South Royalton chalks up another win on its community scorecard with the launch of the White River Gallery at BALE. Not that anyone is keeping score, but "SoRo" has witnessed a rising tide of businesses and restaurants since Tropical Storm Irene hit hard five years ago. The community forged ahead on projects and programs following the storm's devastation, remaking itself into a vibrant place to live. The town even has its own radio station. And now it has a gallery — on the walls of a space called the Commons.
Located in the storefront of an Italianate Victorian apartment building on South Windsor Street, the Commons is operated by BALE (Building a Local Economy). A nonprofit founded and directed by Chris Wood, the organization is devoted to the creation and development of farm, food and local economy initiatives in the upper White River Valley. Part of BALE's mission is to provide a place for all community members to gather. Accordingly, the Commons plays host to events, meetings, classes, film screenings, talks, lectures and a weekly music jam.
"There are events going on all the time," notes new gallery director and curator Dian Parker. "The artists like that it's a community space."
After Parker saw an exhibit of her friend Laurie Sverdlove's paintings in the space last fall, she told Wood it was a beautiful gallery. "He asked if I'd like to be the director," she recalls. "It's an unpaid position, so I thought I'd do it for a year.
"I loved the space, and I thought, What a great way to bring in artists," she adds. Thanks to Parker's interest, BALE's gallery now presents regular shows.
The 500-square-foot venue is a clean, well-lit and well-proportioned space with pine floors and 12-foot-high ceilings. Pale-yellow walls, energy-efficient track lighting and tall windows work in concert to create almost-tangible warmth. Though open and airy, it's intimate enough to encourage visitors to converse with strangers.
The gallery has one limitation: Because of the room's heavy use, nothing can be exhibited on the floor. That's why West Hartford artist and Dartmouth College art prof Brenda Garand, who normally makes floor sculptures, will create wall-mounted ones for her exhibit at White River this fall, says Parker.
The curator's plan is to exhibit work by accomplished Vermont and New Hampshire artists, with shows changing seasonally. "I want artists to have the opportunity to be in here [for] longer than a usual gallery show," Parker says.
The longer time frame means that visitors who frequent the Commons for other reasons will be able to see the artwork multiple times. As a result, Parker anticipates that gallery-going could become a regular experience for people unaccustomed to that activity — and for some who have never set foot in a gallery before.
Wood agrees. He notes, for example, that the Commons will host an upcoming meeting of individuals from six area towns hit hardest by Irene, including selectboard members and emergency responders — "people who wouldn't typically go to an art gallery." Last week, 17 people showed up there for a meeting on weatherization; on another night, Vermont Law School students showed the latest film in a series they're sponsoring. It would be hard to find a venue that draws in a broader range of locals.
"Every night of the week, there's something different," Wood reiterates.
Parker believes it's best for White River Gallery to show a single artist at a time. "It's a concentrated space, and it works better, I think, to have one artist, one signature," she explains. "I ask every artist to give a talk, because to see the artist talking about their work in front of their work adds another dimension.
"People don't understand why artists charge what they charge," Parker continues, "but when they hear artists talk about their work, it's a way for them to gain an awareness and understanding and greater appreciation."
"I've never taught in an art gallery before," says Sylvia Desautels, who teaches yoga in the Commons. "It certainly affects me a lot. The space that you practice in is important, and the art sets a tone for the space. So I love it."
Not long after Parker committed herself to a year of curating, she met Lynn Newcomb. The Worcester artist works in a variety of media, including blacksmithing, printmaking, drawing and painting, and makes sculptures from wood, steel, concrete and ceramics.
"I visited her studio and fell in love with her work," Parker says. She selected 14 of Newcomb's etchings and one lithograph for her first exhibit in White River Gallery. That show, representing two decades of printmaking, is on view through April 8.
"Each show is going to be very different," Parker says. "This show is black and white. The next is abstract and will be very colorful." She's referring to oil paintings by Charlotte artist James Vogler, an exhibit that will open on April 16.
This summer will bring an exhibit of paintings by Tunbridge (and Providence, R.I.) artist Bunny Harvey, who recently celebrated 39 years of teaching at Wellesley College.
Parker hopes to sell work as well as show it at White River Gallery. The venue takes a 15 percent commission, much less than a commercial gallery or even most nonprofit galleries would do.
"I want to make prices affordable for people to buy good art to have in their homes," Parker says. "The longer you spend with art, the more you can appreciate it."
The original print version of this article was headlined "Art to the People"