Helen Day Art Center is embarking on several new initiatives, including the development of a new strategic plan, a “Seizing the Future” campaign for expanded education and accessible exhibition experiences, and changing the name of the art center to better reflect the values of the organization.
We live in a time where the pursuit of meaning and the focus on understanding, equity, inclusivity and diversity is paramount. Helen Day Art Center is the primary arts resource in Lamoille County, serving predominantly rural children, adults, seniors and families from Stowe and throughout the state.
Lamoille County has the highest income disparity in Vermont. According to a report from the Economic Policy Institute, it ranks 170th for income inequality of the total 3,064 counties in the U.S. Vermont is also one of our nation’s most racially and ethnically homogeneous states.
These intersecting factors make the art center’s work a critical resource to provide the region with exposure, access and connection to diverse, global artistic voices and perspectives. It also makes it imperative for ensuring accessibility to quality arts experiences and educational opportunities for underserved and disadvantaged rural communities.
This spring we responded to the public health crisis with free online programs, sliding-scale fees for art classes, 116 free art kits distributed through Stowe’s free public school lunch program, take home makerspace boxes in collaboration with Massachusetts Institute of Technology, and the awarding of over $15,000 in scholarships since January.
Looking ahead, we listened to our community and heard the importance of broadening an understanding of the world and what it means to be human by using art education and curating the highest quality contemporary exhibitions; amplifying the voices of the underrepresented and underserved communities; and engaging in issues of racial and social justice.
Together, we can secure our future. This calls for a new strategy built on heightened resilience and accessibility; ongoing racial justice training for staff and board members; and a transformation plan we call “Seizing the Future,” designed to expand in-house art creation and enhance the exhibition experience — all of which we’ve been busy working on.
Strategic plan and name change
Our new strategic plan outlines the art center as a place to inspire civic engagement and broaden our understanding of the world through contemporary art. It lists as goals to serve as a platform and catalyst for conversation and inspiration, and above all else, ensure accessibility to quality arts experiences and educational opportunities for all people regardless of age, class, race, gender, religion, ability and geography, including underserved and disadvantaged rural communities.
The nonprofit Helen Day Art Center was founded nearly 40 years ago to save a historic building through the generosity of a bequest. This bequest was left to the town of Stowe by Helen Day Montanari to start an art center and library. Montanari and her partner, Dr. Marguerite Lichtenthaeler, were progressive women for their time and fought for arts and culture in Stowe.
We have discovered, however, that for all their forward-thinking, the women espoused deeply held anti-Semitic and racist beliefs.
We understand our responsibility to change the name in order to better reflect who we are as an organization. This is an important movement to acknowledge this troubling past, and face it with action to stand for a future devoid of hate or prejudice.
This process of choosing a name will be led by a professional branding specialist with the support of a committee. We will take a careful and considerate approach to this, involving guidance from our members, individuals and organizations within Stowe. We look forward to this as an opportunity to make clear our continued belief in inclusivity, diversity and equity for all.
“Stowe’s troubling history of restricting clientele at local lodging meant excluding Jews, people of color, and others from visiting the area and enjoying all that Vermont has to offer,” said Rabbi David Fainsilber of the Jewish Community of Greater Stowe. “Coming to terms with and remembering history has long been a value of the Jewish community in combating today’s bigotry. Change is rarely easy. We are grateful to the art center for their forward-thinking, as they use the intersection of history and art as an inclusive, educational tool. May this serve as a moment of reflection for the society we wish to create and the legacies we choose to lift up.”
Seizing the future
In an effort to continue the important inclusive and accessible educational work we are doing, we are launching a special campaign to expand educational opportunities. Our programming is especially essential in our rural region, which faces growing income and existing racial inequality, and an absence of major arts institutions. Additionally, local arts programs have been cut due to economic impacts of the COVID-19 pandemic.
Our free and low-cost arts education opportunities and scholarship programs are a crucial step towards filling this gap. We work closely with schools, offering tours and activities and helping teachers incorporate themes from our programs into their curriculum in order to connect our arts education activities to existing classroom curricula and to serve Vermont students regardless of socioeconomic status.
While the pandemic put a pause on our growth, we are now relaunching our special campaign to raise money for expanded education. Our vision for this innovative new endeavor includes a ceramics classroom in our historic building with two kilns, 10 pottery wheels, areas for glazing and handbuilding, and a slab roller; an art lab featuring two printmaking presses, a laser cutter, glass-fusing equipment, and art supplies and materials; and a common space with digital and analog learning resources.
All of this is complemented by classes and studio events designed by our experienced staff of arts professionals and educators.
Our goal is to nurture future generations of artists and makers through access to arts technology and exposure to creative processes and concepts. STEAM learning (Science, Technology, Engineering, the Arts and Mathematics) and makerspace models are at the core of this program, which emphasizes the role of arts in developing critical thinking and problem solving skills for young learners.
Exposure to the critically engaged contemporary art shown in our gallery also enhances cultural awareness and facilitates timely conversations surrounding important political and social issues.
This programming is especially essential in our rural region, whose already limited access to education and exposure to the arts has been adversely affected by health and safety protocols associated with the COVID-19 pandemic.
Studies indicate that while the pandemic has led to “a ‘perfect storm’ for increases in emotional distress” especially among youth and at-risk populations, “even short-term visual arts interventions can impact young people’s resilience,” leading to “positive effect(s) on self-confidence, self-esteem, relationship building and a sense of belonging.”
Without the generous support of our community, we wouldn’t be able to be such an important resource. We are grateful for the opportunity to serve as a center for education and inspiration through the arts.
Publisher Greg Popa is on the board of the Helen Day Art Center.
Rachel Moore is executive director and director of exhibitions at the Helen Day Art Center in Stowe.