If artists are looking to get eyes on their work, they could do worse than exhibit in the Jackson Gallery on the ground floor of the Town Hall Theater in Middlebury. The 1000-square-foot space doubles as a box office and triples as a reception area during the theater’s frequent — and often sold out — performances.
That layout “offers an opportunity for hundreds of people to see the works in this gallery,” says gallery manager Ellie Steele Friml. “There’s a luxury to that. We can have a pretty broad range of shows here, because it’s not all about being a sales gallery.”
Granted, most of the work at the Jackson is for sale. And theatergoers aren’t always as concerned with the paintings on the walls as they are with muscling their way to the concession stand or the bathroom. But Friml says the pairing of visual and performing arts has allowed the gallery to show some interesting work that might not otherwise have found a venue.
Sometimes the artwork ties in directly with the theatrical program. Last spring, for example, a few months after the run of the Middlebury Community Players’ production of The Music Man, the gallery exhibited Middlebury photographer Trent Campbell’s black-and-white, behind-the-scenes shots from the show.
More often, though, the art has no relationship to what’s happening on stage. Last fall, the gallery featured the work of Eric Nelson, who teaches sculpture and drawing at Middlebury College. His miniature mahogany sculptures, which he carved over the course of a year at the rate of nearly one a day, took over one portion of the room; his photographs zeroing in on repetition in the natural and manmade worlds dominated another.
On a recent visit, the walls were decked out with “Small Treasures,” a holiday show of affordable, gift-wrap-friendly works by local artists. On one wall: Linda K. Evans’ colored-pencil slate tiles, vibrant with purple and turquoise illustrations like something from a beach-house bathroom. On another: Anna Fugaro’s mixed-media collage “Dinner,” a dark scene involving a man and woman in old-fashioned clothes who are lodged in a spiderweb, an army of chomping dentures closing in around them.
Then there are Lowell Snowdon Klock’s Polaroid photographs, which she manipulates before they’ve fully developed to create watery, somewhat trippy images. A toy train appears caught in motion; a set of lawn furniture beside a shimmering lake looks like a mirage.
“Every six weeks or so, the entire look of this room changes,” says Friml. In January, the gallery will present the work of six area architects, each one displaying sketches, working drawings and final photos from a recent project.
The Jackson Gallery has a rich architectural history. When the building opened in 1884, it featured stained-glass windows, a 600-seat theater and a balcony. Since then, it has served as town offices, an opera house, a movie theater, a restaurant with a dance floor and a Knights of Columbus hall. A community theater group led by Doug Anderson bought the building in 2000, in the hopes of turning it back into a theater. The group performed in the space, often with no heat, until 2006, when the building was closed for renovations. Before the Town Hall Theater reopened in the summer of 2008, sporting a $5 million makeover, the space now housing the gallery had a dirt floor, Friml says.
In the renovated gallery, pieces of the building’s history remain. Swaths of brick cut through the concrete floor where walls used to stand, and a tile reading “K of C” — for the building’s former occupant — is inlaid in one of the still-standing brick walls. In one corner of the floor, near the shiny new bathrooms, there’s a hole: It’s the building’s old well, sealed up with glass. A spotlight mounted on the rough stone wall illuminates the water below.
Friml, who has managed the box office since the theater’s reopening, took on the gallery about a year ago. An artist herself, she has shown her handwoven, contemporary tapestries around the country. One of her works, a wall hanging depicting hands and hearts, adorns the birthing center at nearby Porter Medical Center. Friml is also a set designer, which comes in handy around Town Hall Theater.
Even on a Thursday morning, the gallery is abuzz with preparations for upcoming shows. The box-office phone has been ringing, and Doug Anderson, THT’s executive director, bustles in and now out of the gallery, singing operatically.
The visual art in the Jackson Gallery sings, too. And it’s worth checking out — when you’re not rushing back to your seat for act II.