At Helen Day Art Center, Rachel Moore Brings Power of Art to Civic Engagement | Visual Art | Seven Days | Vermont's Independent Voice

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At Helen Day Art Center, Rachel Moore Brings Power of Art to Civic Engagement


Rachel Moore outside the Helen Day Art Center - JEB WALLACE-BRODEUR
  • Jeb Wallace-Brodeur
  • Rachel Moore outside the Helen Day Art Center

As a venue, the Helen Day Art Center in Stowe is easy to overlook. It consists of four rooms above the town library that connect to the elementary school. Yet, over the past decade, the center's community focus and important exhibitions — often integrating the work of Vermonters with art-world stars such as Louise Bourgeois, Carrie Mae Weems and Kiki Smith — have drawn ever-wider attention. In late June, the 40-year-old center received an unprecedented level of national recognition when it won a multiyear, $80,000 grant from the Andy Warhol Foundation for the Visual Arts.

The driving force behind it all is Rachel Moore, an artist who became Helen Day's curator in 2010 and its executive director and director of exhibitions in 2016. A petite, calming presence with an open, direct gaze, Moore has done more than bring in big names. She believes equally in the value of beauty in art and in its capacity to foster community engagement.

Location Details The Current
90 Pond St.
Stowe, VT

In a town in which second-home owners make up more than half the population, Moore has been able to harness big-donor enthusiasm for visually stunning exhibitions that foster conversations around important and difficult issues.

These have included immigration, explored in "Migration" (2012); the country's neglect of social services and institutions, in "Matthew Christopher: The Age of Consequences" (2014); and the #MeToo movement, in "Reclamation" (2018). "People's Cloth Trade Show: The T-Shirt Is the Problem" (2016) explored the global cotton trade and taught visitors how to upcycle their tees. The Arab Spring-inspired "Unrest: Art, Activism & Revolution" (2014) examined the impact of artists on political and social reform.

Moore picks up on local issues, too. When then-Vermont House representative Kiah Morris came to speak at an event Moore organized to accompany "Reclamation," the Bennington resident, who is Black, privately shared with Moore an instance of racial hatred she had just witnessed in Stowe. In response, Moore began organizing an exhibition featuring African American artists that became "Unbroken Current" (2019).

"She's a deep and intuitive thinker, and she has that profound empathy for people and society, both contemporary and historical," noted videographer Molly Davies about Moore. Davies' work has been included in several exhibitions at Helen Day, most recently "Love Letters" (early 2020).

"I firmly believe in the power of art as a tool of civic engagement," Moore said in a phone interview. For every (pre-pandemic) exhibit, she and her staff of five women would stock a hands-on room with related projects and educational materials, lead droves of school children through the galleries, and organize a roster of public-engagement events — panel discussions, lectures, performances and film screenings — around each issue.

Warhol Foundation program director Rachel Bers acknowledged as much in award materials. Calling the center an "outpost for creative experimentation," Bers noted both its "commitment to connecting artists and audiences" and its "support [of] dialogue and exchange around shared issues, struggles and creative solutions."

Asked how she hoped to use the Warhol grant, Moore focused on community. "We have this long public programs wish list," she declared. "In general, we're trying to ... drive civic engagement and highlight public activism."

The grant will fund artists' travel to openings and program events, new commissions, gallery guides, and an annual artist residency in the gallery. It will also support a long-planned solo exhibit, opening in June 2021, by Botswana-born Meleko Mokgosi, whose large-scale paintings explore colonialism, democracy and nationalism, as well as programming related to the current exhibition, "Dona Ann McAdams: Performative Acts."

Viewable online now, and in person by appointment beginning August 1, the latter show is a retrospective of McAdams' photographs of antinuclear protests, AIDS activism, working farm animals, racetrack workers and more. Programming will include a video conversation between McAdams and guest curator John Killacky about the 30-year anniversary of the 1990s culture wars; the recording will be made in October in collaboration with Vermont Humanities.

Moore wasn't always focused on art's capacity for civic engagement. After earning a bachelor's degree in fine arts at Alfred University, she settled into studio practice in Seattle, where she won "early recognition" through a solo show and grants. Gradually, she recalled, "I started thinking about how it looked to visitors who just walked inside my studio and [whether] it was really doing anything to change the world."

She decided to pursue graduate studies at the School of the Art Institute of Chicago, a program known for its interdisciplinary approach, where she could "focus on public art and social practice," she said.

At the Art Institute, those interests came to fruition in a number of projects. For "Conserve-a-Story," Moore spent a year interviewing the mostly Black residents of East Garfield Park in Chicago about their memories of the Garfield Park Conservatory, a venue at which they had long felt unwelcome. The resulting installation, which she mounted in the conservatory, helped heal that division.

In another project, "E Pluribus Unum," Moore taught people free of charge to make quilts from donated scraps on Martin Luther King Jr. Day of Service, and then gave the quilts to a transitional housing facility for homeless people.

Moore linked her current activism to these projects in a 2018 PechaKucha presentation at the Fleming Museum of Art in Burlington titled "How Artistic Practice Can Be a Catalyst for Change."

"I continually ask, 'What is the role of art in today's society?'" she said during that talk. Her answer: "engaging the public in new and participatory ways to create understanding driven by a sense of humanity and stewardship for this place we call home."

