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The Arts

Putting it together

An ‘arts corridor’ takes shape in Brattleboro

This story is part of an occasional series on the complicated and growing relationship between the arts and the local economy.

BRATTLEBORO—Imagine a corridor of art and music centered around the Connecticut River, Flat Street and the Whetstone Brook in Brattleboro.

A waterfront park, perhaps. A museum at either end. Theaters offering plays, movies, classical music and circus arts. An open studio where people can watch glass being blown and art ceramics being made. A hotel with four movie theaters attached, one showing Metropolitan Opera performances live in HD. A high-end large new food market. Bars and restaurants filling out the scene.

It may sound like a dream, but it is a dream that is already coming true.

Some parts are already in place. The Brattleboro Museum and Art Center is flourishing with a year-round schedule of shows, lectures and classes.

Across “Malfunction Junction,” the renovated Art Deco Latchis Hotel — motto: “It’s artful. It’s downtown.” — has been on Main Street since 1938. It has about 30 rooms and suites, many decorated with the work of local artists, and houses a pub and a restaurant.

It also hosts the Latchis Theatre, which has four movie screens, including the only big screen in town, and a brand new jewel-box of a theater that can handle independent films, concerts and plays. The big stage hosts a number of live performances each year. And the opera broadcasts start in October.

Next door to the Latchis is the Wilder Block, a combination of commercial space and apartments which the Windham Housing Trust renovated for $2.9 million after a fire in December 2004 gutted the building. It now houses the River Gallery School — a nonprofit art school for children and adults — a wine shop and eight apartments.

Around the corner on Flat Street, the New England Youth Theater broke ground with clowns, hard hats and red sponge noses on June 12, 2006. It has been an active 175-seat theater since 2007, with costume and scenery workshops, classrooms and rehearsal space. About 25 people work there either full or part time.

And up the road a bit — turning the arts corridor into a Miracle Mile — is the Estey Organ Museum on Birge Street.

All these institutions are already in place.

Construction projects

Then there are several projects that have already started or are being readied for construction.

Ideas to develop the Connecticut River waterfront behind Union Station and the museum are currently being solicited from the general public under the auspices of The Center for Creative Solutions.

In front of the museum, the intersection of Canal, Main and Vernon streets — not so affectionally known as “malfunction junction” — will soon be revamped by the Vermont Agency of Transportation.

Across the intersection, construction has begun on the new Brattleboro Food Co-op, a $8.9 million, 14,589-square-foot food store, deli and cafe that will anchor lower Main Street. It already has a bridge over the Whetstone to Flat Street. Above the store, the Windham Housing Trust is putting in two floors of affordable rental apartments.

Glass and ceramics

Up on Flat Street, monthly discussions have been held for the past three years on how best to develop an “arts campus” with the NEYT as its anchor. These discussions have included the Brattleboro Music Center, FulcrumArts and the New England Center for Circus Arts (NECCA).

Currently, NECCA and the two partners of FulcrumArts, glassblower Randi Solin and art ceramist Natalie Blake, all have studios in the business incubator at the Cotton Mill.

Solin and Blake want to own a building where they can each have studios, demonstrate their work to the public, hold classes and house a gallery.

“A lot of our peers who are doing really well in this economy have their own galleries-slash-viewing arenas,” Blake said. “The viewing arena, especially for glassblowers, is a huge draw. Glassblowing — you can’t take your eyes off it. It’s fire and it’s moving and there’s always three people working on it, and it’s orange and it’s beautiful."

Many tourists and second home owners pass through Brattleboro, often with their families, and this would be an interesting destination, Blake said.

“My studio will be viewable as well,” Blake said. “We’ll have two functioning studios and maybe have other artists around. But Randi being a glassblower is the essential yummy component. And of course, having a gallery is because you’re so excited about what you see that you want to buy something."

Solin and Blake have spent the past three years working on plans to restore the Brattleboro Machine Works building on the NEYT campus, but their work ended abruptly when the building was declared a brownfield.

A brownfield, according to the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency, is “real property, the expansion redevelopment or reuse of which may be complicated by the presence or potential presence of a hazardous substance, pollutant or contaminant.” In 2009, the agency gave the NEYT a $200,000 grant to cleanup another brownfield site on its campus, Tri-State Automotive.

Solin and Blake had to give back their grant money and stop the project.

