BENNINGTON — The grand opening might require a few more months for prep work, but the new owners of the former Bennington Center for the Arts campus have some interesting ideas to share.
The Society of Animal Artists, which acquired the 36,000-square-foot center on 5.8 acres off West Road this spring, is rolling out a new name — the Monument Arts and Cultural Center.
During a tour of the center this week, Renee Bemis, the artist society’s president and president of art center board, and artistic director Kristine Lewis said the previously closed center is on its way to opening.
Lewis said theater space sound-system upgrades were required, along with minor repairs and some cleaning, but otherwise the venue is nearly ready for live performances.
The center also includes seven galleries, offices and other spaces. The extensive grounds include a covered bridge museum and gardens.
Bemis said the timing of the center’s reopening — possibly with a gallery exhibit prior to live performances — is now awaiting final upgrades to the plumbing, electrical system, and air conditioning and heating systems, some of which is needed to meet building code requirements.
That work has at times taken longer than it normally would, she said, because of pandemic-related effects on the construction industry in general.
“The theater is in good shape,” Lewis said. “It just needs to be cleaned.”
The sound and lighting systems in the theater were old, she said, and that required a new control board that could be programmed. The work was done by Mark Klak of Klakworks Studios of Bennington.
Gearing up to plan and stage theatrical shows will take a few more months, Lewis said, but the center also will schedule concerts and other live events.
“What I would like to do as artistic director is to bring in plays, in-house plays, and also to do community things,” she said.
Other possibilities for the space include lecture series or seminar events, the society members said.
Lewis said the group also is open to working with area theater or other performance groups to offer events in the 315-seat venue.
“We don’t want it to be dark at all, ever,” Lewis said. “We’re not going to produce every show; we can’t physically do that. We’ll produce maybe five, six a year, and the rest will be bringing in people. We’ll bring in bands. We’ll have some festivals, and we’ll use the whole grounds.”
Bemis, who lives in the Chicago area but was in Bennington this week, said the group also wants to hold an annual gathering of society members in Bennington.
“What we are thinking of doing is — we would take a week and do an artist member show,” she said. “So it would start with hanging it, having the artists come. We would do demonstrations around town. We would like to do a thing where you would find artists in different areas.”
In addition, she said, the society “would have possibly an artists’ reception in-house, maybe have some music going, bring in some food trucks, and it would be a party. We want to make it an experience.”
The goal “would be to have it every year at the same time, so it would become a fest, an art fest,” Bemis said.
The society would likely coordinate the event with a theater production, she said, “and we would really make sure that all our artists get here, and we would do things with the community.”
Another goal for the group is to foster arts education. That would include workshops for children, she said, aiming to “teach them all the different parts of the arts, whether it’s performing arts, music, dance, visual arts, sculpture, painting and maybe even do a thing with a garden — teach them gardening — and just bring them back to the arts.”
“We actually were talking about maybe dedicating part of the [center] to a children’s section,” featuring hands-on activities, said arts center board member Rachelle Siegrist, of Tennessee, adding, “We are hoping to have enough diversity so that we can have something for everybody.”
A children’s theater area in the Vermont Covered Bridge Museum on the grounds of the arts center is another idea under consideration, the society members said, as is a summer arts-related camp for kids.
And an artist-in-residence program is planned for the center, with new artists rotating in regularly.
The arts center had been shuttered for more than two years after the abrupt closure in 2019 of the debt-strapped former Southern Vermont College; the center had been gifted the center by its founders, Bruce Laumeister and Elizabeth Small, to SVC.
The Society of Animal Artists, including some 500 artists about the world, acquired the center for $500,000 through the college’s bankruptcy process — with the full support of the founders, who had often worked with the society on art shows over the years.
Laumeister and Small oversaw construction of the center during the 1990s, which included adding new wings and features over more than a decade. The animal artist society provided work for the first show held at the center in 1994.
For more information about the arts center, Bemis can be reached via email at firstname.lastname@example.org.
The nonprofit group also plans fundraising events and will seek grants.