On the first Friday of every month Brattleboro takes on the bohemian air of Greenwich Village. For a few hours, Gallery Walk, a rambling art exhibit, tranforms downtown into a social and cultural event complete with background music and hors d'oeuvres.
The Walk provides an opportunity for the town's considerable population of artists to showcase its work to visitors and locals alike who meander though as many as 30 venues during the evening.
In addition to full-time art galleries, works are displayed in several stores, restaurants and a bakery cafe. In A Candle in the Night, a carpet and furniture store on Main Street, art is nestled amid the lush oriental carpets that cover every inch of wall and floor space. The creations of high school students are shown as well as those of such art luminaries as Wolf Kahn and Sabra Field, who have been known to take the stroll themselves. At the foot of Main Street the Brattleboro Museum and Arts Center offers exhibits both large and small.
It is a social affair with regulars meeting and talking with old friends and newcomers taking in the event for the first time. Streets thronged with people resemble holiday shopping scenes. On a balmy summer evening the crowds spill into the street while tots snooze in their strollers. Attendance has been as high as 500.
In a gallery displaying photos of India, sitar music helps immerse visitors in the mood of the work. Celtic folk songs play in the background at an exhibit of Irish landscapes. There have been bagpipes and even a didgeridoo.
Some venues offer refreshments. Live music is a regular feature at Vermont Artisan Designs and at Experienced Goods. A piano and bass or a violin may be heard echoing up the street at the corner of Elliot and Main. The sound of an accordion drifts from the Robert Gibson River Garden overlooking the Connecticut River.
The Gallery Walk concept began in the early 1990s. With the state in the throes of an economic downturn, artist William Hays and Greg Worden, owner of several stores and current chairman of the Brattleboro board of Selectmen, proposed a "First Friday" happening designed to attract people downtown and featuring three galleries. The event limped along for about six months. Then Sally Fegley of Tom and Sally's Handmade Chocolates decided to use extra space at her store to display folk art, and the idea got a much-needed boost.
Fegley then suggested that people might like to go from gallery to gallery with a printed guide in hand. Working with Hays, she spoke with artists and merchants up and down the street and found enthusiasm. One day while discussing the project with a gallery owner in his shop, a customer said that Juneau, Alaska held such an event and called it Gallery Walk. "That was it," said Fegley. The project had its new name.
In 2001 a one-time grant from the Vermont Arts Council led to the hiring of Joy Wallens-Penford as coordinator. The event functioned as a voluntary association with no board or officers and run by its founders. Eventually, Greg Worden produced the flier and people from the Brattleboro Museum and Arts Center wrote the press releases. Wallens-Peford, a graphic designer and editor, was able to pull it together and sell a restaurant guide to help pay for the flier. The 20 members pay $17.50 per month; membership is based on being a currently listed exhibitor. Downtown restaurant business perked up as the fresh-air stroll primed appetites for food as well as culture.
Gallery Walk offers more than the expected paintings and sculpture. An occasional poetry reading draws attentive audience, and Twice Upon a Time has been known to put on entertaining fashion shows using the store's vintage clothing.
One of the more intriguing stops on the walk is The Artist's Loft, an art gallery/bed and breakfast where guests can enjoy the works of owner William Hays.
The Brattleboro Reformer comes out with its Arts and Entertainment section on Thursdays, and often features one or more of the artists in the next day's Gallery Walk. Because of Gallery Walk's steady growth, the event now also has its own guide, Gallery Walk.
Kit Barry, owner of the Iris Gallery, which is in The Bakery Arts Cafe, is an advocate for downtown Brattleboro and an enthusiastic supporter of Gallery Walk. He sees the event as a potential savior for the downtown. A few years ago there were 12 vacant stores and pieces of art began showing up in empty storefronts. Barry was bothered by what he saw. "It made the art look abandoned, surreal, even disrespectful," he said. Gallery Walk is a fun alternative to that kind of display.
Most of the work is for sale, though the majority of purchases take place in the follow-up visit rather than during the Walk. Prices are usually modest, although Worden said he once saw a sculptor asking $20,000 for a horse statue. Vermont Artisan Designs sold eight Sabra Field prints in one evening when the artist was on hand meeting the public.
Exhibits are often coordinated with a performing arts event. A dramatic reading of the works of Helen and Scott Nearing at the Hooker-Dunham Theater and Gallery was paired with an exhibition of tiny black and white photos of the Nearing, who helped establish the back-to-the-land philosophy in Winhall in 1932. During a women's film festival at the Latchis Theatre, several galleries displayed work with a feminist theme.
"Some people come back month after month," said Worden. "They make it a party."
The event is like Brattleboro itself, full of extraordinarily interesting people who find Gallery Walk an opportunity to support local artists and have a good time in the process.
Gallery Walk is held the first Friday of every month from 5:30 to 8:30 p.m. For information, call the Brattleboro Chamber of Commerce at (802) 254-4565
Linda DuCharme wrote about Hardwick's French heritage gathering in our Summer 2001 issue. Kevin Bubriski photographed the tulips in Dorset on page 22 of this issue. He lives in Shaftsbury.
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