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Bernie Sanders

All Fired Up



Published May 12, 2004 at 4:00 p.m.

On Pascal Spengemann's third day in Burlington, in 1995, he went to the Firehouse Gallery and found he couldn't get in. It was the middle of the day, and the place was locked up. Curious, he located Burlington City Arts next door at City Hall and asked what was going on. As it turned out, Spengemann was in the right place at the right time. BCA hired him to be a gallery-sitter, and he started the very next day, for $7 an hour. Several months later, he became the curator. And then he became a crucial link between artists and viewers, the friendly public face of the Firehouse and an impassioned visionary for its future. It seemed only logical that he would help choose his successor, who might be hired later this week.

The new curator will be working in a Firehouse that looks very different from what Spengemann encountered nearly nine years ago. Even when you could find that old door -- facing the adjacent alley and not the street -- it was a heavy, metal thing and hard to push open, he recalls. But that will seem like ancient history this weekend, when the Firehouse throws open not only its accessible glass entrances but the entire building. A gala celebration all day Saturday will invite the public to experience the current multi-media exhibit, "The Testimony of Trees" by Sylvia Safdie and John Heward; a public-art tour on a vintage firetruck; pottery demonstrations; a camera obscura; art-making projects; and a really big group photo -- updating one taken outside the fire station when it was built in 1889. Not least, visitors can see all five floors of the place, completely transformed, for the first time.

And the transformation, guided by Burlington architect John Anderson, is stunning -- especially so for anyone who may not have set foot in the place since the building housed, say, the former offices of the Church Street Center or a young Senator Patrick Leahy. A capital campaign that began more than five years ago is funding the building's renovation, explains Doreen Kraft, the executive director of Burlington City Arts, which manages the Firehouse. An initial estimate of $2.2 million increased twice, she says -- in large part because of unexpected challenges in modifying, and shoring up, a 19th-century structure. The full cost of the expansion is expected to be $3.5 million; BCA fundraisers are currently about $400,000 shy of that goal.

A visit this weekend will likely convince visitors the cost was worth it, especially since very little of the money came from taxpayers' pockets. The city provides only a tenth of BCA's annual operating budget of $800,000, Kraft reveals; the rest is raised through grants and private donations. About half that budget, she estimates, goes to the Firehouse.

Though this weekend's event is billed as a "grand opening," in fact the Firehouse has grown in spurts. That glass "storefront" was installed in 1998. Since then, the gallery expanded to encompass the whole first floor, with more glass extending the view to City Hall Park in back. A new elevator hoists passengers to shows, lectures, films or receptions on the second floor. A new kitchen makes private functions possible. A community darkroom and other classrooms in the basement expanded the art-education offerings -- a critical element of the Firehouse's mission. Burlington artist Kate Pond created one of the "public-art" components of the building: the steel floor grate that greets visitors at the side entrance.

What the public has not yet seen is a spacious, light-filled classroom upstairs with a state-of-the-art, OSHA-approved ventilation system, necessary for oil painting; the studio for the Firehouse's new artist-in-residence program, which will partner with St. Michael's College and the University of Vermont; or the completely new stairwell, added on in order to maximize the interior space.

With its increased capacity and diversity, the Firehouse Gallery has morphed into the Firehouse Center for the Visual Arts -- a place where, as BCA board member Dana vanderHeyden puts it, "anyone who's interested in the arts can come. In many ways," she adds, "I think the actual completion of the Firehouse has exceeded what we had hoped it would be."

Metaphorically speaking, the Firehouse is blazing. It offers numerous classes both under its own roof and at the Memorial Auditorium Annex; BCA runs several other programs at outposts such as Fletcher Allen Health Care and the Boys & Girls Club. To some minds, this community arts education is the primary reason for the existence of BCA, which came into being during the first administration of Mayor Bernie Sanders in the early 1980s. According to long-time BCA board member Judy Kelley, "Various assessments over the years have told us that art education is what the community wants. There are many children that fall in the cracks, and I think the Firehouse is addressing those needs." Kelley points out that fundraising is ongoing to support "an enormous scholarship program" for kids.

