The building at 90 Pond St. in Stowe is now the art center formerly known as Helen Day.
Better yet, call it by its new name: The Current.
After nearly a decade of pondering whether to keep a contemporary art gallery, workshop and educational center named after a woman with a problematic connection to Nazis, the art center’s leadership has rebranded the place, leaving history in the past and looking ahead.
According to The Current’s executive director Rachel Moore, an art center located in Stowe that serves the greater community for arts education but draws people from all over the world, ought to have a more universal appeal. A more universal name is a good place to start.
“That’s why this name stuck so much, because it has this multiplicity of meanings,” Moore said.
The Current, she said, could mean current events or current trends. It could also invoke movement, from wind, air or electricity.
“I kind of lump those into this energy that is pulsating through this organization,” she said. “We want to encourage our audience to interpret the name in the way that inspires them the most.”
The Current continues with the mission Helen Day Art Center has been on for the past decade or so, expanding from a gallery space for carefully curated exhibits that either fit a theme or a particular aesthetic.
“Reclamation,” for instance, in 2018 focused on women’s roles in male-dominated arenas, including art. Or 2014’s “Surveillance Society,” which showcased artists’ takes on the watchful eyes of governments and corporations. That more contemporary art focus is rounded out by annual favorites like the student art show or the al fresco exhibit “Exposed.”
The Current also offers hands-on activities, from community pottery workshops to classes for area students and adults.
“We are a resource and we are free and open to the public, and even our classes that are tuition-based are on sliding scale,” Moore said. “So, you pay as you can, and if you can pay it forward and help someone else, you can do that, too.”
‘Cult of personality’
Institution naming often stems from one of three branches — after people, places or ideas, Moore said.
The Current draws from the latter, eschewing a location- or person-based identity in pursuit of something more universal.
There’s also the geographical route, naming a place after the place it’s in. Certainly, Stowe has cachet well beyond Vermont’s borders, but the art center also serves the greater Lamoille County area.
“Everybody can use the space,” Moore said.
Using the name of a person, who gifted a large sum of money, for example, is problematic in that it, too, lacks universality, unless it’s, say, Abraham Lincoln or Martin Luther King Jr.
“We don’t want it to be tied to one singular person,” Moore said. “We want it to be for everyone.”
In The Current’s case, that singular person was Helen Day Montanari, a wealthy woman who lived in Stowe in the 1940s and 1950s.
Montanari’s legacy has come under scrutiny in recent years.
On the one hand, she was a champion of the arts and, in some ways, ahead of her time — she was romantically involved with a woman, and the couple performed abortions, illegal in Vermont at that time.
On the other hand, there is evidence that she was a racist, particularly anti-Jewish — her inn, the Attic and Barn, was listed as “Aryans only,” one of many lodging facilities that did not allow Jewish people or people of color.
Debora Steinerman, the president and co-founder of the Vermont Holocaust Memorial, said this winter that antisemitic tendencies did not die with the end of the Holocaust.
“It is comforting that the art center is taking this issue into consideration in its rebranding. But this is not just a Jewish issue. It’s an American issue,” Steinerman said. “This is an issue of setting history right by not honoring those who discriminate. Racism, bigotry and hatred have no place in our community, state or country.”
That history troubled many on the board of what prides itself as a progressive, inclusive and cutting-edge art center. And it concerned leaders within the Jewish community.
Emily Rosenbaum, speaking earlier this year in her role as president of the Jewish Community of Greater Stowe — she has since left that role but remains a part of JCOGS — spoke to the problematic role Montanari played in Stowe’s Jewish history. She applauds the art center name change and decision to distance itself from Montanari, and any one individual in particular.
“There is always a danger in cults of personality, and it is always wise to consider what we are doing as a community, rather than what is representative of particular human beings, because the institutions should outlive them,” she said.
Rosenbaum said it was the right thing to do, at the right time.
“I don’t think it’s as much about courage,” she said. “I think it takes being an authentic person and being an authentic organization.”
The Current moves forward
Much about The Current is the same, but some aspects going forward will look a lot different.
Vanessa Violette worked with her husband Lance, of The Violette Studio, on the aesthetic re-design. She and Lance have been part of the art center family for a long time, and she remembers having talks about changing the name back in 2012.
“I think it’s doing more than saying, ‘Gee, we’re trying to solve a problem,’” she said. “It’s about what the organization is and what it wants to be. We want it to feel fresh and bold and aspirational, as well.”
The logo they came up with is meant to be bold and avoid any flash-in-the-pan trendiness — remember the font Comic Sans? — so it can withstand the test of time.
It has to fit in, too, with countless genres of art, sometimes accentuating them and sometimes playing second fiddle to others’ marketing artwork.
“When we think about design, it has to hit that whole list,” Violette said. “It’s bold but not alienating, and there’s a certain vernacular there that is clean and contemporary.”
Rosenbaum loves the new name and, upon being told it, immediately picked up on the multiple meanings of The Current.
“One of the amazing things about good art is that it responds to its moment and is ahead of its moment, in many ways anticipating what is going to happen,” she said.
Meet The Current at thecurrentnow.org.
In the effort of full disclosure, Stowe Reporter publisher Greg Popa serves on the art center’s board of directors.