A historic downtown Brattleboro address bets its future on the creative economy
By Kevin O’Connor
Why would an artist, settled comfortably on a still life of a dirt road, want to invest all of one’s savings and sweat into creating an urbane downtown gallery?
Vermonter Petria Mitchell had a reason.
“I believe in introducing my work to people who want to own it,” she said.
Her partner and fellow painter, Jim Giddings, had reservations.
“Even though we’re familiar with selling, it becomes a much more difficult enterprise,” he said.
But, that didn’t stop the two from dedicating several years of planning and six figures of retirement savings into a showy exhibit space. When they opened Mitchell Giddings Fine Arts at 183 Main St. in 2014, renowned painter Wolf Kahn wrote in the guest book: “You have brought Paris to Brattleboro.”
Agreeing, the Brattleboro Area Chamber of Commerce just named the couple its Entrepreneurs of the Year.
Yet, amid the cosmopolitan, contemporary art, the gallery also reflects the evolution of the surrounding historic downtown. While the address has served as a local anchor for nearly two centuries, it has morphed from a hub of hospitality into one for government, then commerce, and now, the creative economy.
“I miss the downtown where you could buy clothing and bedding, and have shoes or a radio fixed,” Giddings said.
“But, we are known as a creative community,” Mitchell added, “and celebrating that is one of the things we hope we’re doing.”
The story of 183 Main St. started almost 200 years ago with the opening of the Vermont House hotel and tavern, which hosted travelers from 1828 to its destruction by fire in 1852.
“As we write, the Aurora is streaming brilliantly above the ruins, like hope hovering over the couch of despair,” a local paper reported after the blaze. “We accept it as an omen of a speedy restoration of that part of our village to its former beauty.”
Brattleboro soon replaced the charred remnants with a stately brick Town Hall, which stood nearly 100 years before bulldozers made way for a simpler retail building that welcomed W. T. Grant, a discount chain store, in 1954, a mini shopping mall in 1978 and, most recently, a home furnishings showroom.
Mitchell and Giddings opened their gallery in the basement six years ago. When the upstairs owner decided to retire, the couple bought the space and moved to street level, which they’ll share with the relocating Brattleboro School of Dance and, elsewhere in the structure, the In-Sight Photography Project and new First Proof Press printmaking studio.
The address’ emphasis on the arts has precedent. Shortly after Town Hall opened in 1855, leaders rented studio space to local boy-turned American painter William Morris Hunt, then added an 875-seat opera house at the turn of the 20th century that became a movie theater in the 1920s.
Then again, it’s also a new direction for a downtown once centered on retail but now boasting a half-dozen smaller galleries and buzzing about plans for a $30 million arts and apartment complex that would be the priciest Main Street project in local history.
More than 7,000 Vermonters are employed by arts and cultural enterprises that total nearly 5 percent of all the state’s businesses, the Agency of Commerce and Community Development reports.’
“The arts community in Vermont — artists, museums and historic sites, arts promoters and agents, writers, and performing arts companies and presenters — plays an essential role in the economy, cultural diversity and the quality of life of Vermonters,” the agency says on its website.
But, most artists who want to exhibit their work usually clean out a barn or back room rather than purchase more than 2,000 square feet of commercial space and renovate it into a showcase more likely seen in Boston or New York.
“Starting a fine arts gallery seems a natural evolution,” said Mitchell, who got her “itch for retailing” as an engraver who has carved ivory and Vermont-crafted Froggy Bottom Guitars.
Mitchell and Giddings learned the business of art through their longtime associations with the Brattleboro Museum & Art Center and the onetime local cooperative Windham Art Gallery. The latter is where they discovered the downsides, especially after it closed a decade ago.
Vermont is spilling with artists — there are 33 percent more as a proportion of total employment in the state than nationwide, statistics show — but a gallery’s need to pay out rent, commissions and other costs can be a constant challenge. Mitchell and Giddings considered trying a venture with peers, only to decide to open their own business so they could implement their own ideas.
Giddings recalls telling a colleague about the plan.
“His only comment was, ‘My condolences.’”
Giddings, nonetheless, has gone on to juggle plasterboard and paperwork. The resulting gallery offers studio art and periodic public programs detailed on its website, mitchellgiddingsfinearts.com.
“There is always something that demands attention, but we’re having a really good time,” Giddings said. “We see this as an opportunity to do something for ourselves and the community.”
“People ask, ‘Why would you want to take on such complexities?’” Mitchell added. “It’s phenomenally creative. It’s so important for us to remember we’re doing this for the fine arts.”
Kevin O’Connor is a Vermont native and Brattleboro Reformer contributor.