A little less than a year ago, while the national financial markets were in a tailspin, Rutland’s Chaffee Art Center experienced its own bit of fiscal turmoil. The 47-year-old organization, housed in an ornate 1896 Queen Anne Victorian mansion, had run out of money and was forced to lay off its staff and close for the winter. But its fortunes didn’t exactly crash because of the stock market, so what happened?
The better question might be, What didn’t happen? “I think it was just a matter of complacency,” says executive director Mary Mitiguy, who took over in April. The Chaffee had relied for years on a handful of generous donors and had never implemented an effective development strategy. When a few of its benefactors passed away, the center was left with a huge hole in its budget. “And the Chaffee never really marketed itself,” explains Mitiguy. “It was always this sort of sleepy entity.”
Still, the community valued both the building and the organization, and when the Board of Trustees considered selling the property in October, 150 people showed up at a meeting to voice their disapproval. Mitiguy finds it interesting, however, that recent calls for volunteers have been met with silence. “We’re not exactly bursting at the seams with people wanting to help out,” she notes.
As the Chaffee gets back on its feet, a key strategy for survival is figuring out what Rutland-area residents want from a visual-arts center. Before Mitiguy arrived, the educational component of the center’s mission had languished — classes were thought to be a money-losing enterprise. “For me,” says Mitiguy, “that’s where the life comes from, and getting our classes back in line is going to be our next focus.” To her mind, three other components are crucial to the center’s success: mounting exhibits, showing member artwork and ensuring that the arts are a vital part of the community.
If the events on the 2009 calendar are any indication, the Chaffee has been hitting all its points of emphasis. In August, for example, the center had its second annual Rutland Area Amateur Photo Exhibit and Contest. Beginning on September 11, it is hosting an exhibit of artwork by Henry Gorski, courtesy of his biggest collector, Manchester psychiatrist Albert Levis.
Mark Puryear, a Chaffee trustee who happened on the art while attending a conference at the Wilburton Inn, a bed-and-breakfast owned by Levis, expects that opening to be one of Rutland’s biggest happenings of the year. He says people will be coming from outside Vermont to experience the unique pairing of art and psychology — specifically, a fine-art interpretation of Levis’ theories about conflict resolution. “Rutland’s a tough town,” acknowledges Puryear, “and it needs something like this to change its reputation.”
The middle of October brings the Vermont Arts Council and philanthropist Lyman Orton’s “Art of Action” series to the Chaffee. And at the end of the month, the center will help celebrate the 50th anniversary of the city’s Halloween parade. “We’re going back to what started it,” says Mitiguy, “which was Marvel comic book characters parading down the street.” Since then, Rutland has been the backdrop for numerous Marvel and DC comics, thanks to Tom Fagan, one of the original organizers of the parade, who was friends with many comic book authors and artists. The Chaffee will trace the parade’s origins and highlight Rutland’s role in comics such as Batman, Avengers and Freedom Fighters. “We’re pulling something together that’s never really been captured before,” Mitiguy says.
It’s a busy fall season for the Chaffee, but Mitiguy pines for a better space in which to showcase it. The old Victorian house has no wheelchair access on the second floor, and though the property occupies a highly visible parcel on South Main Street, it has no room for outdoor events. Mitiguy also hopes to convert some of the gallery rooms to studios. “I want this to be a space for people making art, not just hanging it,” she says.