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Helen Day Art Center to Rebrand in 2021

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Rachel Moore - FILE: JEB WALLACE-BRODEUR
  • File: Jeb Wallace-brodeur
  • Rachel Moore

The Helen Day Art Center in Stowe will turn 40 next year. Just in time for middle age, the center will acquire a new name and a new identity. Or at least a "rebrand."

The new name and accompanying rebrand are intended to better convey the work and mission of the center, said Rachel Moore, executive director and director of exhibitions. These include the center's focus as a presenter of contemporary art, a gallery that's working with international artists, and a community organization that's welcoming and inclusive, she said. Changing the name of the center is also a reckoning with its past: Helen Day, for whom the center is named, engaged in anti-Semitic business practices.

"We really do want to complete a name change to reflect the values of our organization," Moore said. "We have thought about this for a long time. We really want people to be able to see what we are in our name."

Founded in 1981, the nonprofit art center shares a building with the library on Pond Street in the middle of town. Helen Day houses a gallery, classrooms and an "art lounge" equipped with coffee, Wi-Fi, materials related to the exhibits, and space to hang out and think about art (or something else, or nothing at all).

The center is named for Helen Day, also known as Helen Day Montanari, a onetime Stowe resident. She left a bequest to the Town of Stowe for the establishment of a library and art center, according to Town Manager Charles Safford. The $200,000 was used to help cover the cost of renovating the former Stowe High School to house both institutions, he said.

In recent years, center officials determined that its name doesn't fully reflect the organization, Moore said. In 2012, the art center undertook a "rebranding and renaming exercise," she said. "It didn't amount to anything at the time. We didn't proceed with it."

This time, the name change and rebrand are part of a broader strategic plan the center is calling "Seizing the Future." The initiative includes expanding the educational component of the center, building a ceramics studio with two kilns and 10 wheels, and creating spaces for making glass art and printmaking.

"I'd love to see this building filled with people," Moore said.

She became executive director of the center in 2016. The Stowe resident is an artist herself who works in several mediums, including installation, drawing and sculpture.

"I really feel strongly that art can be a catalyst for change," Moore said, adding that art can be used as a tool to examine topics such as equity and inclusivity.

"I want to be sure that art is presented in a safe place, where everyone feels welcome, where there's humanity and understanding," Moore said.

The discussion of inclusivity and equity is relevant to the rebrand because a factor in changing the name concerns a business practice of Helen Day and her partner, Marguerite Lichtenthaeler. The latter was a physician in Stowe.

The women owned a lodging facility called Attic & Barn. As was the practice of the time — the late 1930s and '40s — they advertised that their inn, which accommodated 50 guests, served a "restricted" clientele.

The words were "code for Jews not allowed," said David Fainsilber, rabbi of the Jewish Community of Greater Stowe. "It was a prolific practice. The supermajority of lodging places in Stowe had this practice. Jews weren't welcome in the area."

In a brochure from the late 1930s that lists Stowe inns and lodges, nine of 11 businesses advertise as "restricted," including Attic & Barn.

Lyndall Heyer of Stowe, whose father, Larry Heyer, built a lodge on the Mountain Road in 1941, said the town fathers "seriously encouraged" him to run a gentiles-only business. (The inn was originally called the Larry Heyer's, and later Ski Inn.)

"He really didn't have a choice," Heyer said. "He used every cent he had to build the inn. He needed the business."

According to Heyer, her father was told: "'If you want to be part of this town, don't rock the boat. Say 'gentiles only' on your listing.' He wasn't anti-Jewish. He wanted to get business."

Given the historical context, the art center is "standing up to a bigoted history and turning a new chapter for Stowe and Vermont," Fainsilber said. "This is a moment of remembering and education, a moment of reflection, hopefully on the ways in which Stowe has not always been a welcoming place, and how we all can do better and continue to grow."

Moore concurred that changing the name of Helen Day Art Center presents a time for reflection. She emphasized that the full story of the center, including its founding, will continue to be told. "I think that it's important to be as knowledgeable as you can about history," Moore said.

"This isn't a political move," she went on. "We're not trying to smear anyone's reputation or cancel history. It's acknowledging it and moving forward and reflecting on who we are."

Lance Violette, a former board member, runs a brand strategy/design/marketing agency in Stowe, the Violette Studio, with his wife, Vanessa Violette.

The studio will work on the rebrand with the art center. The process involves identifying the center's core, its "north star," Lance Violette said, and building from that.

The rebrand needs to reflect how the center has evolved, especially in recent years, he said, and it should convey its role in the region: a presenter of contemporary art, an education center, a place that supports the community, a space that challenges people.

He lived in Stowe for seven or eight years before visiting Helen Day Art Center, Violette said, noting that he had no idea the gallery exhibited contemporary art. Rather, he thought it displayed paintings that would perhaps cater to tourists.

"I remember distinctly setting foot in there, seeing the [art] and thinking, This is the reason that we take our kids to the city," Violette said. "And here it is, right in our town."

The original print version of this article was headlined "New Day Coming"