arts.
In 1988, he met Suzanne Kennedy, a colleague of his cousin’s husband at Smithsonian magazine. They married in 1990.
Eventually, Aldrich was hired as producer of music programs for the 1996 centennial Olympic Games in Atlanta. “It might have been fun,” he says. He’s referring to his frustration over the fact that he was expected to make financial commitments without being sure there was a budget in place to support the commitments.
After two and a half years, he was, in his words, “marched into the human resources department and fired. It was called a ‘mutual parting of the ways’ for the media, and they gave me a generous severance.”
It was December of 1994, and to give him something to do, Suzanne presented him with a class in stained glass for Christmas. “I was just getting ready to learn how to repair doors and windows on people’s houses when I was hired by the Paralympic Games as director of their cultural Paralympiad in March 1994.”
The Paralympics had no money to spend on a festival, so Aldrich put to work something he thought the Olympics should have been doing all along. He approached all the entertainment venues in the city and said, “Here’s what I’m charged with doing. If your facility is not accessible, if you make it accessible, we can make you part of the Paralympiad.”
By August of 1995, he was finished with the job they had hired him to do: A schedule of events was lined up and ready to go. By the end of the month, he had a job as business manager of the Rialto Center for the Performing Arts at Georgia State University.
“So once again back gainfully underemployed and underpaid,” he says with a laugh, “but at least in a university that paid benefits.” It was a good thing. Triplets were born to him and Suzanne in September.
It wasn’t long before they realized they needed to be closer to their families: hers in New York City and his in western Massachusetts and Saratoga.
A friend saw an opening for the Vermont Arts Council and Aldrich applied. He and Suzanne were expecting their fourth child when he started January 2, 1997.
Vermont’s is unique in the United States as the only state arts council not a part of state government. This means that, unlike in other states, the organization is responsible for its own payroll, billing, fund-raising, marketing, and human resource management. “Every other one in the country doesn’t cut their own checks; they send them off to the state’s payroll department,” says Aldrich.
“This means extra staff to handle those functions and explains, for example, why Rhode Island’s arts council, with twice the budget of Vermont’s, has only six employees compared to our 10.”
A big part of Aldrich’s job is spent focused on what the Legislature is doing. About 45 percent of our budget comes from the state of Vermont and 45 percent from the National Endowment for the Arts. Very little — between 5 and 12 percent — comes from the private sector. We have funds no others have access to, so our charge is to support the field of nonprofit organizations and individual artists and art education services as well.”
“Alex approaches problems creatively, with enthusiasm and determination,” says Becky McMeekin, executive director of the Chandler Center for the Arts in Randolph. “I always get the feeling that he’s there in the trenches with us. Whenever we’ve asked for help, he’s been there for us.”
In addition to its arts advocacy with the Legislature, the Vermont Arts Council presents programs for artists and the public, such as Breaking Into Business workshops for artists, Poetry Out Loud presentations in the schools, and the annual Vermont Arts Summit.
Aldrich is particularly excited about the focus in recent years on the state’s creative economy. “The state has relentlessly, for years, marketed tourism, agriculture, et cetera,” he says. I think the state is slowly realizing that there is a huge wealth of people from outside the state that come to Vermont for the arts.
He and Kannenstine served on the Council for Rural Development’s Creative Economy Commission a few years ago, and in 2011, the state established the Office of the Creative Economy under the Agency of Commerce & Community Development.
He also believes that artists and arts corporations can be of value in problem-solving. An example of this is the Danville Project, which is just concluding. It began in 1998, when Karen Glitman, then deputy secretary of transportation, attended an Arts Council seminar that discussed artists and arts organizations hired to work with public agencies, often to address insurmountable issues, many of which turned out to be quite solvable. She asked if the council could become involved with the conundrum of Danville’s U.S. 2 redesign.
“Back in 1972,” Aldrich says, “the Federal Highway Administration said all federal highways have to be 26 feet from the center line. Danville has 18 feet. So rather than cutting through the town green or getting rid of all the parking spaces, the town of Danville said, ‘Over our dead body; take a hike.’ From 1972 to 1998, it wasn’t resolved.”
A committee of artists and transportation engineers was formed and asked to find a solution, “and the artists are in charge of the process,” Aldrich adds. A lot of time was spent listening to the community, whose concerns boiled down to protecting the town green and improving pedestrian safety.
After a lot of research, one of the artists came back with a slide show on how greens were used over the centuries: “Some were fenced, some had animals, some did not, some had roads running through, some had fairs and festivals and farmers’ markets,” says Aldrich. “When some old guy in the back said, ‘That’s not true of Danville and we’re not changing,’ she said that every slide she had shown was of the Danville town green. It was jaw-dropping!”
Within two years of forming the committee, the issue was solved, he says, adding, “Of course, it took another 10 years before all the rights-of-way and permitting were done. I like to think it was the intervention of the artists.”
Asked what he does away from work, he laughs. “My appetite is always much greater than my capacity to consume. Besides my family, I really love to cook; I love to do woodworking; and the third thing is stained glass.
“When you have triplets, a lot of your priorities really shift. Next year when my three sons, and then my daughter go off to college, there will be a different pattern.”
Suzanne is now a real estate broker and works at Coldwell Banker Classic Properties in Montpelier, which the Aldriches own. Not bad for a guy who couldn’t read music. •