Strength in numbers

Strength in numbers

With 31 artists, Harmony Collective Art Gallery opens in Brattleboro

BRATTLEBORO — Ever since Windham Art Gallery closed shortly after she moved to Vermont almost two decades ago, painter Kay Curtis had been regretting that there was no longer a cooperative for art in Brattleboro.

Of course, she knew that to start one up would be a huge job.

“So I waited for 20 years,” she confessed.

Then, suddenly, in September, Curtis got tired of waiting and declared, with the fervor of one on a mission, “I'm just going to do this myself.”

Spearheaded by Curtis, Brattleboro's newest artist-owned and operated gallery, Harmony Collective Artist Gallery, has opened at 49 Elliot St. Open from 10 a.m until 6 p.m., seven days a week, the space features the work of 31 local artists in diverse media such as glass, clay, painting, printmaking, jewelry, metal sculpture, and more.

Many hands

The collective is designed for each member to pay an initial $200 one-time membership fee and $60 a month toward rent. The gallery collects 10 percent of sales. Most importantly, each artist gives four hours a week to keep the gallery functioning. With 31 members, this provides many hands to contribute and allow the collective to succeed.

Once she decided to spearhead the venture, Curtis set herself the goal of getting an artist-run art gallery up and operating in Brattleboro in eight weeks. So she made a call to real estate manager Bob Lyons, who recommended the perfect space for the project. After a $5,000 anonymous donation, remodeling commenced.

“Despite needing extensive work to make the 1,600-square-foot space habitable, maintenance supervisor Jake Grover delivered on the promise to provide a first-rate location, freshly painted, with new floors, ceiling tiles, and track lighting,” Curtis writes in a press release.

Meanwhile, Curtis began assembling a core team of artists from the area to bring their gallery experiences to bear.

Glass blower Lucy Bergamini contributed in myriad ways, leveraging her vast experiences at Epoch Gallery in Manchester to help flesh out the basic ideas around the collective.

A local artist and gallery owner in her own right, Gayle Weitz advised on many aspects of running an art gallery.

Diane Echlin brings a background in retail and strong organizational skills to the development of inventory systems, and Isabel Lenssen fills the many cracks that might let details fall through.

This group of five established all the guidelines, set up the lease, and initiated all the steps required to open.

Once the collective had keys, the group began to envision how the space would work for 31 artists. Diane began the laborious process of inputting information into the computer for the sales desk and then trained artists to use the equipment. Artists arrived with their work and chose spaces to exhibit their art.

Initially, Curtis had some difficulty persuading other artists to join her vision.

“I had to have conversations with 10 artists before one would agree to come on board,” Curtis concedes. “I think they were unsure if this project could get off the ground. I want to change the conversation in which people say that a gallery will never work, or nobody will buy my work.”

But then things changed.

“When the gallery actually opened, and you could see how beautiful the space looked and understand how well located it was, artists began contacting me, rather than me outreaching to them,” Curtis says. “So many people would walk through the door and exclaim, 'I want to be part of this!'”

Enthusiastic response

For Curtis's project to work economically, she needs 31 artists who could help pay the rent. If she had some worries initially, she now has almost all the slots filled.

“We have a mixture of seasoned artists and newcomers who have never shown their work before and are getting here their first steps as public artists,” she says.

The collective consists of artists in Southern Vermont, Western New Hampshire, and Northern Massachusetts.

“We saw our outer limit being those who could drive here in about an hour, for each artist is obliged to do four hours of work a week in the gallery,” Curtis adds.

Harmony Collective strives for diversity in the arts.

“We'll have traditional gallery arts like painting and sculpture, but we also will show collages, jewelry, hand dyed yarn works, and graffiti art table tops,” Curtis explains. “We divide the work, not by labels, but [by] form, so that we will provide space for 3D art such as sculpture, 2D art like paintings and other things that are mounted on walls, and thirdly, jewelry and other small items that must be shown in cases.

“We also have a lot of windows where we can display stained glass. On top of all that, we are even considering Performance Art as part of Brattleboro First Fridays. To put it simply, this is a collective space where art is present.”

Curtis doesn't get “bent out of shape” considering what qualifies as art. “We do not make the fine art and artisans/craftsperson split,” she says. “I believe that being an artist is a declaration that you are one. It requires no certification like a nurse or teacher. You simply have to create a product to enrich other people's lives.”

Curtis's current job title with the Harmony Collective may be coordinator, but she doesn't consider herself its ringleader.

“I just got things going,” she says. “I am very eager to pass the administrative jobs on to committees. My role as coordinator is to find others who will do everything I do. I want to create teamwork.”

'Comrades in this magical space'

The one thing Curtis is adamant about is that the Harmony Artist Gallery is a collective.

“Although I may have had the original idea, it is not all about me,” she says. “The collective experience here has been amazing. People see a need and volunteer what is needed. We have very little money to pay for anything, so someone told me she had extra toilet paper at home and would bring some in. Another said they would bring in a telephone for the gallery.

“Last week, a couple of new people stopped in the gallery to see if they could join and, before they left, they were setting up ladders, tuning the stereo system, helping hang art, as well as giving hugs and posing for Facebook photos. We all become comrades in this magical space.”

Since Harmony Collective opened last month, it isn't only artists who have seemed impressed with the space.

“People come inside the gallery really excited, and they say to us, 'Thank you so much for doing this,'” Curtis says.

Diane Echlin who has been working with Curtis almost from the beginning to get this project off the ground, agrees.

“I am overjoyed how things are turning out,” she says. “It is so much better than I ever imagined. I am quite impressed seeing how everything has come together in such a short time. One reason this is true is that I believe artists have a longing for community. Hanging out with creative people makes the day better. There may be other galleries in our town, but ours is different. It is so much more open and inclusive.”

Paper cutter Stu Copans, who became a member of the Harmony Collective shortly after it opened, also says he is pleased with how the gallery has grown in such a short time.

“There is such a range of work on display here,” he says. “I was a member of the old Windham Art Gallery, which consisted of fine art, not crafts. Not only do I enjoy the greater diversity of expression at Harmony, I believe that cards and jewelry help keep community galleries afloat.”

Copans contends that the collective is good for Brattleboro at large.

“I know that our downtown is struggling,” he says. “However, I think places like the Harmony Collective Art Gallery, as well as the Literary Festival and the numerous film festivals we host throughout the year, keep Brattleboro alive and thriving. They make people want to live [in] and visit this special town.”

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