There’s a new sign on the Mill Street building in Middlebury where the Vermont State Craft Center at Frog Hollow long resided. It reads, “Edgewater Gallery,” and director Peter Alpers does not want the place to be perceived as Frog Hollow II.
The interior has been refreshed and partly reconfigured, and a more eclectic selection of art and crafts is given an airier, quirkier presentation. Still, the mix of merchandise — paintings, pottery, jewelry and decorative accessories — is similar to that of the late, great craft gallery. And the most mesmerizing attraction of all, Middlebury’s Great Falls, continues to rage just a few feet to the east.
Alpers and gallery owner George Dorsey pay homage to Edgewater’s predecessor, which fell victim early this year to soaring debt and plummeting sales. Dorsey, a Cornwall resident who directs an international trading firm, says he decided to buy the building a few months ago because it was “such a sad sight, having that space empty for a long time.” The craft center, which opened in Frog Hollow in 1971, was a Middlebury mainstay whose loss was keenly felt, both men say.
But Edgewater, which opened six weeks ago, will do retailing differently than did the craft center, promises gallery manager Bay Jackson. “The art was outshined by the crafts” when the space was known as Frog Hollow, and the display was “busy,” Jackson says. In addition, Alpers observes, “Frog Hollow became more of a store than a gallery. It’s our ambition to be more of a gallery than a store.”
The distinction carries implications for how sales items are arrayed, he notes. “A gallery doesn’t show objects as commodities. And they’re more separated from one another,” explains Alpers, who closed a gallery he had run for nine years in Andover, Mass., to take charge of Edgewater.
The artists featured in the gallery’s inaugural show have a less folksy style than do many of the painters and artisans associated with Frog Hollow. And some of the most striking pieces at Edgewater — such as Ellen Granter’s elegantly spare renderings of birds and fish — were executed by artists outside the state.
Frog Hollow, by contrast, was all about Vermont-made art and crafts. “We’re not going to be bound by that limitation,” Alpers says, then quickly adds, “There is a dense concentration in Vermont of incredible talent.”
Indeed, some Vermont artists and artisans are represented at Edgewater. Victoria Blewer’s hand-painted photographs of barns and silos are on view, for example, along with Timothy Clarke’s classic American furniture and Tom Dunne’s turned-wood creations.
Bay Jackson, the daughter of Vermont pewterers Fred and Judi Danforth and the wife of one of Woody’s nephews, says some Edgewater browsers have asked her where Field’s prints can be found.
“We reached out to Frog Hollow artists and invited all of them to submit work,” Alpers recounts. But Field wanted a wholesale arrangement with Edgewater, which has a policy of accepting pieces only on consignment, he explains. Besides, “Sabra Field’s work, which I greatly admire, is available in many galleries. And we don’t want to be a ‘me-too’ gallery.”
Alpers and Bay Jackson rely on their own eyes — taking into account what the market will favor — in choosing pieces for Edgewater. Some of the artists had been in Alpers’ Andover gallery, and the locally well-connected Jackson was familiar with others. The pair shares tastes, so consensus is usually easy to achieve, Jackson says. “Who’d think a 60-year-old guy from Massachusetts and a 28-year-old girl from Vermont could collaborate so well?” she wonders aloud.
Now all that remains is for Edgewater to make money — a challenge in a state where most galleries have short life spans, and in a town that is suddenly awash with art.
Alpers regards the presence of three other private galleries in Middlebury not as competition but as a “synergistic” enhancement. “It makes Middlebury more of an art destination,” he reckons.
“Retail can be a difficult business, especially in art and especially in hard economic times,” Alpers acknowledges. But the initial response has been encouraging, Jackson says. Edgewater has sold half a dozen paintings and several craft pieces in a short time, she adds, noting that customers new to the area typically say something along the lines of “Wow, what a fabulous place!”
Buying a building next to a waterfall wasn’t a difficult decision, Dorsey notes. And while his willingness to subsidize Edgewater isn’t open ended, he does recognize that “it takes years to build a business like this.”
Sales through the Internet may eventually prove important, Dorsey adds, but the gallery’s success will rely mainly on the patronage of locals and visiting parents of Middlebury College students, he believes. “If the town decides this isn’t something they want,” Dorsey declares, “we’ll get the message.”