Montpelier, VT

Contact Name
Glen Coburn Hutcheson
Project Dates
May 2015-present
Tags
Downtown preservation/main streets
4 years ago May, I persuaded a group of 12 artists to help me stay in the downtown Montpelier storefront studio/gallery space I'd been renting since 2013. Over time, with a changing cast, we formed a cooperative, artist-funded gallery called The Front. We've since become a hub of visual art activity in town. Our strategies: consensus decision-making; a choice not to depend on sales or outside money for our existence; and incremental change while sticking to our strength: presenting visual art.
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:
Montpelier and the surrounding region is packed full of artists, but there are very few dedicated gallery spaces. At the same time, vacant storefronts persist for years on end. Locals don't buy enough art at the prices artists need to sustain a traditional commercial gallery, so several recent local attempts at galleries have folded.
We aim to alleviate the lack of display space for artists, help them engage with their immediate community, and enliven the downtown. More specifically, we aim to support our members' art practice by encouraging their production, connecting them with a community of fellow artists, and showcasing their work for potential buyers.
If the goals change over time, please describe how:
As an artist-run gallery with a changing membership, our short-term goals and tactics change with our members. But since the basic goal is "persist," it won't change much until we cease operations.
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):
Over our 4 years of life so far, more than 30 local artists have joined as dues-paying, gallery-managing members-- too many to list here by name, but they are the reason The Front exists. Their money has paid our rent and bills; their labor has built our website, painted our walls, sourced and purchased our lighting system, maintained our mailing list and outreach efforts, arranged and installed our exhibits, hosted our receptions, facilitated our sales of art, organized and staffed our lectures and special events, and kept the gallery open every weekend for four years. Other essential partners include all the community members who come to our receptions; the collectors and shoppers who purchase art at the gallery; Tremolo Coffee, a pop-up business who sublet at a crucial moment and gave us needed income and exposure; Montpelier city government, which gave us a grant to build our sign; and our landlord, Jesse Jacobs of Montpelier Property Management, who has been steadily reasonable about the rent and has provided needed encouragement at key moments.
How does this project relate to a larger community development strategy?
Maintaining The Front cultivates our members' art practices and careers, and fosters connection among local artists. It showcases local talent for the broader community, encourages parallel projects, and puts otherwise vacant space to good use for residents and visitors alike.
What projects or places, if any, inspired your approach to this creative economy project?
Despite the existence of other artist-run galleries, there really wasn't a specific inspiring project or place that seeded The Front, other than the vacant storefront itself. Walking by it every day put the idea in my mind that it should be used.
Project Specifics
Please list the steps taken to implement the project:
PRE-THE FRONT:
-I rented the storefront for a six-month trial period as a studio/gallery for my own work, using personal savings.
-I found 4 local artist partners to join me as subletters for a year: two studio-mates and two gallerists, who ran part of the space as Gallery SIX.

THE FRONT:
-12 friends joined me at the dissolution of the previous group, choosing the name The Front and contributing cash, art to display, and labor to help keep the space open.
-We set a schedule of 8 new exhibits a year, holding an opening reception each time, and taking opportunities to present special events like holiday sales and artist lectures.
-As membership fluctuated and rent went up, we adjusted the membership dues and hosted a pop-up subletter (Tremolo Coffee) for more income and open hours.
-In a series of regular members' meetings, we worked out a detailed membership agreement and established norms of group interaction and consensus.
-Over the course of 2 years, with some membership changes, we formed a multi-member L3C, replacing me as sole proprietor, and grew in membership and degree of organization.
If the project steps changed over time, please describe how:
The Front has grown more or less as needed, in the ways described previously. The steps were not premeditated but were responses to changes in membership, expenses, and partnership opportunities.
Obstacles
What were your major obstacles for the completion of the project?
Our two main problems from the beginning have been the cost of rent and the difficulty of staffing an art gallery with volunteer members who mostly have full-time day jobs. You could also see the weak art market in Vermont as an obstacle, but since selling art was never the organization's primary goal (though it may be the goal for some individual members), we have mostly dodged it.
Who or what was instrumental in overcoming these obstacles?
The Front's members have not overcome the obstacles-- the rent is still too high, and we're still open only on weekends-- but without them, the organization would have failed quickly. The fact that we're still around is testament to the quantity of highly skilled and motivated local artists with enough resources to pay at least a twentieth portion of a gallery's overhead for months at a time. As members have dropped out, more have joined; we get more applications each time we advertise new openings.
What top three suggestions would you give to others attempting a similar project?
1.) Don't worry too much about making it a quick financial success. If you're willing to put in incremental amounts of money over a long period, you can build something that's valuable to a lot of people even if it's not a money-maker.
2.) Ask for help. People like having projects and being useful, and there are lots of folks out there with skills they'd be happy to use for a local benefit.
3.) Stay involved, but drop individual control. Telling new members that they're in charge, and that they can make what they want of the project (with everyone else of course) allows the organization to renew itself and avoids burnout.
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?
The Front is a visual art / social / economic / cultural experiment in real time. I can't say there's a conscious strategy in any grand sense, beyond the obvious: we get local people together to share, enjoy, and purchase visual art in a downtown storefront that would otherwise be vacant. Our community is different in that there's one more dedicated art gallery in town. Around 30 local artists-- many previously strangers to each other-- have spent a lot of time wrangling through the details and labor of running a gallery, and have forged friendships and collaborations. The larger community has an improved view of the variety and quality of work being produced by local artists, and has had the experience of seeing regular new art shows over the course of four years, rather than a vacant shop.
Why do you consider the project successful, as related to your project goals above?
Continued existence counts as success for The Front, especially with a growing community of friends, patrons, potential members, and well-wishers. Our display space is among the best in town, and our exhibits are consistently praised for their variety, careful arrangement, and clear presentation. We have presented over 25 shows since our founding in 2015, sold artwork from every exhibit, and cultivated an expanding list of art-lovers.
How did you measure this success or progress?
Again, any day that we see The Front still in existence is measured as success and progress. We also maintain basic book-keeping functions, and we can see that our sales are (slowly) increasing, that our members continue to pay their dues, and that therefore our bills continue to be paid. We hear regular praise and appreciation from community members, most of whom seem startled that we're still around.
Please describe any unexpected impacts:
So far nothing's happened that's been surprising-- again, apart from the fact that The Front still exists.