Gallery Profile: Soapbox Arts in Burlington | Gallery Profile | Seven Days | Vermont's Independent Voice
Owner Patricia Trafton with her dog, Potato - LUKE AWTRY
  • Luke Awtry
  • Owner Patricia Trafton with her dog, Potato

Patricia Trafton graduated from Burlington High School in 2010 and headed to New York University, intending to study journalism or English. A first-semester art history course upended her plan. The class combined all her interests, Trafton said, and she realized that art was what she wanted to pursue.

What she didn't know was that one day she would open a gallery in her hometown. The future owner of Soapbox Arts took some time getting there.

While studying, Trafton worked part time at Art in General, a Brooklyn nonprofit "that assists artists with the production and presentation of new work," she said. The job confirmed her choice. She left NYU in December 2013 with a bachelor's degree in art history and a load of student debt.

Though she hadn't planned to return to Vermont, Trafton headed home "temporarily" to figure out what was next. She'd been told repeatedly that New York was probably the only place she'd find a job in her field, and she resented it. "I felt I grew up in an art town where there was deep and sophisticated appreciation for the arts," Trafton said.

She worked for about a year at women's clothing retailer Sweet Lady Jane (now closed) on Church Street. Finally, the art world beckoned. Nathan Suter, former director of Stowe's Helen Day Art Center — where Trafton had interned one summer — recommended her for a manager job at West Branch Gallery & Sculpture Park in the same town. Trafton applied and got it.

She took over two positions, working both front and back of house with her hands in every aspect of the business. After three years at West Branch, she struck out on her own as a consultant for high-end residential design projects.

One day in 2018, Trafton accompanied her partner, Homer Horowitz, to Burlington's Soda Plant to look at a potential studio space for his commercial photography business. During the visit, Trafton got to chatting with Soda Plant owner Steve Conant. Within two weeks, she'd signed a lease on a gallery. (Horowitz ended up on nearby Battery Street.)

"This was not a planned next step but the perfect opportunity where everything just lined up," Trafton said. In March 2019, she established Soapbox Arts in an 800-square-foot space in the newly renovated northern end of the Soda Plant.

Her gallery is bright, clean and minimalist. Leaving the steel beams dark gray, Trafton painted the walls white and hung tracks of 3,500-Kelvin lights, which she said provide the best color rendering for art. The top of her desk is a concrete slab, matching the floor.

Why choose the name "Soapbox"?

"Playing off of the traditional definition of someone getting up on their soapbox, I want Soapbox Arts to be a collaborative platform for artists — emerging artists in particular — to share their work and, by proxy, their own stories, experiences and opinions," Trafton explained. "It's also incredibly important to me to bring the local arts community into conversation with exciting things happening elsewhere in contemporary art."

For her purposes, Trafton defines contemporary art as encompassing artwork in all mediums being created right now. "I don't have any pieces in my inventory that were created more than two to three years ago at most," she said. She promotes a maxim she read somewhere: "Buy work from living artists. They need the money more than the dead ones."

Trafton learned about the realities of being a working artist early on. Though her own family didn't frequent galleries or buy art, she said, many of her friends had artist parents — including performance, video and installation artist Kate Donnelly, painter Katharine Montstream and painter/printmaker Elise Whittemore.

Trafton isn't interested in selling work to resellers, but to individual art lovers for a lifetime of enjoyment. "I think it enriches everyone's life to be around original art," she said, "and I want to let people know it's easy to get started." To that end, Soapbox Arts' online sales include original works starting at $200.

Through the end of January, Soapbox features Burlington artist-designer Scott André Campbell, Boston-based artist Katrine Hildebrandt-Hussey and central Vermont mixed-media collage artist Athena Petra Tasiopoulos.

In planning exhibitions, Trafton sometimes envisions ways to put pieces she's seen together, she said, and sometimes decides that an artist's work warrants a solo show. Either way, it takes months of ongoing conversations to assemble a show that reflects intentional curation and not a display of random pieces.

Representing artists and curating shows are only part of Trafton's business. She also works with established collectors, first-time art buyers, architects, designers, developers and outside art-advisory firms on consultations, virtual artwork placements, on-site home trials and private installations.

"It's best to bring a piece to someone's home or office, and I'll do that for those who live within driving distance," she said. When she can't get there, she provides virtual placements.

Trafton uses Adobe Creative Suite to re-create the spaces in a client's home or office, using cellphone photos and provided measurements of the walls and furniture. She places photos of the potential art on the virtual walls and sends the virtual placement to the client.

She also works with clients to inventory their existing art, perhaps rearranging where or how it's displayed, and then makes recommendations for filling gaps in their collection.

First and foremost, Trafton said, she promotes the artists she represents, with whom she has nonexclusive consignment contracts. She currently has 10, with several more set to come on board this year. She will, though, consider work by other artists to meet the needs of her clients and exhibitions.

She believes gallerists have a responsibility to educate the public, and that involves making people feel comfortable checking out the art.

"I know it's really easy to be intimidated by a space with big white walls and expensive price tags, to feel like if you don't know exactly what you're looking at or you don't know how to talk about it, maybe you're not entitled to be there or to have an opinion about it," she said. "I totally reject all of that.

"Anyone can and should feel comfortable coming in to look at things," Trafton continued. "It's about shifting the perspective."

She also encourages young people to shift their perspective on living and working in Vermont.

"Don't listen to those who say you can't, your industry isn't here or there aren't job opportunities. Just make them yourself," Trafton advised. "Vermont is a very serious community of hustlers, and I think you reach a point in your life where you decide this is the lifestyle you want to live, and this is where you want to do it."

The original print version of this article was headlined "Living Art | Soapbox Arts offers a collaborative platform for artists and collectors alike"