Activism aside, Moore equally appreciates the power of aesthetics. "I love art for art's sake — I love the materials, the beauty, the craftsmanship that some artists bring," she said. "Their work may not be about saving the world, but in some way it connects us as human beings. It brings a moment of reflection or thought or peace or joy to our lives. It changes us, too, but maybe in a more poetic and quiet way."

Moore's own work as an artist, though infrequently exhibited, fuses beauty and civic engagement. She surprised many with a 2018 solo show — her second in Vermont — at Edgewater Gallery in Stowe titled "Traces." The work drew on multiple mediums and installation techniques to address issues of migration, the Jewish diaspora and the climate crisis. One work, a dramatic, suspended cluster of blown-glass orbs, recalled the drifter buoys that scientists use to collect data on changing water temperatures.

Davies said that Moore is best understood through her work. "Traces," Davies recalled, "render[ed] these ideas in the most tender and subtle and delicate forms. I mean, she uses porcelain, for God's sake, and glass for these very complex and profound subjects. And the pieces are interlinked, so they expand on each other and refer back to each other.

"Beauty is perhaps the final word," Davies continued, "and empathy is the underlying subtext. I think that's who Rachel is, and that's what she brings to the curatorial work."

Terri Gregory of Hyde Park agrees. "Rachel is a radiant and caring woman," said the former potter and current interior designer at Cushman Design Group, which she runs with her husband, Milford Cushman. "The fact that she views the world with artist's eyes makes her an amazing director. Her willingness to be vulnerable and discuss the process of art and creativity openly — it draws people to her."

Gregory and Cushman regularly support "Exposed," Helen Day's annual outdoor sculpture show that sites large-scale works along Stowe's downtown sidewalks and bike path. At openings, which typically involve a walking tour with Moore and some of the artists, Gregory recalled, "Moore would talk about some of the hard pieces that she was grappling with. And she's a good listener."

Dutch-born digital artist Jeroen Nelemans, whose work was included in "Love Letters," attended graduate school with Moore and related, during a phone conversation from his Chicago home, an instance of her facility with fostering conversation. Moore had gone to Greece for the 2009-10 year on a Fulbright scholarship; there she conceived of curating an open, collaborative conversation among artists in Chicago, Thessaloniki and Athens as an exhibition at the DYNAMO project space in Thessaloniki.

Nelemans recalled, "The way she facilitated this was, 'I have a group of Greek artists and a group of Chicago artists; let's all Skype on what to come up with together.' It became a really interesting experience that Rachel facilitated."

Helen Day board chair Diane Arnold said that Moore's ability to communicate helps make the art world accessible. "When she speaks at these openings in front of laypeople — there are many people who know about art and many who don't — she has a way of being inclusive and simplifying things in a really easy and endearing manner," Arnold said.

A retired entrepreneur, Arnold also noted Moore's ability to manage budgets. When Moore became director in 2016, the center was operating on a multiyear deficit. She turned that around and now manages a projected budget for 2020 of $585,000, according to Moore.

"I love to be organized. I love numbers. I love math," Moore explained. "I constantly need to be challenged in my life, so this was an opportunity."

The pandemic has shrunk that budget dramatically, so the Warhol grant is particularly timely. When Gov. Phil Scott issued a stay-at-home order and nearly every institution shut down, Helen Day quickly transitioned to online offerings. The staff seemed determined to engage a dazed and isolated community through art in every way possible. 

They posted an online public-art challenge to create a work of art or craft based on a cheerful geometric color-wheel graphic. Their online audio-visual offerings included poetry readings, studio visits and tutorials on art making. They assembled and made available 116 free art kits for local students.

Art classes for children and adults, an integral part of the center's operations, also went online, asking a sliding-scale fee as low as $20 and providing scholarships to those in need. In place of its hands-on room, the center launched a unique partnership with the Massachusetts Institute of Technology to sell subscription maker-space kits.

At the same time, Moore scaled back "Exposed," which has included works by international heavyweights such as Jaume Plensa and Mark di Suvero. This year's show will feature six Vermont artists: Judith Wrend, Scott Boyd, Christopher Curtis, Justin A. Kenney, John Matusz and Nancy Winship Milliken. The Warhol grant will help provide their stipends.

Through the pandemic, Moore has been able to keep the entire Helen Day staff of six employed.

"Since she took on this job, she's really made the center more stable than it has ever been financially," said Arnold. "We're looking forward to what can make us sustainable for the public's good, as well, not just the center. It's all about giving."

Nelemans experienced that culture of giving when he was invited in January to fly to Vermont to participate in a March 12 panel discussion about "Love Letters" — which was Helen Day's last live program before the pandemic. Unsure of whether to accept, he recalled a phone conversation with Moore. "I remember Rachel saying, 'It's really important for you to come. I really want the public to hear you. You add a dialogue different from the other artists.'"

Nelemans described the opportunity to participate in "Love Letters" as "an incredible experience." But it was Moore's inclusive vision that impressed him. "Other [institutions] get international curators who come in for two years and get tremendous artists, then leave Chicago. And then we are left to wonder, What's the dialogue here?" The difference with Moore is that she not only attracts famed artists but "also connects to her local artist [base]," Nelemans said. "That's important; that's how you make the art world small."

Davies echoed that opinion: "I think that what she's offered to the greater community of Stowe is inestimable. The fact that she is here is amazing."

The original print version of this article was headlined "Making Connections | At Helen Day Art Center, Rachel Moore brings the power of art to civic engagement"