Creative economy on the rise: Brattleboro gallery moves upstairs as downtown embraces the arts

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BRATTLEBORO — In 2016, a fire swept through the studio of Jim Giddings, destroying years of artwork. And on Nov. 9 of this year, Giddings and his business partner, Petria Mitchell, were dealing with a catastrophe of another type — a flood.

"What's next?" Mitchell asked with a laugh. "Locusts?"

Workers were putting up sheetrock, readying new gallery space for Mitchell-Giddings Fine Arts' new home at 181 Main St., when they accidentally struck a sprinkler and broke it off. When all was said and done, about an inch of water had flooded the basement, soaking new drywall and destroying the old wooden floor on the street level.

Fortunately, Giddings said, none of the artwork on display was damaged. The pair credited a quick community response with preventing further damage.

"Sixteen wonderful members of the Brattleboro-West Arts community came over at 7 on a Monday morning and helped move all the artwork to a temporary location," Giddings said. "They were incredible."

Mitchell and Giddings opened their downtown gallery in 2014 in the basement of Candle in the Night, a home furnishings store at 181 Main St. When owners Donna and Larry Simons decided it was time to close Candle in the Night after 46 years on Main Street, Mitchell and Giddings decided it was time to move upstairs.

Changes on the way

For the past several months, Mitchell and Giddings have been working on the space they purchased from the Simons. The other half of the space, where Candle in the Night is running its going-out-of-business sale, was purchased by IDDS, an entity owned by State Rep. Sara Coffey and David Snyder, who operates Guilford Sound, a recording studio.

Mitchell and Giddings are excited to be getting out of the basement and up to street level, both for the visibility and for accessibility. It also gives them more exhibition and storage space.

Their new home is set to open its doors to the public on Dec. 20 with an exhibit, "The Art of the Chop," featuring the work of Lisa Mackie, a New York City artist who works in a number of mediums, including mixed media prints, paintings and video.

"It's very exciting, what's happening with the creative pulse downtown," Mitchell said. "That's one of the reasons we feel really confident about putting a lot of our resources into this."

In addition to exhibiting and selling all types of art, the pair hopes to host artist talks and auctions and present poetry readings.

"We want to make it more of a community space," Mitchell said.

Plans for the building follow a trend of new multi-disciplinary arts studios and performance spaces popping up in downtown Brattleboro.

One building, many mediums

In Mitchell-Giddings Fine Arts' former gallery space in the basement, Daniel Chiaccio is setting up First Proof Press, a membership printmaking studio. In the back of the building is the In-Sight Photography Project, which offers photography courses at the introductory, intermediate and advanced levels for students ages 11 to 18.

"Daniel fits right into the creative mission of the whole building," Mitchell said.

Chiaccio, who grew up in Fryeburg, Maine, went to school at the New Hampshire Institute of Art and apprenticed at Zea Mays Printmaking in Easthampton, Mass. His primary focus is copper plate etchings, but he also does screen printing and wood cuts.

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"Jim and Petria had reached out and asked if Zea Mays wanted to do a satellite location, but it didn't pan out," Chiaccio said. "I've been wanting to have my own shop for years, so we started talking about me coming into their gallery space and setting up shop."

Chiaccio is eyeing a grand opening early next year, and has a Kickstarter campaign underway to help him purchase a few more pieces of equipment. (For more information, visit kickstarter.com/projects/firstproofpress/first-proof-press.)

"Due to the size of printing equipment and the cost, it is not feasible for most artists to have their own studio," he said. "At First Proof Press, I hope to accommodate all artists, no matter their skill level and allow for many different membership levels to fit any budget."

He is excited to be moving to Brattleboro and working alongside people like Mitchell and Giddings.

"I never imagined I would set up shop right on Main Street," he said. "I expected some mill in the middle of nowhere."

Part of the future

Donna Simons said she is excited about what is happening to the retail space she and her husband have occupied for almost 50 years.

"Larry and I have been talking about selling the space for years," she said. But they didn't want to sell to just anybody. They were particular that they wanted the buyers to add value to Main Street.

"We wanted something that would be good for downtown, not something that just occupied space and didn't contribute to the vibrancy of downtown," she said.

Simons said it can be a tough go for any brick-and-mortar store on any Main Street in America today, but she sees a different trend that may lead to change.

"The trend right now for downtowns is art, entertainment, specialty retail and restaurants," she said.

Downtown Brattleboro is now home to, in no particular order: Epsilon Spires, a venue for experimental and performance art; The Stone Church, a concert hall and home to occasional contra dancing; 118 Elliot Street; Brattleboro Center Stage, in the basement of the Brooks House where the Mole's Eye Cafe used to be; HatchSpace, a member-driven woodworking studio; three theaters, including one geared toward young actors; the Wheelhouse Clay Center, the River Gallery Art School and numerous galleries, restaurants, breweries and cafes.

On top of it all, the Brattleboro Museum and Arts Center has just announced a $30 million expansion plan that includes new galleries, classrooms and housing units at the corner of Main and Bridge streets.

Mitchell acknowledged that Brattleboro, like many small towns around the country, has challenges that seem overwhelming at times. But she insists that art and creativity can be part of the solution.

"When people are utilizing their creative selves, no matter who they are, what age they are, what part of town they are from ... this brings everyone together."

Donna Simons is happy to sit back and watch the transformation on Main Street, and she's not planning on going anywhere in retirement.

"I don't want to leave," she said. "I love it here. I look forward to being here without having to work every day. One of the reasons I am retiring is so that I can enjoy it more than I already do."

Bob Audette can be contacted at 802-254-2311, ext. 151, or raudette@reformer.com.


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