BENNINGTON -- In a world where cheap, mass-produced imported goods have taken over the shelves of our local stores, many art lovers have developed a new appreciation for artwork and crafts created by hand in our own local communities.
However, lacking mainstream distribution, local artists and artisans often need to come up with creative ways to find customers for their work. For the community of artists in southwestern Vermont and nearby Massachusetts, this necessity sparked the creation of the Bennington Arts Guild and its cooperative gallery on South Street.
Next door to the South Street Cafe in the heart of Bennington's Four Corners, the Arts Guild's sunny gallery space has become a popular spot for locals and visitors alike, containing a diverse inventory of painting, prints, ceramics, wood crafts and sculptures, and many other unique crafts and types of artwork, like Dan Farber's hooked-rug wall hangings and Nancy Pardine's historic sheet music reproductions.
Pardine and Farber are two of the nine local artists who now belong to the Bennington Arts Guild, a non-profit organization sponsored by the Better Bennington Corp. Cabinetmaker Ray Mullineaux, the group's only remaining founding member, said the Guild started in 2005 at a meeting convened by local painter Mike Bethel.
"The idea was to create an attractive space downtown that would attract visitors and local townspeople," he said.
While he said the B.A.G. has maintained a relatively constant size of around 10 artists, he and board chair Jackie Kelly said the group is always looking for new members to join.
Along with modest yearly dues and a small percentage of any sales, which covers costs of maintaining the space, guild members are expected to attend monthly group meetings and volunteer to work two day-long shifts every month in the gallery.
Mullineaux said these meetings allow the artists to run the gallery collectively, handling all the business aspects of the space that would usually fall to a gallery owner.
"We recruit new artists, jury them in, curate the space, operate the gallery, do some publicity and get information out to the public about who we are and what we're doing," he said.
In the past, these monthly meeting have included talks and demonstrations from the artists to their peers. Kelly said they have also helped build a sense of community among the artists. These in-person requirements also ensure that all of the guild's artists come from Bennington and the surrounding areas.
New members can submit their work to be juried for acceptance into the group by contacting Jury Committee Chair Christina Hazel through the group's website, bennington artsguild.com. Applicants are required to submit five samples of their work, created in the last three years, with at least two pieces finished and ready for display in the gallery. All media are accepted.
"The process is very, very simple" said Kelly.
Kelly also said local students are welcome to join the guild as well, and they're invited to collaborate with the B.A.G. to set up shows in the gallery's back-room show space. This space is used on occasion for openings and when new artists join the guild, but Kelly said they're always looking to host more shows for local artists.
Members of the guild agree that having a central location for local artists to sell their works has been a great step in helping the town become an arts destination.
"Our dream is to make this whole area a mecca for people to come and experience the arts," said Kelly, echoing sentiments shared by many arts leaders around town. While ideas like the painted moose and catamounts have helped boost awareness of the town's artistic community and culture, efforts like the Arts Guild have been extremely helpful in helping local artists find an enthusiastic audience for the works they create.
Ray Mullineaux said one of the guild's greatest strengths is its ability to encourage and attract artists who are committed to building a more prosperous Bennington.
"All of us are committed to seeing this area flourish," he said. "Art is a part of that, the expression of the individual viewpoint is useful and valuable to the community and those who come to the community."