The 115-year-old T.W. Wood Gallery was once the preeminent art venue in Vermont. Sixty-some years ago, the federal government designated the Wood as the sole Vermont repository for art created under the auspices of the Depression-era Works Progress Administration. Long before that, the gallery’s founder, Thomas Waterman Wood, ranked as one of the biggest shots on the American art scene. Wood presided over the National Academy of Design from 1891 to 1899, and he swapped paintings with pals such as Frederic Church and Asher Brown Durand.
Those fellow artists remain prominent figures in American art history, while Wood’s name has faded nationally. A similar fate has befallen the Montpelier institution that bears his name: A tiny budget prevents the gallery from trumpeting its treasures, and crimps its capacity to conserve many of the 800-plus pieces in its collection.
The gallery Wood established in his native city in 1895 now owns more than 300 of his portraits, genre paintings, sketches and copies of European Old Masters. Some of the best can be viewed in the spacious and high-ceilinged Wood Room.
A self-portrait completed in 1894, nine years prior to Wood’s death at age 80, casts him as a sort of august bohemian. Wearing a fluffed beret and wire-rimmed spectacles, the white-bearded but seemingly unwrinkled artist appears to be appraising all who enter his gallery.
Wood was artistically conservative but politically progressive. He often featured African Americans in his paintings, and always in dignified poses. In “Southern Cornfield” (1861), for example, a kneeling figure offers six black male and female farm workers a gourd of water on a hot and sunny day. Nearby hangs “American Citizens (To the Polls),” in which four ethnically stereotyped Montpelier men — a Yankee, an Irishman, a German and an African American — await their chance to vote. A modern eye sees in this painting both the cornball sentimentality and technical skill typical of Wood’s genre compositions.
Several more of his works can be viewed in the Vermont Statehouse, which has an extended-loan arrangement with the Wood.
In recent years, the gallery has hosted exhibits by living Vermont artists. Quirky mixed-media sculptures and paintings by Catherine Hall and Axel Stohlberg currently fill two of the three rooms the gallery occupies in a building on the campus of the Vermont College of Fine Arts. The Wood welcomed a memorable show of Palestinian art in 2005.
In short, the T.W. Wood Gallery remains a rewarding resource. What’s changed is Vermonters’ awareness of the art experiences it offers in their state’s capital city. “It’s kind of shocking when people who have lived in Montpelier for 20 years say, ‘Gosh, I didn’t know you were here,’” comments gallery director Joyce Mandeville.
Perched atop a hill a quarter-mile from the intersection of State and Main streets, the Wood is virtually invisible to most of the Vermonters and tourists who visit the state capitol or the Vermont Historical Society Museum in the adjoining Pavilion Building. The gallery draws about 5000 locals and out-of-towners a year, estimates Tim Tavcar, its special events coordinator. Compare that with the 110,000 annual visitors to the much bigger but also much younger Shelburne Museum, founded in 1947.
The Wood limps along on a $90,000 yearly budget supplied largely by private donors. It’s enough to employ Mandeville and Tavcar on a part-time basis and to cover basic expenses, such as the far-below-market rent the Wood pays to the college. It’s not enough to provide adequate on-site storage space or to retain professional conservators. The Wood also has no money for acquisitions, which is why its collection contains few pieces made after 1960.
“Economics being what they are,” Mandeville notes, she plans to convert one of the gallery’s three rooms into a shop offering high-end Vermont arts and crafts. “We need another stream of income,” she explains.
The gallery’s constrained circumstances don’t stop Mandeville and Tavcar from thinking big — and optimistically. They envision the Wood becoming an arts center. It already hosts performances by Tavcar’s Wordstage Vermont, a chamber music readers theater company, as well as concerts by Montpelier’s Counterpoint Chorus and Monteverdi Music School. The gallery also occasionally presents films and lectures, and it has sponsored a kids’ summer arts camp for the past 20 years.
“As the Vermont College of Fine Arts gets stronger, we hope to develop a partnership with them,” Mandeville says. VCFA, which presents student shows in the Wood Gallery, is the 2-year-old reincarnation of a school that traces its history to 1834. It purchased the 33-acre hilltop Montpelier campus from Union Institute & University in 2008 and aims to double its student body of 250 over the next few years.
Mandeville puts the pressures currently squeezing the gallery into historical context. “We’ve seen worse,” she says. “We’ve been through two world wars and a Great Depression. I sometimes refer to our survival as ‘the miracle of the Wood.’”
Mandeville also sees better days ahead: “People in a position to help us do seem to have a vested interest in making us succeed.”