Local Arts Organizations Look to the Future
State of the Arts
Philip Godenschwager at the Chandler Center for the Arts
By this point, most of us have come up with a few New Year’s resolutions, envisioning myriad ways to improve ourselves. Arts organizations plan further ahead — and are more likely to make their plans reality. Accordingly, we checked in with a handful of them around the state to get a sneak peek at 2011.
What’s in a Name
The Firehouse Gallery has in store nothing less than a name change and rebranding campaign for the new year, according to Burlington City Arts communications director Eric Ford. The new name? The BCA Center. “It sounds kind of obvious, but we went out on a limb before we came back to that idea,” says Ford. “We needed to be straightforward and direct; we just felt like the whole point of doing this was to simplify and clarify who we are.” And that is? A regional contemporary art center that wants to be taken seriously.
On television reality shows, makeovers are generally so extreme that the original person or place is unrecognizable. That’s not the case here: The Firehouse won’t show many changes to the casual observer — except for the new sign, and even that will be rendered in BCA’s familiar sans-serif font. But the internal, mission-driven changes are big, at least to BCA staff.
If you Google “Firehouse Gallery,” you can find a dozen of them around the country, Ford points out, saying, “People turn old firehouses into community centers.” That generic name “was in a sense holding us back,” he continues. “After getting the [$75,000 Andy Warhol Foundation for the Visual Arts] grant, we were on a roll and wanted to capitalize on that.”
Ford, and curator Chris Thompson, had been frustrated by the public’s limited understanding of the venue. “I want people to know there is more than one floor of visual art,” says Ford. “And we’re exploring not just visual art but film, music and performance in the whole building.”
A forthcoming website will guide visitors to BCA’s “three doorways,” says Ford: the arts center; the classes and programming; and the “city side” — i.e., BCA events such as the Battery Park Concert Series and Festival of Fools.
Oh, and 2011 is BCA’s 30th anniversary! Plans for that are still in the works, Ford says, with celebrations likely sprinkled throughout the year. New partnerships will unfold, as will a “theme of supporting artists,” he notes. “We’ll be playing with the number 30 a lot,” Ford promises.
The University of Vermont’s Fleming Museum already amended its name with “of Art” this year. The change was subtle but meaningful, signaling a drive similar to BCA’s (see opposite) to put itself on the map as a contemporary venue of regional significance. The place will not eschew its long-held mission, director Janie Cohen reassured Seven Days earlier this year; after all, the Fleming possesses vast collections, from ancient Egyptian artifacts to modern art, that offer endless curatorial possibilities. Not to mention educational ones: This is, after all, a university museum.
But an evolution of that mission is in progress. This fall, the Fleming launched PechaKucha Night — a fast-paced slide-show salon that’s become an international sensation among design cognoscenti. Establishing itself as a PKN site signaled the museum’s intention to offer cutting-edge inspiration and community involvement beyond static exhibitions. And one of its presenters, Paris-based multimedia artist Pippo Lionni, offered work that fits the bill for a 2011 addition to the museum’s offerings: film, video and new media.
A space to the right of the entrance, Cohen explains, will be a “new-media niche,” with the help of an HDTV loaner from Best Buy. Lionni’s humorous, pictogram-oriented video called “Facts of Life” will be on a continuous loop during spring semester, Cohen says.
The official branding of the museum, complete with new logo, will launch this spring, too, while the main exhibits visit the circus — expect Bread and Puppet and commedia dell’arte performances, and even a bearded lady. The next PechaKucha Night is February 10.
It’s been a challenging year for the Helen Day Art Center in Stowe. After losing both its curator and education coordinator, the organization soldiered on, “being as frugal as we can,” says executive director Nathan Suter.
The year started off with a bang. Odin Cathcart, the exhibitions director since April 2009, curated “Agent Intellect,” Iraqi-American artist Wafaa Bilal’s provocative installation — which included a controversial video game that offered viewers a chance to (virtually) shoot President George W. Bush. The show earned the center a critic’s pick in prestigious Art Forum magazine. After its run in Stowe, Helen Day loaned the work out to Davidson College in North Carolina — the first time it had curated a traveling show — and published a monograph of Bilal’s work, another first for the center.
But a couple months later, Cathcart resigned and moved west to be closer to his ailing mother. Since then, Helen Day has hired a new education coordinator, Lynn Rublee, a Williston artist and educator, but is still without a curator.
“We’re finding ways to cope,” Suter says. “Frankly, I’m really thrilled to be doing more curating and working with artists.” He’ll have help in 2011 from the center’s curatorial committee. Stowe artist Rachel Moore will guest-curate the annual “Exposed” outdoor sculpture show and the second installment of the Habitat for Artists project next summer.
Other notable upcoming shows include Burlington painter Mikey Welsh’s abstract work; and a group show called “Manhood: Masculinity, Male Identity and Culture.” Once Helen Day is on surer footing, Suter says, they’ll look for a new curator. Meanwhile, he remains optimistic about the center’s future.
Earlier this year Burlington poet Ben Aleshire started a new biannual literary journal, The Salon: A Journal of Poetry and Fiction, the old-fashioned way. With $400 and a dream of making local literature more widely available and affordable, he assembled a chapbook of poetry, fiction and short plays by local writers, stamped a striking red block print on each cover and distributed 300 copies to independent bookstores and libraries.
