A museum’s milestone

Danny Lichtenfeld and Mara Williams talk about what make Brattleboro Museum & Art Center special to the Brattleboro area and ‘a reflection and representation of this community’s talents, interests, and commitment’

BRATTLEBORO — The Commons recently spoke with Danny Lichtenfeld, the Brattleboro Museum & Art Center's executive director since 2007, about the history of the museum and its programming, vision, and 50th anniversary celebration.

We also caught up with BMAC's Curator Emerita Mara Williams, who served as the museum's director from 1989 to 2004 and as chief curator from that point until her retirement last year, to get her thoughts on these topics, as well as Lichtenfeld's 15 years at the helm.

Following are excerpts from both interviews.

Danny Lichtenfeld

Victoria Chertok: How did BMAC evolve from a grassroots, volunteer-run, “let's-put-on-a-show”-type of operation to an internationally respected contemporary art museum?

Danny Lichtenfeld: Many museums begin with an endowment, but this museum began when word got out that Union Station - an architecturally important building - was not in use and neglected and might be torn down, and there was a public outcry.

In 1972, there was a grassroots swelling of concern and motivation among community members to save the historic building and put it to good use.

Ideas came to the fore: one was [that it be used] as a center for local art activity.The other idea was we should have a local history museum. The Selectboard said “work on these two things together,” and a $1-per-year lease was set up.

Following months of laborious cleaning and renovation done by scores of volunteers, BMAC opened its doors to the public on Sept. 10, 1972. One side of the former train station lobby contained display cases featuring historical artifacts; the other, an exhibition of new artwork by Wolf Kahn, David Rohn, and other artists with local ties.

V.C.: The name Brattleboro Museum & Art Center means what, exactly?

D.L.: Our name is a vestige of the early days - two operations in one: history museum and art center. Our DNA is very different from most museums. It was grassroots and really community driven as opposed to top down.

We no longer are a history museum, but I'd like to think we have done a good job of being in tune with our community and that we continue to have strong connections to the community.

For the first 10 years, the museum was entirely volunteer run. In the late 1970s, they finally hired a paid staff member and that person, Rod Faulds, did it all - curator, bookkeeper, custodian, etc.

V.C.: What does the Museum look like today?

D.L.: Today we have six full-time staff and many part-time staff. We have an annual budget of $750,000, which is about double what it was when I started.

During Mara Williams's tenure as director/curator, the museum's focus became exclusively about art and no longer about history. Part of that was that the Brattleboro Historical Society came into being, so a lot of the artifacts were transferred to BHS.

V.C.: Tell me about what it was like in the early days.

D.L.: For the first 30 years, the museum was only open seasonally, from April to November. It has gradually evolved to being a very robust, year-round operation with 15 to 20 exhibits per year, 60 to 70 public programs, and extensive educational offerings, developed in partnership with area schools and service organizations.

We're showing artwork by well-established artists - local, regional, national, and internationally known artists. We're showing artwork here that you might see in museums in major metropolitan areas.

We welcome 15,000 visitors every year and have gained a reputation as one of New England's important contemporary art museums.

V.C.: How has the Brattleboro community played a role in the size and scope of the Museum today?

D.L.: The fact that a town as small as Brattleboro, located in a largely rural region, has been able to sustain a contemporary art museum the size and scope of BMAC speaks volumes.

And it's not as though the museum just happens to exist here, it's a reflection and representation of this community's talents, interests, and commitment.

One of our programs works with 15 of the Head Start classrooms in our area. We have art teachers working with infants and toddlers.About 200 grade 7–12 students from all around the state submit artwork for Scholastic Art and Writing Awards. We have lots of field trips from local schools. The LEGO contest is coming up on 15 years, and we have surpassed 1,000 submissions for this contest. Our Glasstastic exhibit gets about 1,000 submissions annually from grades K–6 students from all over the world.

V.C.: How do you raise money for your operating budget, and what is your endowment?

D.L.: We have an operating budget of $750,000 this fiscal year and, with true New England thriftiness and resourcefulness, we know how to stretch every dollar.

We lean heavily on generous volunteers and in-kind donations. That's one part of it. But we've also built up a membership and fundraising operation. We have 800 memberships currently. In a town of 12,000 people, it's like 6 to 7 percent of the population of the town, which is impressive.

We have so much financial support from people who live in our region. We raise most of the money that we need to spend in one year. We receive generous support from local business community sponsors and write a lot of grant applications.

Over the last 10 years, we've begun building up an endowment from gifts that we've received in people's estate plans, so our endowment is now at $1 million.

V.C.: Most museums have a permanent exhibit or collection, and BMAC does not. What does that mean?

D.L.: It's somewhat unusual, but we love it that way. It gives us more flexibility, and it's a different type of operation than a collecting museum.

Every few months we exhibit something completely new, and we constantly have the opportunity to provide this valuable opportunity to living artists to have their work shown in a museum.

For emerging and historically overlooked artists in particular, that can represent a significant milestone in their career.

V.C.: What are you most excited about in celebrating the 50th anniversary?

D.L.: I'm looking forward to thanking the current and former BMAC board members and donors who will be attending the Friday night Gala, and to celebrating with friends, neighbors, and visitors from all walks of life at Saturday's Birthday Bash!

Mara Williams

Victoria Chertok: When did you arrive at BMAC?

Mara Williams: I came to Brattleboro in 1989, the museum was 18 years old, and in my time as director-curator we celebrated the 20th and 25th anniversaries of BMAC as well as the 75th anniversary of Union Station.

I spent half of my life at BMAC, which is extraordinary to me. In 2004, the board of trustees split the top job in two. I got the fun part of the job, chief curator. The institution was stabilized under the leadership of Konstantin von Krusenstiern. We took a quantum leap forward when Danny Lichtenfeld took the helm in 2007.

V.C.: Danny has been at the helm now for 15 years. How has his vision for the institution and vision of the arts shaped BMAC today?

M.W.: Danny came to BMAC with a wealth of experience in arts administration. He focused on cultivating the fundraising and strategic planning skills of the board of trustees. Strategic planning with benchmarks enabled tremendous growth in staffing and capacity.

Danny is ambitious for the mission of the institution as a dynamic space where art and ideas foster deeper connections in our community, a place where culture lets us talk to each other in a way that enhances lives.

Danny comes from a music background and is a singer. He believes in the power of the arts to expand our hearts and minds in a profound way. He has put tremendous energy into growing BMAC.

Early in his tenure, as the father of a young son, he brought fresh ideas for family programming to the table. Our Glasstastic exhibit, the LEGO competition, and the domino toppling were his initiatives. They are all signature events for BMAC.

Danny really understood something about creativity in children. He is committed to access to the arts across the lifespan.

V.C.: How does art create and nurture community?

M.W.: The joy of art is its ability to catalyze an expansive, open-ended experience for us. It is a moment to encounter your humanity. A work of art in any form - painting, poetry, drama, music - is created by human beings for human beings.

When you're contemplating art, you are essentially having a conversation with it and its creator or creators. And then you get to have another conversation with the person next to you. No one is right or wrong - you are just engaging with each other's mind, heart, and spirit.

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