“That you can’t use the building you’ve been studying for three years is a travesty,” Blake said. “But the universe has something else in mind and we’re opening our hearts to what that is. Now we’re looking at buildings downtown, including the Livery Building barn on the NEYT property. Our draw is still the arts campus, which we’ve worked so hard on."

Music on Flat Street

The Brattleboro Music Center is eying the C.F. Church building on Flat Street, which backs onto the NEYT property. Formerly a factory, it was once made Church toilet seats — their motto: “The best seat in the house.”

According to its current plans, the BMC will keeping the occupied commercial space as it is, renovate what is now a warehouse and put up a new building with offices and classrooms. It also envisions a new 300-seat theater for performances.

Currently the BMC is involved in creative fundraising. For example, violinmaker Doug Cox has created a copy of the 1717 “Gariel” Stradivarius owned by BMC co-artistic advisor, violinist and conductor Jaime Laredo.

“Doug has graciously agreed to donate the proceeds from the sale of this instrument, which has a retail value of $25,000, to support the BMC’s fundraising for its new home,” says the BMC Web site. “It is an exquisite instrument!  Jaime Laredo writes: ‘I have been a great admirer of Douglas Cox’s work for many years. I actually own one of his violins, which I love and play very often.  I was thrilled when he wanted to make a copy of my Strad, and I had a chance to see it and play a few notes on it the day after it was finished.  I think it turned out marvelously; it is a stunning-looking violin and I look forward to spending a little time playing it this summer.’"

The BMC points out that the buyer can take a tax deduction, because of their nonprofit status.

“For whatever reason you purchase the violin, you will have the satisfaction of knowing you have helped the BMC,” says the Web site. “That’s innovative giving!”

And the circus will come to town

NECCA has been involved in campus discussions since they began, but fundraising for a permanent home is still in the infant stage.

“Our plans are a little bit fluid,” said Elsie Smith, an aerialist who, along with her twin sister Serenity Smith Forchion, has performed all over the world. The twins settled in Brattleboro in 2003 and began creating their circus school right after that; today it is rapidly expanding and drawing more and more people to the area to live, work and study. About 30 people are coming soon for a nine-month professional development program. And NECCA now employs a staff of 12.

“And about half of them make their complete living teaching and performing circus,” Smith said.

Eventually, the twins’ goal is “to build a custom circus building in Brattleboro, and to promote the perpetuity of the school for the public beyond its dependence on its founders,” according to their Web site.

But right now, the sisters are content to work behind the scenes.

“As FulcrumArts and the Brattleboro Music Center morph and adjust, we may morph and adjust too,” Smith said. “We’re mostly putting our efforts into helping them get established."

NECCA already uses the NEYT for some performances and training, and hopes to also rent the BMC’s 30-foot-high theater when it is built. In the meantime, it has expanded to a second floor of studio space at the Cotton Mill.

“We’ve been able to add a room for massage therapy and one for gyrotonics, which is a machine-based and floor-based update on Pilates that was originally created for dancers,” Smith said. “We recently got a grant from the Vermont Community Fund to buy a German Wheel, which is a competition sport in Europe and a circus act in the U.S. and Canada. I became a certified instructor on it and we debuted our duo act at the Arial Dance Festival in Boulder, Colo. All our classes for it here are already full.”

In addition to drawing professional circus performers to the area, NECCA is also drawing conventions. In September, it will host the American Youth Circus Organization, which promotes teaching circus arts to young people. Between 40 and 80 people will be coming for the conference.

“The organization was started in part by Kevin and Erin O’Keefe of Circus Minimus,” Smith said. “They came to take a workshop with us and fell in love with a house in Brattleboro. So they bought it. Now they share their time between here, New York and Hawaii.”

In November, NECCA will hold a circus workshop weekend that will draw another 40 or 50 people to the area.

“As the economy has setbacks, the date for our own building on the arts campus is a moving target,” Smith said. “We’re hoping that Fulcrum will open next year, and maybe the BMC, too. For ours, we’re looking at three to five years down the road. Add in the museums, the Latchis, the waterfront and the Food Co-op and it’s starting to look like an incredible opportunity for the town. So we’ve been very busy working hard to make all this happen. And when it’s all done, I’m going to scream.”

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Originally published in The Commons issue #66 (Wednesday, September 8, 2010).

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