There is no electronic version — but that doesn’t seem to be holding Aleshire back. With the help of North End Studio, which provides free office space; Green Door Studio, where the journal’s covers are printed; and the contributions of an impressive roster of local writers, Aleshire is now reviewing submissions for the third issue.
He hopes to “create a bridge between the gutter and the ivory tower” of academia by publishing a mix of well-known local writers — such as David Budbill, Dana Yeaton and Elizabeth Powell — and those at the beginning of their careers. The current issue includes work by newcomers Annie Doran and Estefania Puerta, among others.
In keeping with Aleshire’s desire to go back in time — a predigital time — he recently bought a mimeograph machine, with which he hopes to produce a future issue. He’s having a tough time figuring out how to use the antiquated contraption. “I’m not incredibly optimistic about it,” he admits.
No matter, he says. There are plenty of other Luddite technologies Aleshire would like to embrace, such as a letterpress. If all else fails, the writing should speak for itself.
This summer Catamount Arts in St. Johnsbury invested $150,000 in “the Cadillac of online ticketing software,” according to executive director Jody Fried, and quickly became a Flynntix-like resource for presenters in northern Vermont and New Hampshire. Recently Catamount announced a partnership with its “old friend” Circus Smirkus — the Northeast Kingdom arts org presented the youth circus’ very first show back in 1987. Circus Smirkus has been using a ticketing biz in California, but now it will bring the dollars back home, Fried points out.
Besides selling tickets, Catamount can help smaller arts groups and individuals find venues and market their events through a monthly newsletter and twice-weekly e-blasts, says Fried. “We try to encourage the organizations we work with to give Catamount members some kind of discount,” he adds — a boon for extant members and incentive for others to join.
Presenting arts in the sparsely populated and not-so-well-heeled Northeast Kingdom is a challenge. While Catamount is helping to build mutually beneficial networks, it also relies on the kindness of … pop stars. Neko Case, the slightly reclusive singer-songwriter who bought a home in St. J, will once again come out and support her Catamount neighbors with a fundraising concert on January 28. She’s also invited indie-country duo Freakwater and a shadow-puppet trio, One Degree Off.
Fried says he’s pleased to work again with the Green Mountain Film Festival — it will run contiguously with Catamount’s own, for three weeks of early spring cinema. And a particularly exciting performance, Rioult — a Martha Graham-inspired dance troupe from New York City — is scheduled for May 6.
Catamount Arts is fostering the arts presenters of tomorrow, too, with an internship program for students from Lyndon State College’s popular arts-management major. Now, that’s advance planning.
Even executive director Becky McMeekin admits that, from the outside, the Chandler Music Hall kind of looks like a prison. “It’s formidable,” she says of the 103-year-old heavy stone building in downtown Randolph.
“And yet you walk inside, and it’s beautiful,” she says. She’s right, thanks to the $3.5 million renovation and expansion project the Chandler Center for the Arts wrapped up last summer. In addition to being handicapped accessible, the place now boasts a stained-glass window by local artist Philip Godenschwager, an airier lobby and brand-new, really nice bathrooms. This is a big deal, considering Chandler used to have just two toilets for men and two for women, with velvet curtains instead of stall doors.
But McMeekin isn’t just interested in physical accessibility. She’s hoping more people, especially the younger crowd in the Randolph area, will find programs they can afford and enjoy. “None of us are all that young anymore,” says McMeekin of her team. “It would be really easy to keep doing the same old, same old.”
That’s why this month she hired recent University of Vermont grad Claire Garner, who runs nearby Sundora Farm when she’s not slinging lattes at Three Bean Café, to manage a series of affordable performances in the Chandler’s upper gallery. Shows booked for the spring include Rochester guitar duo They Might Be Gypsies and Burlington acoustic blues/jazz guitarist Paul Asbell.
The goal is to get people through the door. With cheap tickets, danceable music and a bar stocked with beer and wine, what’s not to love?
Changing of the Guard
This year, Vermont Stage Company’s artistic director, Mark Nash, announced that he’s leaving at the conclusion of the 2010-11 season. VSC fans were worried. Was the organization in trouble? Nash says it’s in reasonable shape, despite the recession and a dip in ticket sales last year. But who’s going to take his place, and what does Nash have in mind for his next step?
One question at a time: Seven Days checked in with Nash on the company’s search for a new director. “It’s going apace,” he reports, and admits the board has “been great about keeping me a little bit out of the loop until the finalists are selected. The world of theater is so small,” he explains, “I might know some of them.”
The board aims to whittle 105 applications from all over the country down to 10, and then bring in perhaps three. Stiff competition, and that speaks highly of VSC.
Nash notes that some individuals have contacted him personally, and the feedback has been great. “Sometimes I’ve wondered if people know us outside of Chittenden County,” he says, “but it appears our reputation has gone well beyond.”
As for what he’ll do next, Nash insists he still doesn’t know, though he’s “95 percent sure I’m staying in Vermont. That means, if the new artistic director wants to hire me as an actor or director on occasion, I’m open to that. I just don’t want theater to be where my primary energy goes.”
Nash notes that his decade at the helm of a small arts organization has honed his writing and speaking skills — “so I feel like I’m heading in the direction of some kind of communications consultant.”
Meantime, he’s got more theater to produce. VSC’s next show, Neil Bartlett’s dark adaptation of Oliver Twist, opens January 26.