Chandler Center for the Arts has been at the heart of Randolph, literally and figuratively, for more than 100 years. Located midway along the town's picturesque Main Street, the Chandler hosts an enviable series of concerts, plays and art exhibits, as well as the annual Celtic-Québécois-themed New World Festival. But the familiar institution will take on some new directions along with its newly hired director: Katie Trautz, cofounder of Montpelier's Summit School of Traditional Music & Culture.
Over its long tenure, the Chandler has had its ups and downs. It was built in 1907 by communications baron Albert B. Chandler, who donated the structure to Randolph's Bethany Church. In its early years, the Chandler hosted entertainments such as silent films and operas. The Great Depression contributed to a long period of disuse, and, in 1947, the building was sold to the Town of Randolph for $1. It continued to sit empty for two more decades, before community boosters launched a turnaround.
Since then, the Chandler's stock has risen steadily, especially under the 16-year tenure of director Becky McMeekin. She helped a tiny arts organization grow into the vibrant community resource it is today. Her departure in 2014 created some minor bumps, as did that of her successor, Kurt Thoma, who left the Chandler for "personal reasons" after less than a year as director.
Enter Katie Trautz, a fiddler, guitarist, singer and songwriter whose commitment to the arts extends well beyond performance. In 2007, just out of college, Trautz collaborated with central Vermont musician Rebecca Singer to found the Summit School, which presents concerts, workshops and other music programming to players across the region.
As the school's director, Trautz had recently begun collaborating with the Chandler. When its director position opened up, she decided to accept an offer for an interview — but not necessarily because she wanted the job.
"I was interested in creating a partnership with the Chandler, and when I came to the interview, that's what I wanted to talk about," says Trautz. "The idea of getting the job hadn't really crossed my mind. I thought it would be a great way to meet the board, and I thought maybe I would be interested in the position."
Shortly thereafter, she was offered the gig, which Trautz says presented her with a very difficult choice.
"It took a lot of strength and thought to come to the conclusion that it really was the best professional move for me," she says.
When she arrived at her new job on October 1, Trautz was pleased to discover that the Chandler's board had paved her way for a smooth landing, despite the fact that the organization had been without a director for two months. The board members' ability to operate effectively during that time was just one of the aspects of her new position that Trautz found surprising.
Another was the community of Randolph itself. Although she'd been to events at the Chandler, like many people, Trautz hadn't really explored the rest of the town. What she discovered, she says, was a "mini Montpelier," with several art galleries on Main Street, great restaurants and, perhaps more important, a community deeply invested in the arts.
She saw all of this reflected in the Chandler's programming, which in addition to its popular music concerts includes a weekly film series, the Vermont Pride Theater Summer Festival, the Central Vermont Chamber Music Festival and a summer youth theater program that involves hundreds of youngsters from elementary to high school. The Chandler Gallery hosts local artists and craft fairs during the winter holiday season and the New World Festival.
This wealth of programming is wonderful, Trautz says. But it also presents a challenge for her as director.
"With their schedule and their programs, they are really doing so much for this community," she observes. "It is really hard to find holes to fill."
Nonetheless, Trautz is already expanding the Chandler's programming. For one thing, she's continuing to forge links with the Summit School. That might involve combining resources to host concerts and put on music workshops and other programs. The first of their coproduced events was in early November, when Dom Flemons, formerly of the Carolina Chocolate Drops, performed at the Chandler and put on a guitar and banjo workshop at the Summit.
Another of Trautz' goals is to better engage the local community. That might sound odd, given everything the Chandler already does to enliven the small town. But, Trautz says, many Randolph-area residents have never taken advantage of the organization's offerings. To some, she says, the Chandler's ostentatious façade can seem a bit intimidating. She aims to change that perception, and she views attracting young people as a good way to start.
At Summit, Trautz created a successful program that brings traditional music to Montpelier's schools. She'd like to offer similar programs in Randolph. In some cases that would involve partnering with the town's recreation department to create after-school programs at the Chandler.
She has bigger targets in mind, too. Trautz envisions getting students more directly involved in the Chandler from the operations end.
"I think a student advisory committee could help on multiple levels," she suggests. "It could generate youth ownership and investment, for one. Students could acts as liaisons to the schools and be a window to what youth need and desire in programming."
Trautz says she's looking forward to using her connections as a performer and experience as a musician to keep the quality high in the Chandler's offerings. Meanwhile, she's settling into what has been, so far, an enjoyable experience.
"I didn't know there was so much fun to be had here," Trautz says. "It feels great to put all the skills I developed at the Summit School to use."
The original print version of this article was headlined "Center Stage"