Seeing a Tradition of Creativity and Innovation at the Bennington Museum

Ronald Slayton,  the planter , 1937. From  Crash to creativity: the new deal in vermon t at the bennington museum.

Ronald Slayton, the planter, 1937. From Crash to creativity: the new deal in vermont at the bennington museum.

Crash to Creativity: The New Deal in Vermont is a special exhibit in its last week at the Bennington Museum. Sunday, November 4th, is your last chance to see it. If you have the opportunity to go, I recommend that you do.

I saw the exhibit on a visit to Bennington in August. Crash to Creativity, the museum describes, focuses on the contributions of “New Deal projects in fostering a culture of creativity and innovation in the Green Mountains,” between 1933 and 1943. The show features photographs, artifacts, and archival documents from the Civilian Conservation Corps and other New Deal projects in Vermont. But it’s the paintings and prints, especially the works by Francis Colburn and Ronald Slayton, which leave the most vivid impressions of the challenging lives of Vermonters during those years.

Colburn and Slayton were part of the Federal Art Project, a program of the Works Progress Administration— they were paid to paint.  The exhibit explains their socially-conscious focus: “A desire for better working and living conditions for their fellow Vermonters is an overriding theme in their work. Both artists depicted hard-working Vermont farmers, laborers, and their families, with dignity and respect.”

You can still find the names Colburn and Slayton in Vermont. Selene Colburn, Francis’ granddaughter, represents Burlington in the state legislature. Tom Slayton, Ronald’s son, is a longtime journalist— you can listen to him reflect on his father’s art for VPR, here.

The exhibit describes how Vermont was particularly ready to deploy crews of the Civilian Conservation Corps (CCC) for big public projects. In a 1933 report, the Vermont Commission on Rural Life had recommended the state develop new recreational facilities to attract more summer residents and bolster the rural economy.  To that end, CCC crews built roads and bridges, planted over a million trees, and constructed facilities at six ski areas and several state parks, laying the foundation for a wood products industry and four-season recreation industry.

On my drive back north, I thought about the parallels between these public investments in Vermont’s landscape and culture of creativity in light of current initiatives and investments with similar goals, now 85 years later.

I’m thinking, for example, about Accel-VT, a business accelerator managed by the Vermont Sustainable Jobs Fund. The program selects startup or seed stage ventures, from both inside and outside the state, to take part in intensive trainings together in Vermont, supplemented by homework and webinars. The curriculum is designed to “test assumptions, expose and remediate business vulnerabilities, prepare for significant investment, and provide a platform for rapid scale.” The first cohort of the accelerator focused on clean energy, and the current cohort is focused on agriculture and food technology innovation. In addition to the direct benefits to participating Vermont-based companies, the goal is to build Vermont’s reputation as a place that incubates and supports innovation and entrepreneurship directed at addressing climate change.

A bunch of other programs come to mind. I’m also thinking about—

Francis colburn,  social security,  1947. From  Crash to creativity: the new deal in vermon t at the bennington museum.

Francis colburn, social security, 1947. From Crash to creativity: the new deal in vermont at the bennington museum.

  • Farm to Plate, whose network is gathering this week to talk, among a host of topics, about how to build resiliency in Vermont’s food system.

  • The Working Lands Enterprise Initiative, which provides technical and financial support to innovative entrepreneurs and growing businesses related to Vermont farms, food and forests.

  • The Vermont Outdoor Recreation Economic Collaborative, which is “leveraging Vermont’s outdoor recreation assets to stimulate and improve economic outcomes.”

  • The Vermont Climate Economy Initiative, which aims to “make the state a destination for entrepreneurs who want to be at the center of the climate change movement.”

  • And the Clean Energy Development Fund, established 13 years ago to increase renewable energy generation in Vermont. The fund first focused on modest-scale solar and wind incentives, and more recently on advanced wood heat.

The public investments of the New Deal, the labor of the CCC, and the vision of Federal Arts Project artists all contributed to a culture of innovation and social responsibility. Vermonters build on that culture when we invest in these important initiatives today.