Brattleboro - The sad irony for the co-founder of Gallery Walk is that he almost never gets to go.
"In 15 years of Gallery Walk, I have been out for Gallery Walk twice. And both times, my wife said, 'Why don't you go?'" said William Hays, in an interview in the sun-drenched Main Street studio and gallery that he always mans during Brattleboro's monthly first Friday art stroll.
If he has any regrets, you wouldn't know it. Instead, from his vantage point on the third floor above Main Street, overlooking the intersection with Elliot Street, Hays has gained a uniquie perspective on a lot of things - Gallery Walk, downtown Brattleboro and the community's vibrant arts scene. Twenty years with the best seat in the house will do that.
In June 1990, Hays and his wife Patricia Long opened The Artist's Loft Gallery at 103 Main Street. On Thursday, June 3, Hays will celebrate its 20th anniversary on Main Street by throwing a catered reception open to the public at the gallery from 5:30 to 8:30 p.m. The gallery will be open the next day for Gallery Walk, as usual.
"I just really wanted to mark the 20 years. I hope people will come by. I hope people enjoy the work," said Hays.
Seeing Hays' work - paintings in watercolor and oil and prints - and his evolution as an artist are certainly part of the 20th anniversary celebration. In a larger sense, it's also a chance to reflect on the evolution of the town, particularly its vibrant arts scene.
Hays and his wife arrived in Brattleboro from Alaska so Long could study at SIT. Circumstances changed, and they found themselves having to stay and make a living here. After a little reflection, they realized that wasn't such a bad thing.
"We realized we were living in the town we wanted to be in," said Hays.
They rented an apartment high above Main Street, where one family had lived since the 1920s. The walls were dingy with smoke residue from decades of cooking and heating. They spent three or four months cleaning the place, and Hays opened a gallery where he showed his work and that of other artists. They are still there today.
From the get-go, the gallery gave Hays a vantage point on the town - and the arts scene he saw then, bears little resemblance to the one today.
"There was one gallery in the Italian-American building, and it was always closed. There were no other galleries, and yet I kept meeting all these artists - and they weren't Sunday artists, they were serious artists," said Hays. "The visual arts were not organized, compared with other arts like theater and music."
The opening of the Windham Art Gallery in 1989 had addressed that to some degree, and Hays was involved with WAG in its early years. He and Long were also co-executive directors of the now-defunct Stratton Arts Festival for four years from 1993-96.
In 1992, Hays, Long, Greg Worden and a few others tried to organize a Frist Friday art walk with about six stops and kept it going for a few months before it petered out. "What we found is we didn't have enough (venues) to fulfill the promise," he said.
Three years later, when Tom and Sall's opened a shop on Elliot Street, Sally Fegley approached Hays about the idea of a Gallery Walkk. Hays said it had been tried, but half a dozen galleries weren't enough. Fegley pointed out that now there were 10 galleries in town.
"It was enough that we felt that we should give it another go," said Hays. "We started with 10 (stops). When we reached 15, we thought, 'Hosanna, this is marvelous.'"
And the growth has continued. After five years of being kept alive by volunteers, they brought in Joy Wallens-Penford as coordinator - Hays calls her "an angel." At one point topping out well past 50 venues, Gallery Walk, now in its 15th year, still boasts 40 or more stops, and has evolved from a tour of art galleries to a monthly happening with special events, performances and attractions added to the mix of art exhibit openings and receptions. Hays doesn't mind the evolution one bit.
"I can't express any dissatisfaction with Gallery Walk. I think it is a marvelous success," Hays said. "It is a real boon to the service businesses downtown. That's another thing Hays has enjoyed seeing from his vantage point above Main Street. It's pleased him both as an artist and as someone who earned an undergraduate degree in geography and urban planning.
"The viability of downtown is a key feature of any town. It's the heartbeat of the town. With this town, people walk into downtown and say 'This is a viable place. This is a fun place,'" he said.
Taking nothing away from other businesses, individuals and organizations, artists deserve a fair share of recognition as players in the town's economy, he said.
"I'm a firm believer that the case for the arts needs to be made on a number of levels. Our society puts a lot of emphasis on the economic value, so we need to make that case," he said. "I think a regular business person who would be put in the place of nonprofits would be appalled."
Artists, he said, are not always appreciated as business people. Staying open for 20 years, for any business, takes hard work.
"I work day and night. But what better work is there than work that's motivated by a love of doing it?" he said. "You have to have faith that what you're doing is the right thing, and you have to believe that what you're doing has value."
Casting his gaze not just backward on 20 years gone by, but forward, Hays said he would like to see continued growth and support for arts educations the area - and strengthened infrastructure to support working artists.
"What I would like to see in downtown Brattleboro with regard to visual arts would be at least one or two high end gallery professionals."
Beyond that, Hays is just very sanguine about the futre of Brattleboro's very supportive arts scene.
"I would hope Gallery Walk would be just as vibrant as it is today and more vibrant in ways I can't even see," he said. "There's good reason to look to the future with very positive eyes."
For more information on Hays and his work, visit www.theartistsloft.com
Jonathan Potter can be contacted at firstname.lastname@example.org
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