Montpelier, VT

Contact Name
Alice Dodge
Project Dates
2011 - Ongoing, building purchased in 2014
Tags
Placemaking/placekeeping
The Center for Arts and Learning is a collaborative venture between three nonprofit organizations: the Monteverdi Music School, the River Rock School, and the T.W. Wood Gallery. In 2011, they came together to at first manage and then purchase the former St. Michael’s School and convent, which had been owned by the local archdiocese. The building, which combines a 1930s convent with a 1950s addition for the school, occupies land in downtown Montpelier but did not have an obvious or easy path for commercial development. Together, the three organizations decided to re-envision the space as an art center. Today, the Center for Arts and Learning houses its founders as well as over twenty artists, writers, musicians, small nonprofits, and makers of all kinds.
Project Goals
What were the specific goals of this creative economy project? Describe the community development challenge or opportunity that your project was designed to address:
The project’s initial goals were to maintain a home for our member organizations in the heart of downtown Montpelier, and to welcome other artists, musicians, nonprofits, and makers into that space, with the ultimate goal of strengthening the fabric of our artistic community. We have always been dedicated to keeping rents low for our member-tenants, ensuring that our space is filled and that there are options for creative professionals who want to stay downtown even as rents are driven upwards.
If the goals change over time, please describe how:
Our initial goals have stayed the same; we are working now to develop our programming rather than focusing on immediate building improvement needs. We envision an organization that will give artists space to work, exhibit, and perform, and that will also offer workshops, classes, and services to artists. We continue to refine the systems and structures that will let us build collaborations between organizations and serve our community most effectively.
Who was involved in this project and what did they do? (be sure to include the partners from outside of the creative sector and how local voices were included):
This project primarily involved the three founding members: T. W. Wood Gallery, the Monteverdi Music School, and the River Rock School. In addition, Paul and Peggy Irons were instrumental in fostering collaboration between the three organizations. A number of small nonprofits make their home at CAL, including the Summit School of Traditional Music, the Green Mountain Film Festival, the Onion River Exchange, the Friends of the Winooski, Green Mountain Youth Symphony, and others. We have worked on numerous building projects with support of community partners including the State of Vermont, the Vermont Arts Council, Efficiency Vermont, National Life Group, and Vermont Mutual Insurance.
How does this project relate to a larger community development strategy?
Montpelier has been trying to develop an arts-based community development strategy through its Arts Master Plan. By giving artists a place to work and exhibit, and by highlighting the strength of the arts in Montpelier, we hope to reinforce that strategy. We are part of what seems to be movement on Barre Street to create a corridor of arts-based organizations and other businesses. People now come down Barre St. to participate in Art Walk at the Front, the T. W. Wood Gallery, and the Center for Arts and Learning, and over the past several years, restaurants and other businesses seem to be launching on Barre Street as well.
What projects or places, if any, inspired your approach to this creative economy project?
We have certainly been inspired by initiatives such as Studio Place Arts in Barre and Burlington City Arts’ Firehouse Gallery.
Project Specifics
Please list the steps taken to implement the project:
We came together as a group to, at first, manage the building, and then purchase it. Our Board created a nonprofit, which would develop joint programming and hold the title to the building. Governance of the nonprofit has been divided evenly between the three organizations, with each having an equal presence on the Board.
Obstacles
What were your major obstacles for the completion of the project?
Money is, of course, always an obstacle, and none of our founding organizations came to the project with a large operating budget; having to sustain themselves as well as another organization was daunting. The condition of the building was also a major obstacle – the building had not been maintained in many years. Accessibility was a major concern; only the River Rock portion of the building was wheelchair-accessible.
Who or what was instrumental in overcoming these obstacles?
By working together and pooling resources, and by formalizing our arrangement as a mission-driven nonprofit, we were able to obtain the necessary support to purchase the building and make substantial improvements. Our current project is installing an elevator and making other accessibility improvements that will greatly increase our capacity to serve all visitors and also to qualify for more funding opportunities – this, in turn, will allow us to develop programming and make still more improvements.
What top three suggestions would you give to others attempting a similar project?
1. Have patience. None of this happened overnight; we were fortunate to have the time to fully formalize purchase arrangements while beginning to manage the building. We were initially entirely volunteer-driven and eventually able to hire a part-time executive director; this means any given project can move more slowly than a similar one at a commercial business.
2. Communication is key. As an organization made up of other organizations, we try to bring items of discussion to all three, all of whom can have differing perspectives and needs. As much as possible, facilitating communication can help decisions get made.
3. Make tenants part of the community. Our tenants are members of CAL, and that is how we consider them. Their voices matter, and we want them to feel as though they’re part of something larger. That way, when we have a project that impacts them – whether it’s exhibiting in our gallery space or bearing with us during elevator construction – they are part of the process, even though the ultimate decision to move forward may fall only to our board. They know that they’re in an art space, not an office building, and they are an integral part of helping us achieve our mission.
Project Impact
How has this project strategically connected arts and cultural activities to social, economic, and cultural issues in your community? What is different in your community as a result of this project?
This project has brought some measure of joy to our community. We do not have specific goals related to economic or social impact, but we do see that members of our community are thrilled to have us here. We have had art exhibitions in partnership with the senior center next door; the preschool across the street uses our playground; parents use the after-school programs, preschool music lessons, and summer camps at CAL as a form of childcare. People attend our free concerts, poetry slams, and art openings. Artists have a place to work. People have told us they are so glad we’re here; if we weren’t, Montpelier would likely have another empty building, and Barre Street would be far less vibrant.
Why do you consider the project successful, as related to your project goals above?
We consider the project successful and still ongoing – five years in, we are still here, the building is thriving, and we continue to make improvements. We feel as though we are entering a second phase of the organization, where we’re able to focus more on programs and less on building maintenance; in 2019, the Board plans to launch an effort to update the bylaws and governance structure to be able to accomplish this. The more we can grow the Center for Arts and Learning’s audience and base of support, the more it will benefit all of our members.
How did you measure this success or progress?
Measuring impact is a challenge at any arts organization, and we are still devising useful methods and metrics for doing so. We measure the number of constituents each of our member organization serves, and estimate audiences at events and exhibitions. We also look at community recognition through social media, print and online media, and – being a small town – through word-of-mouth. We measure our vacancy rate, and usually have more demand for studios than we can meet.
Please describe any unexpected impacts:
Prior to the project, these three organizations would not necessarily have had much overlap, either in programming or constituent base. Because of this project, we are now sharing and collaborating to a degree that has benefitted all three. It has been a great way for us to develop programs in partnership that might not have happened otherwise, and to engage each others’ audiences as well as our own.