A major change is in the works for a Stowe landmark.
The Helen Day Art Center, one of the most recognizable buildings in town and a cultural center for Lamoille County since its founding 40 years ago, will soon be renamed.
The center’s board of directors made the decision during its ongoing strategic planning process and have brought on consultants Lance and Vanessa Violette of the Violette Studio to spearhead the name change and rebranding.
The shift stems from the controversial history of the center’s current namesake, Helen Day Montanari, who bequeathed a large sum of money to start an art center and library in Stowe.
While progressive and forward-thinking in many ways, Montanari and her partner, Dr. Marguerite Lichtenthaeler, were two of many Stoweites who ran “restricted” lodging establishments in the first half of the 20th century.
“Restricted,” in those days translated to, “No Jews Allowed,” and that anti-Semitic thinking, and the negative connotation the name Helen Day now carries with it, don’t jibe with the mission and views of the art center, according to its leaders.
“With knowledge comes responsibility. When we became aware of this history, we felt a responsibility to face it,” said Rachel Moore, executive director and director of exhibitions at the art center.
She said that over the years she’d heard rumors of Montanari and her partner being anti-Semitic, but it wasn’t until a few years ago, when she was on a field trip with her daughter, that she saw a brochure from the first half of the 20th century, when the women operated their lodging establishments, that said “Gentiles Only.”
“I remember the feeling of shock at seeing that in print,” Moore said. While aware of what she called the “disturbing anti-Semitic history in Stowe,” the brochure was proof that the art center’s namesake had been an adherent of the racist philosophy.
Emily Rosenbaum, president of the Jewish Community of Greater Stowe, said she was deeply moved by the choice.
“I applaud the work of Rachel Moore and everyone at the Helen Day Art Center to have conversations not only about the deep-seated racism in our country, but about our own troubled history closer to home,” she said.
Moore added that, while the name of Stowe’s art center will change, Montanari and Lichtenthaeler in many ways actually made the organization’s efforts to be more welcoming and to combat racism and anti-Semitism possible — even if their views were in opposition to their namesake art center.
This change is very much needed, though, she said.
“As a public art center, we are an organization that aims to be a safe place for all, where all are welcome. If you were Jewish, and knew that the namesake was anti-Semitic, would you feel comfortable walking in our doors, even if our values are anti-racist?” Moore asked.
“It’s important as an organization to be vulnerable and open to change.”
Moore said initial discussions about renaming started before she came on board as executive director in 2016, but the talks never went anywhere.
Remy Joseph, a former board member from Waterbury Center, was serving when the issue came up again earlier this decade. A committee was formed then, but after one meeting support for the change seemed to melt away.
Joseph said the committee was actually formed then because some board members thought a new, spicier name would better fit the art center.
Only after research into the current name began did they discover some of the racist history of the center’s namesake.
According to Joseph, some of Stowe’s old guard back then were not happy about the name-changing concept.
“Not that they were racist, or anti-Semites, just more traditionalists,” she said.
The committee’s work eventually trailed off without resolution.
“It kind of died on the launch pad,” Joseph said.
“It’s no small endeavor to change a name, and we didn’t end up pursuing this further at the time,” said Moore, who was on staff at the center at the time but hadn’t been promoted to executive director yet.
“This is not easy work, and it is often complicated by founders who accomplished much social good, even as they subscribed to beliefs or engaged in actions that hurt so many real people living at that time and have left us a legacy of institutions with systemic racism built in,” Rosenbaum said.
A name change probably could have happened earlier, Moore acknowledged, but she sees it as a case of better-late-than-never.
“Yes, I suppose other directors or boards could have changed the name in the past, but they didn’t,” she said. “What’s important is that it’s getting done.”
Fitting the mission
Joseph, who is Jewish, is ecstatic that a name change is finally in the works, even if she’s no longer on the board.
Joseph said that the art center — with a name change in the works she prefers not to use the name Helen Day anymore — has always had a mission of inclusivity, and its events and exhibits are meant to bring people in from across Lamoille County and beyond.
“A name that would indicate that kind of outlook, to bring the world in, would be more suitable,” Joseph said. “The art center is such an asset to the community.”
Moore said goals of “accessibility, inclusion, diversity and equity for all” can be difficult with the current name, given the history of those involved.
Rosenbaum said, “Institutions have much work to do as they confront the bigotry that was socially commonplace at the time they were founded.”
Moore and the board have found that the money left by Montanari and her partner to start an art center and library did not come with naming rights attached.
Stowe Free Library also got its start from the bequest left by the couple and has an unaffiliated name. That knowledge “presented an opportunity for change that has felt urgent, especially in recent months,” Moore said.
The board has since checked in with municipal leaders and the director at Stowe Free Library, which also shares its home with the art center, and received support for the change from all those entities.
Changing names will mean rebranding, of course, and updating legal documents, design work, further marketing and outreach to past supporters — all of which still needs to happen.
It will likely be months before a new name is official.
Moore said, at this point, there are no frontrunners or favorites for a new name. She and the board will work in the coming months with the Violettes, and she hopes that the news of the name change, and whatever new name is eventually chosen, won’t be divisive issues in the community.
“This isn’t political. If anyone accuses us of that, it’s they who are making it political,” Moore said. “This is about who we are, what our values are, and what our future goals are.”
Moore said the center has always aimed, and largely succeeded, at being an incredible and welcoming resource in the community, and that will continue.
“I don’t want this to be made into a divisive move, but rather an inclusive, educational and welcoming one,” she said.
“We are a safe place for children who need it, an inspiration for many, and a community partner to advance the well-being of those we serve,” Moore said. “This isn’t about being political. This is about being human.”
Publisher Greg Popa is a member of the board of the Helen Day Art Center, and is serving on the name-change committee.