As it turns 50, BMAC finds its future still on the drawing board

BRATTLEBORO — When culturally minded residents decided to turn this town's old railroad station into the Brattleboro Museum & Art Center (BMAC) in 1972, they obtained a lease for $1 a year and, rather than wait for the ink to dry, opened with a few paintings from such local artists as the acclaimed Wolf Kahn.

Everything else, they told the press, was still on the drawing board.

“The plans we have,” one organizer was quoted, “are only a beginning.”

Much has changed - yet hasn't changed - in the half-century since.

The once-volunteer-turned-paid-professional nonprofit institution just traded its $1 annual lease with the town for a building purchase and sale agreement - for $1.

The lobby that debuted with those Wolf Kahn landscapes has gone on to exhibit the work of everyone from Richard Morris Hunt (the Brattleboro-born architect of the pedestal of the Statue of Liberty) to pop-art prince Andy Warhol - all in a gallery renamed to honor Kahn and his artist wife, Emily Mason, now both deceased.

And the museum that's kicking off its 50th year is talking up a public birthday party Saturday - in part because the COVID-19 pandemic cancelled a ribbon cutting for a proposed expansion that, with past as prologue, is back on the drawing board.

“I feel there's a certain spirit today that's not all that different than it was 50 years ago,” BMAC director Danny Lichtenfeld said.

The museum's building - known as Union Station upon its unveiling in 1916 - is as much a part of the local landscape as the surrounding mountains quarried to provide fieldstone blocks for its walls.

The former depot boasts white marble steps, brown oak woodwork and red tile floors that together “may be so beautiful that it will rival Hollywood as a background for the movies,” local author Charles E. Crane wrote upon its debut.

But after local passenger train service stopped in 1966, the town bought the building with plans to demolish it for a parking lot.

Enter a group of volunteers who signed a lease to create the Brattleboro Museum & Art Center. A reporter at the Sept. 10, 1972, opening deemed the refurbished space “one of the greatest tourist attractions in this town since nature invented foliage.”

But organizers, realizing they needed more than a few borrowed paintings, soon were raising money to hire professional help.

The inaugural director, W. Rod Faulds, promoted the museum's first nationally distributed exhibit, 1984's “Built Landscapes: Gardens in the Northeast,” deemed by The Boston Globe as “beautiful,” “sumptuous,” and “thoughtfully interpretive.”

Two years later, successors Alison Devine and Dolores Root were reading The New York Times when they saw a notice for a Richard Morris Hunt exhibit at the landmark he helped design, the Metropolitan Museum of Art.

Working the phone, they somehow snagged the show for Hunt's hometown - then picked it up themselves to save $1,000 in packing costs.

Such ingenuity continued in 2004 when then– museum curator Mara Williams learned of a private collection of Andy Warhol art that had been locked away for two decades. Williams soon was driving to a Boston vault to secure pieces for a Brattleboro show that featured such iconic images as a Campbell's soup can.

“Even Warhol himself would never have predicted that a private collection of his works would have its world premiere in the small town of Brattleboro, Vt. (pop. 13,000),” a press release sent nationally began. “But, as the 'Pope of Pop' predicted, in the future everyone will be famous for 15 minutes. And so it will be for the town of Brattleboro.”

Under Lichtenfeld's leadership the past 15 years, the museum has presented topical shows on such issues as addiction, guns, and homelessness, as well as family-friendly events including the coming annual Domino Toppling Extravaganza, in which YouTube superstar Lily Hevesh is set to turn the floor into a mosaic of more than 20,000 dominoes.

At the end of 2019, the museum joined with M&S Development - the firm that restored the Brooks House after a 2011 fire - to unveil preliminary plans for a $30 million neighboring arts and apartment block that would be the priciest Main Street building in local history.

“This project will provide opportunities for people from all walks of life to discover art,” Lichtenfeld said at the time, “and it will encourage enduring economic and civic vitality in Brattleboro and the surrounding region.”

The COVID-19 pandemic, arriving at the start of 2020, had other plans. It upended everything from fundraising to the supply chain to construction costs that have skyrocketed as much as 30 percent.

“The pandemic really threw a wrench in the works,” Lichtenfeld said.

And so the museum, going back to the drawing board, finds itself coming full circle just in time for its 50th.

This weekend, BMAC will debut a website this fall documenting its first half-century of exhibitions and, in the months to follow, reveal its updated plans for the future.

“We're spending a lot of time figuring out, 'Where do we go from here?'” Lichtenfeld said. “We remain committed to expanding the museum in a way that's going to enable us to be even more of service.”