Middlebury’s reputation as a sleepy company town is slowly being put to rest. And it will conk out altogether if a San Francisco transplant who works as a clairvoyant achieves her vision of building an arts community around her new gallery.
While Middlebury College retains its dominant position in the community of 8000 residents, it’s no longer true that there’s little cultural or night life off campus. The town’s recent after-dark enlivening stems in part from the college’s sponsorship of a Main Street bar and music venue, but eateries and arts spots unconnected to academia are opening as well.
Middlebury’s renaissance is centered in the Marble Works, which adjoins downtown but offers awkward access to motorists. Apart from the popular American Flatbread, this historic district of white marble sheds has been a dead zone after sunset. Soon, though, the Farmers Diner will debut, along with Stone Leaf Tea House — Addison County’s answer to Burlington’s Dobrá Tea.
And late last year, a former Marble Works print shop became the site of The Art House, a combined gallery-performance space to which culture-hungry locals have begun wending their way.
“There’s a strong belief that nobody will come to anything in Middlebury,” says Art House founder Mary Swanson. But that turned out not to be true on Inauguration Night, when several celebrants showed up at The Art House for a spontaneous drumming party. “People just had to make some noise,” Swanson recalls. One advantage of the Marble Works locale — apart from “infinite parking” — is that “we can make as much noise as we want without bothering anyone,” Swanson notes.
At a couple of subsequent concerts, The Art House’s brightly refurbished main room approached its 50-person capacity. Browsers, as well as a few buyers, have already attended exhibits at the inconspicuous cultural center, which is scheduled to host half a dozen shows this year. Old and new paintings by local nonagenarian Prindle Wissler go on display on June 12, which is also the date of the first Middlebury Arts Walk. Participation by 30 venues in the village highlights the new vibrancy of the visual-arts scene.
Despite Swanson’s insistent optimism — “there can be no failure in this endeavor,” she declares — The Art House has a discouraging local legacy to overcome. Swanson used to be associated with Great Falls Gallery, whose animating spirit, Doug Lazarus, tried unsuccessfully to do what she is now attempting. That spectacularly situated space in Frog Hollow, which has also lost its signature crafts center, had to close about a year ago after its rent tripled.
“The roots of Vermont are in ag, not culture,” Lazarus observes. “But if you keep putting manure into soil, it does eventually become fertile.”
Lazarus, a painter and arts impresario, thinks Swanson’s endeavor could survive in Middlebury’s warming cultural climate. A key factor, he suggests, is that The Art House won’t have to rely on sales and admission tickets to stay in business. That’s because Swanson is bankrolling the $1000 monthly rent for the 1600-square-foot space with her day job as a clairvoyant.
She works 9-5 weekdays in a home office as a guide to those on spiritual quests. Swanson has practiced “intuitive medicine” — she can’t legally use the term “healer” — for the past 15 years, teaching meditation techniques intended to channel internal energies. She also teaches life drawing at The Art House and uses one of its rooms as a studio for producing her own landscapes and portraits.
Swanson moved to Middlebury with her two adult daughters in 2004, partly because the Chicago native “wanted to get back to the seasons.” She was drawn to Vermont specifically as “the only place I could move to from the Bay Area and find like-minded people.”
Even so, “Vermont isn’t as meditative a place as California,” Swanson finds. “The personal-growth movement is generally much stronger on the West Coast than on the East Coast.”
Swanson, 60, established an Art House in San Francisco during her time there, and former students of this Janey Appleseed of the arts have germinated similar venues in other cities around the country. “I believe the arts are vitally important to any community,” Swanson says. “In fact, if you don’t have arts, you don’t have community.”
While Middlebury’s cultural environment has begun to improve, it still presents challenges to a venture as ambitious as her own, Swanson acknowledges. “But I’m not here to make a million dollars,” she says. “I’m here to create an artistic community. And I’ll be here for the rest of my time on Earth.”