History of Burlington City Arts

In 1981, one of Bernie Sanders first acts as Mayor was to establish the all-volunteer Mayor’s Arts Council (MAC) with the mission of developing an egalitarian program which would “make the arts available to all, regardless of social, economic or physical constraints.

MAC brought the arts into low income areas with neighborhood festivals (including the Battery Park Free Concert Series that still exists today) designed to make the arts available to all, combat neighborhood demoralization, foster neighborhood cohesiveness and promote economic development. Programs like the Battery Park Free Concert Series and the Metropolitan Gallery and (many others that did not survive evolution) developed during this period.

In 1983, the City Council awarded MAC $15,000 to continue its activities, with an office in a janitor’s closet in the basement of City Hall and a paid part-time coordinator (Doreen Kraft). The Discover Jazz Festival emerged out of this small council and a partnership with the Flynn. A serious cultivation of relationships between the organization, the community and artists of all mediums began to take shape. In 1988, the U.S. Conference of Mayors heralded Burlington as “one of the most livable cities for the arts.” However, MAC still operated on a project-by-project basis, planning for the short term.

In 1990, the City Council voted to establish MAC as a department of the city, amended the City Charter, and changed MAC’s name to Burlington City Arts. BCA was structured as a two-headed entity: a non-profit model with a board of directors as one governing body, and the Mayor as the other. The department’s funding was expanded to cover overhead, salaries and benefits for permanent staff, but money for programming would be fund raised. BCA’s responsibilities broadened with its new status. BCA became the cultural planner, charged with helping to integrate the arts into planning for economic development, education and urban design. BCA was also called upon to manage city facilities, like Contois Auditorium and then, in 1993, Memorial Auditorium, which had decayed financially as well as structurally and suffered a string of bad management.

In 1995, BCA won permission from the administration to convert the ground floor of the former firehouse building into a fine arts gallery on a trial basis. BCA took control of the vacated second floor of the firehouse in 1998 and converted it into a studio and classroom space. The offerings were accessibly priced and heavily attended.

No longer simply a renovation, the rescue of the Ethan Allen Firehouse took on new meaning for everyone involved. The concept of stabilization and protecting the future of the building resounded with the nationwide reaction to the September 11 attacks. It was soon after this time that the Shelburne Museum decided to gift the original bell back to the Firehouse tower. As a symbol of the dedication and sacrifices that hundreds of families made as their sons volunteered to protect their neighbors, the bell’s return seemed to confirm the building’s connection to the community and brought the Journey of the Firehouse full circle. The first two floors, including a renovated and much-missed Firehouse Gallery and a brand new community Darkroom, opened to the public in December of 2002. The rest of the building opened in May of 2004.