All that said, the street-level gallery of the Firehouse is still its front line, its most engaging aspect to passersby. And the work visible through the glass storefront instant-messages something to the public about Art & Culture itself. In a way, the content of that message continues to be shaped by Pascal Spengemann, even though he left nearly two years ago to pursue a master's degree in curatorial studies at Bard College. Now 32, he and business partner Kelley Taxter are operating their own nascent gallery in Manhattan's hip Chelsea neighborhood.

Anyone who has observed the Firehouse over the years credits Spengemann for its artistic vision. "Pascal really set a cutting edge for art we don't see at a lot of galleries in town," suggests Judy Kelley. "He's a very, very talented man and he put everything into the gallery, and it showed."

Under Spengemann's watch, art openings for new shows became "a real melting pot -- older people and young people," says vanderHeyden, whose husband Marc is the president of St. Michael's College, a sponsor of the Firehouse. Spenge- mann was able to "generate a real meaningful appreciation of and excitement for the arts," she suggests. (Another college-president wife, Rachel Kahn-Fogel, also sits on the BCA board and represents the growing interaction between the gallery and UVM.)

Spengemann's assessment of his Firehouse tenure is characteristically more modest: "I had a sort of plan, but you don't really think about a vision -- it's instinctual as much as anything," he says. "I tried to create something that would interest me. If I could get excited about it, I could do my 'stump speech' and get other people excited about it."

Pressed to recall some of his favorite exhibitions, Spenge-mann points to some that have become annual ocurrences: for one, the "Process/Progress" show, at which artists spend a month actually creating art in the gallery. "I was trying to figure out a way to show people what happens in an artist's studio, the excitement of that," he says. "There was also a selfish reason -- in the middle of February it was fun to have 10 people around, a beehive of activity."

One of the now-annual shows, the "Firehouse Open," arose from Spengemann's lowest moment at the gallery -- a 1999 Selene Colburn show of collaborative paintings featuring a male nude with an erect penis. Municipal policy did not allow this type of sexual display, and Colburn was asked to remove the painting. In protest, she took down the whole show, thereby provoking a firestorm of publicity -- both positive and negative -- about censorship and the role of a public art facility.

"On a personal level, that was a real disastrous position for me to be in," Spengemann recalls. "In hindsight I would have liked to stick up for Selene's art more than I did; I kind of had to play both sides, and it was really hard for me. I guess I was exercising my fledgling diplomatic skills."

But he took the lemons and made lemonade. With a scheduled art opening 24 hours away, Spengemann somehow got word out that he would accept one work each from the first 50 artists who showed up the next morning -- provided they didn't defy the city's content guidelines. The response was resounding, and the show was a hit. Spengemann handled the controversy "very, very well," says Judy Kelley. "Pascal had great integrity... and I think we're going to carry on in the same way."

"I don't feel Pascal has left and probably never will," says Kraft. "He's still a contributing member of the team even though he's off the payroll." In fact, he didn't simply disappear -- last year Spengemann curated all the shows for the Fire-house, commuting from Bard. This year he's guest-curated two: in January, the humorous/political realist paintings

of former Vermonter Max Schumann; and the recent popular "chirping-bird" installation by Jeff Hatfield.

"You don't replace Pascal, you build on what he created," notes Kraft. "He was a tremendous force in setting the direction of what the Firehouse is today. He's a team player, but is very strong aesthetically, and has a sense of civic responsibility. And, he could speak to anyone -- including members of the administration."

Spengemann notes that people have very strong reactions to art, and he thinks it's a good thing "that art still has that kind of power." It's a relationship to the visual world that he liked to encourage at the Firehouse. "He brought people along with him," says Kraft. "He had the ability to pull people over the threshold of the gallery, and create a comfort level for them. And," she enthuses, "he has a natural wisdom and compassion that is unusual in the art world, and in young people."

Spengemann's reputation and accomplishments may feel like an intimidating legacy, but then again, the next curator will be glad that he both raised the bar on artistic standards and established a template for interesting, adventurous shows. "I was pretty free, and I think it worked out all right," Spenge-mann says. "I think the next curator can expand the scope, really beat the bushes. We started showing just local artists and ended up with this really iconic artist [Alice Neel, last year]. I think you're going to see more of that at the Firehouse in the future."

"It's a tremendous opportunity for a person here," says Kraft, who suggests that Spengemann's successor will also have a lot of latitude in setting the artistic agenda. "We don't have a very large budget, but we'll grow that way -- [the new curator's] strength and vision will allow us to do that."