On the Vermont map, the tiny village of Rochester lies between Killington and Sugarbush in the twisting Route 100 corridor, nestled in a narrow, lush valley against a chunk of the Green Mountain National Forest. When Anni Mackay chose to call her artistic digs in Rochester the BigTown Gallery, she had a little irony in mind. But there’s also a bit of truth in the name, because a visit to Rochester uncovers a town that lives larger than its size would suggest. Mackay has had a hand in that, creating a space for the community to gather not just for visual art but for a wide variety of performances.
The gallery’s seasonal sidekick, the BigTown BigTent Summer Festival of Poetry, Music and Performing Arts, began last Saturday with an opening reception and “starlight” dance. The eclectic series, which also offers jazz, a local talent night, readings, magic, and a drumming and voice workshop and show, runs weekends through Sunday, July 31. With all of this and the town’s other amenities — a spacious, shady green; vintage country store with a soda fountain; bookstore/café; and local pub and fine-dining fare — Mackay sees Rochester as an idyllic summer-evening destination.
The vivacious fortysomething with curly tresses and a warm demeanor is a self-avowed risk taker, admitting she started the gallery with little more than a dream and a “build it and they will come” attitude. Though Rochester is not exactly on the beaten path, “they” have indeed come. On Saturday, Mackay wandered among many visitors and patrons who hailed from the Dartmouth-West Lebanon nexus, up and down the Route 100 corridor, and farther afield.
“I’ve been to the gallery many, many times,” said Mara Sabinson, a Dartmouth College theater professor. “I love it; I love Rochester.”
That’s a refrain you hear often, offered Rick Skogsberg, an artist and former software designer who came to Rochester at age 21 in 1969. He was on hand at BigTown to help out on the mini-fest’s opening night.
“Rochester’s a really cool town. The more I live here, the more I appreciate it,” Skogsberg said. “There’s a lot of creative people here.”
That assessment most certainly includes Mackay. The BigTown BigTent festival — this summer marks the third one — is an ambitious undertaking that fits her conviction that arts are essential to the health and vibrancy of any community.
Mackay had different personal expectations when she landed in Vermont in 1996. She was in no way prepared for the pace of life in Rochester — read: slow — compared with the tempo of cities she had lived in around the U.S. Mackay moved across the pond from her native Britain a decade earlier and earned a degree in fine arts from SUNY Purchase. But, while living in New York, and working for printmaker Kenneth Tyler, she met some “interesting people” from Vermont and followed them north to map out a new path for her life.
“At first, I was sort of in shock for about a year,” she says with a faint British accent. “When I got here I came with a fairly high speed and had to sort of slow down and see what was happening here.”
And it was actually quite a lot. Rochester’s vibrant theater group, the White River Valley Players, has knitted together the town of 1100 with community productions since 1979, and the Rochester Chamber Music Society has provided a musical focus since the early 1990s. Discovering the surprising artistic energy in town, Mackay saw an opening for someone like herself with a passion for the visual arts.
Opening a commercial art gallery anywhere in Vermont is a fraught enterprise, even more so when the owner is trying it for the first time, and far from touristy towns such as Manchester and Woodstock. But when a rundown, historic 1912 building at the north end of downtown came on the market in 2004, Mackay, then a stay-at-home mom who was making “exotic wearables” as a sideline, decided to take a leap.
“I just started it to see what might happen,” she says. “I didn’t really know who would come.”
What Mackay birthed (more irony alert: the building once housed a birthing center) continues to resonate in this town. Local architect Robert Melik Finkle designed a striking renovation with a circular front “window” façade, stone patios and a three-story silo/tower in back. The shingled building is both gallery and living space for Mackay and her husband, Doon Hinderyckx. He owns Green Mountain Bikes right next door in this mountain-biking mecca. Clearly, neither has much of a commute.
BigTown Gallery has hosted numerous compelling exhibits since opening in 2005; Mackay has a good eye and a gift for creative curation. The opening last week showcased collage-constructions of octogenarian Varujan Boghosian, a longtime studio arts professor at Dartmouth College and a Guggenheim fellow. In a clever tie-in, his works were paired with those of Erick Hufschmid, whose 18 small, detailed photos captured items in Boghosian’s studio — a photographic collage, as it were.
Mackay had a role in inspiring Hufschmid, a New Hampshire native, to begin a series that would “photograph and document” the studios of known artists; his images in this exhibit initiate that project.
The BigTent’s kickoff performance started with the unusual shadow dancing of Bridgman/Packer Dance, which took place under the stars in a lovely little natural amphitheater behind the gallery. The other events this summer, among them a reading by Vermont poet Ellen Bryant Voigt, a show by Lincoln-based Magicians Without Borders and music by the Lew Soloff jazz ensemble, will take place under a lighted tent that is the festival’s namesake.
The previous festivals broke even, but this year’s is more ambitious and costly to put on, Mackay confides. The crowd for the dance performance was small, but she’s determined to build an audience and to “do something special” to connect people to the arts. Mackay credits her patrons, especially Larry Norton and his wife, Rachel, for supporting the festival, as well as her own determination to bring artists and the community together in unusual ways.
Last summer, for example, her “Collectors Show I” put on display the instinctive human tendency to collect things. The exhibit included harmonica cases; the whimsical postcards that Tunbridge filmmaker John O’Brien has sent to patrons and friends; and a portrait of Woodstock collector and painter Margaret Lampe Kannenstine by Felix de la Concha, commissioned for the exhibit, along with a video of de la Concha painting the portrait. It was both a collection of collectors and a collective effort on Mackay’s part: She had to contact the 40 individuals to whom O’Brien had sent his postcards and persuade them to loan the cards to the exhibit.
That personal, dynamic idea of what art is informs Mackay’s thinking and what she showcases in her gallery. It’s all part of her effort to “get art down from this place where it’s elitism,” she says. The same might be said of her BigTent series.
“There’s a part of me that really loves to showcase people,” Mackay explains, reflecting that all of us have an artistic impulse that needs to be nurtured, opened and tapped as part of a basic human connection. “I’m really interested in the story, ultimately.”
The BigTown BigTent Festival of Poetry, Music and Performing Arts continues each weekend through Sunday, July 31, at BigTown Gallery in Rochester. Info, 767-9670. Tickets/reservations recommended.