After apologizing for the cliché she’s about to utter, BigTown Gallery owner Anni Mackay says her funky building and business on Main Street in Rochester is “really all about the celebration of the arts.” You begin to understand what she means when you learn that this place is much more than an art gallery with paintings on the walls; it’s a habitat for creative expressions that range from poetry and music to knitting, sculptures and furniture. Even the physical space — an old house reworked into a gallery and residence, with a giant circular entrance and a lighthouse-like tower hitched to the back — fits the artistic ethos.
Mackay moved to the United States from England 23 years ago and earned her bachelor’s degree in fine arts from SUNY Purchase. She bounced around the country after that, doing set design in South Carolina and archival work for printmaker Kenneth Tyler before moving to Rochester in 1996. When she got there, she wanted to make a unique contribution to the community and realized that the town needed an outlet for the visual arts, she says. Mackay began a knitting business. When she needed more room, she and her husband, Doon Hinderyckx, who owns Green Mountain Bikes, bought the building next to the bike shop. They worked with a local architect to transform it into an art gallery.
“I knew that the standard I would set would be challenging,” Mackay says. She started by making a statement with the building itself.
She also became friends with Bethel sculptor Hugh Townley, who helped her fledgling gallery “just by being interested,” she notes, then adds that she met a lot of other artists at his dinner table. Townley died in February 2008, and now some of his wooden reliefs and sculptures are on display at BigTown. Hanging from the ceiling of the front porch, overlooking Route 100, is a sculpture composed of abstract wooden hearts and human-like figures connected to a chain.
Inside, the gallery is austere — blond hardwood floors and white walls — but the light-filled negative space draws your attention where it should go: to the art. Mackay is particularly fond of contemporary art and its intersection with traditional forms, such as landscapes and still-lifes. “People really connect to it, and it speaks to them,” she says.
A perfect example of Mackay’s taste is the current exhibition, “Masterworks,” which features paintings by well-known regional artists in their seventies and eighties — men and women who served in World War II, for instance, and went to Ivy League schools courtesy of the G.I. Bill. “They all had certain kinds of opportunities that were rare and unusual,” Mackay says. Some paintings are uplifting, such as Paul Resika’s puffy pink, green and blue abstract landscapes. Others — Lois Dodd’s work, for instance — are hard-edged and realistic nature scenes. “I love those older painters,” Mackay says, “they really inspire me.”
The venue’s next exhibition will feature landscape works by artists a generation younger — women in their forties and fifties.
Behind the main gallery room is the BigTown Gallery Studio, a vestige of Mackay’s original knitting business. She still knits 50 to 60 hats and scarves per year as a way to channel her creativity, selling them at the gallery and numerous trunk shows. One wall of the studio stocks a couple dozen cubbies of yarn.
The back of the building houses the BigTown Gallery West Wing Shop, offering glassware, pottery, quilts — the “applied arts,” as Mackay describes them. These, along with the knitwear, form the bulk of an annual holiday show at the gallery.
Beginning this Friday, the gallery will host BigTown BigTent, a 10-day festival of poetry, theater and music, in the cozy grass-floored, rock-walled amphitheater in the backyard. The festival used to be just poetry, but Mackay decided that the arts community needed a special boost this year, so she brought in musical acts. Former U.S. Poet Laureate Mark Strand will read, as will Paul Muldoon, poetry editor of The New Yorker. Music will range from classic-rock covers to a survey of Negro spirituals. Roofed by a tent 46 feet in diameter, this festival is bigger than previous ones, but still intimate.
The question is, will the event outgrow its host community? Mackay thinks she knows the answer: “If you can support the artists and make some sales from time to time, there’s something to be said for a small scale with a really good menu.”