As Mayor of Burlington, Bernie formed the Burlington Arts Council in 1981 as one of his first acts as mayor of the Vermont city. He intended to make the arts “available to all, regardless of social, economic or physical constraints.” The program allowed the Burlington arts scene to flourish.
“Shortly after I was elected Mayor of Burlington, Vermont, I helped create the Burlington Arts Council, hoping to unleash the creativity of our residents and harness the untold benefits that investment in the arts brings to communities. At that time, it was almost unheard of to have a municipally funded and supported effort to promote the arts. We brought the arts to underserved communities and neighborhood parks. We collaborated with our schools, recognizing that a strong introduction to the arts fuels the imagination and teaches children to be expressive. We supported street murals, performance art, and music festivals that captured the distinct character of our city. And when I look back at eight years as mayor, founding the Burlington Arts Council was one of my proudest achievements.” – Senator Bernie Sanders’ speech to Arts Action Fund, 2016.
The municipally funded Arts Council not only supported public art in the form of neighborhood festivals, street murals, park performances, and arts programming in public schools; it also provided grants to artists and small arts organizations. It also started a very popular annual Jazz Festival that filled the whole city, including restaurants, streets and buses and many other venues with music for ten days each year.
When jazz trumpeter Dizzy Gillespie walked the city during the 1984 Jazz Festival, he remarked, “This is America?” He was obviously referring to the estimated 25,000 people who turned out for the festival’s free and ticketed events. “Burlington – arts programmers, artist, and city officials agree – has become something of a local Mecca for the arts. And as the U.S. Conference of Mayors decided on Monday, that is in large part due to the efforts of Mayor Bernard Sanders’ progressive administration.”
Early in his tenure, Bernie and his wife, Jane O’Meara Sanders, the director of the mayor’s youth office, also overturned a local ordinance against live performances on public property. As a result, the city’s music scene flourished, with concerts and performances filling the city’s auditoriums and streets with live music. The city’s youth center, 242 Main, became an iconic Northeast venue that remained in use until 2016.
The Arts Council expanded over time. In 1988, Burlington was deemed “one of the most livable cities for the arts.” Today it continues to thrive. In his pledge to the Arts Action Fund at the beginning of his first U.S. presidential campaign, Bernie was unequivocal in championing art and culture nationwide, should he win the election: “Art is speech. Art is what life is about.”