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Congressman Peter Welch discusses pandemic recovery with Vermont’s cultural community

Vermont Congressman Peter Welch (file)
Pat Bradley/WAMC
Vermont Congressman Peter Welch (file)

Congressman Peter Welch met virtually with leaders of Vermont’s cultural organizations Tuesday to discuss the continuing impacts and the challenges they face as they emerge from the pandemic.

Vermont’s at-large Democratic representative was among the early and most vocal supporters of the Save Our Stages Act to provide federal aid to cultural organizations during the pandemic.

Welch, who is now running for Senate, recalled that cultural venues were the first forced to shut down but among the last to receive pandemic relief and reopen.

“There’s more work to be done. There’s many challenges out there. But we are in a different place and we’re there with the likelihood, with the reality, that the extraordinarily important work that you do for our mental health, for our economy, for our sense of our own spiritual strength, you’re going to continue doing that work. Because the arts are about our soul, our sense of our self, our sense of history, our sense of connection, and sense of self expression. And everything in that is vital to day to day lives.”

Lake Champlain Maritime Museum Executive Director Susan Evans McClure said they are cautiously optimistic. After being closed in 2020 McClure explained they experimented with free admission last year.

“It increased our visitation by about 30 percent. But it also demonstrated a real need in our communities to gather, to learn together. And so what we’re working hard on is to sustain that free admission. It’s harder but there’s more reason to do it and we’re really motivated to do it. And of course we’re still juggling that ‘who knows what’s coming next’ feeling.”

Inclusive Arts Vermont works with people with disabilities. Executive Director Katie Miller says they had to make some tough financial decisions — closing management offices and working remotely. She told the Congressman they still see the impacts of the pandemic.

“The population we work with, people with disabilities, I will say they are still very isolated. So we are still running a combination of hybrid, in person and remote classes to work with those people and we probably will indefinitely. People with disabilities are still really struggling with the financial impacts of the pandemic.”

Vermont Folklife Center Executive Director Kate Haughey said the early CARES ACT funding helped efforts to document Vermonters’ experiences during the pandemic. She said help is needed to emphasize how the arts are critical to mental health.

“We need support in sharing the message that arts are not only important for economics and tourism but mental health and well-being. And not only sharing that message but money to do the research to show the impact of the arts.”

Weston Playhouse Executive Artistic Director Susanna Gellert said while some things are getting better the next few years will be challenging.

“The pandemic does continue. We have increased costs, workforce development, workforce retention and in the particular case of Vermont affordable housing. All of that is coming together in a real crucible that’s getting quite critical and at least for the performing arts as we move forward rebuilding is going to be really hard.”

As the meeting came to an end Congressman Welch compared the work of those in the arts to the fractures occurring in the nation’s democracy.

“There’s a deeper meaning to what you’re doing: to create connection among us. Not to fear somebody who’s different but try to understand someone who’s different. To find a way that is empathic I think is absolutely vital to the wellbeing of this state and to this country and to our democracy.”

The arts organizations told Congressman Welch that flexible federal funding will be crucial for pandemic recovery.