The picturesque town of Bristol once made its name in wood products: Bristol Manufacturing Company was for a time the nation’s largest producer of caskets. So it’s no surprise that Art on Main, a gallery anchoring the eastern end of Bristol’s main drag, favors a craftsmanship aesthetic. Under the embossed-tin ceiling of its single but sizeable rectangular room, the gallery displays the work of 100 area artists and artisans.
It’s a feast of wares, each allotted roughly equal display space. A roving eye might pick out elegantly shaped wood coffee tables by Bristol’s own Dale Helms, iris-colored Lincoln Pottery stoneware by Judith Bryant and Isis Wear hats by Bristol knitter Kathleen O’Neil. Framed photography and colorful drawings of animals for children cover the walls, and the corners are stacked with soaps, baskets and CDs of local music.
One could, in fact, easily mistake Art on Main for another arm of Frog Hollow Vermont State Craft Center. But while both are nonprofits, the Bristol gallery is a partial cooperative with a community-building mission. Member artists can staff the sales desk one half-day per month in return for earning 70 percent on sales of their work. (Most galleries take 40 to 50 percent in commission.) A community membership program encourages local individuals and businesses to support the enterprise. And 20 volunteers help run the gallery. Only two part-time staff members are paid, in part through an annual contribution from Art on Main’s parent nonprofit, Bristol Friends of the Arts (BFA).
Art on Main’s exhibitions aim to foster community togetherness, too. The gallery hosts an annual Community Art Show, open to anyone who applies, and an Emerging Artists Exhibit for promising art students chosen by teachers at Mount Abraham High and other area schools. One length of wall is reserved for a spotlight exhibit of paired featured artists — currently jeweler Lynn Adams and photographer Cal Williams — which changes every six weeks between May and December.
Even Art on Main’s origins are collective. Less than a decade ago, a group looking to establish a community arts gallery in town found a sympathetic mind in Carol Wells, a BFA member who ran Deer Leap Books in the gallery’s current space. Wells offered them her back room, and Art on Main opened there in 2001 — evidently, given its name, with an eye to a potential future on Main Street. In 2007 it moved forward to its current space, fulfilling its destiny and gaining 300 more square feet.
“There was and still is no one person [responsible],” declares gallery manager Carolyn Ashby, a former bookbinder and a ’94 Middlebury College grad. She points out landscape paintings by Cynthia Kling and wooden pens made by Jim Cunningham, two artists who were members of the founding group.
In place of a curator, Ashby and three to six other people of various backgrounds, including some artists, meet four times a year to jury new artists, and they reevaluate current members once a year. Ashby says the gallery makes an effort to support nonprofessional artists, some of whom work full-time jobs and have never shown their work in a gallery.
Occasionally, an artist’s work is “too abstract or urban or place-specific” for a good fit. And then there’s the issue of room. “Right now, we don’t have space for any new 2-D art or new pottery,” Ashby comments, scanning the packed room.
This year, the gallery began offering artists professional development workshops to help them market their creations, and Ashby hopes to partner with the Bristol Recreation Department to hold art classes in the gallery. “It’s part of our mission to be community-oriented,” she explains.
Visitors to Art on Main can’t miss the homey feeling, whether they’re local day trippers or Swedes in town to study at the world headquarters of Phoenix Rising Yoga Therapy, right across the street. Ashby’s 14-year-old dog, Kayli, greets visitors, who can pick up a copy of the gallery’s Bristol architecture coloring book — a project of the rec department — and see line drawings of all the distinctive buildings they pass on their stroll through the historic town. Who did those drawings? Kids, artists and local folks from all walks of life, of course.