The former Grange meeting hall in Morrisville is teeming with activity after decades of disuse. Beneath the grand pediment that graces the façade of the Greek Revival building, the front door opens and slams shut almost continuously. Pilates enthusiasts, day-care kids, actors, singer-songwriters, visual artists and dancers stream in and out of the building day and night.
The draw? An unusual community arts center — and nonprofit organization — known as River Arts, which has made a point of welcoming anyone in town who wants to offer a class, perform a play or hold a meeting.
River Arts takes its “arts for everyone” motto seriously, and a cross-section of Vermont natives and flatlanders comes to the center to participate. At any given time, the place is occupied by students, elderly groups and parents with babies, as well as professional artists and performers.
The first- and second-floor common areas are used as exhibition spaces. Currently, works from the Jacob Walker Gallery are on view on the first floor; the expansive second-floor meeting room hosts the touring “Art of Vermont” show, featuring state-owned works by the likes of Lois Eby, Kathy Stark and Eugene Fern.
On weekends, the first floor also houses an indoor extension of the Morrisville Farmers Market.
River Arts is quite simply the liveliest spot in town. And that’s the way Executive Director Steve Ames likes it. “We want the building to be as open as possible and as busy as possible,” he says. “It’s been very, very busy, and I can only imagine it getting busier.”
The building’s renovation, completed a year ago, cost $988,000. River Arts raised two-thirds of that amount from individual donors — a testament to the community’s desire for such a facility. Originally constructed in 1847 for $750, the old Grange needed an addition, a new roof, sill work, a paint job and an elevator to meet ADA requirements. It now houses a full kitchen, four classrooms, a ballroom space, a computer lab and offices.
The board’s effort is already paying off. Last year alone, River Arts programs got 309 artists and 9480 other participants involved.
Ames, a Williams College grad and former ski instructor, attributes the success of River Arts to its collaborations with other groups and its willingness to leverage its assets — namely, the building and the organization’s administrative capacity. Though River Arts sponsors many of its own activities, it also rents space for classes and meetings, charging nominal fees on a sliding scale. Recently, the nonprofit helped a local theater group by providing workman’s compensation insurance and payroll services.
“From the beginning, we collaborated with other groups and made links to other audiences,” board member Dawn Andrews explains. “We also decided we didn’t want money to prevent people from participating. Being affordable is a strength.”
That cooperative and egalitarian attitude has helped give Morrisville a morale boost, according to Andrews, who says townspeople were “depressed and hopeless” in the early 1980s.
Andrews became one of the founding members of River Arts after the Orton Family Foundation held planning forums in Morrisville in 1999. At those meetings, townspeople identified an arts center as a missing key cultural and community element.
At first, River Arts operated out of donated office space and offered arts programs in churches and schools. By 2005, the nonprofit had enough support to purchase the Grange building, giving its community arts programs a central location and role in town.
“Morrisville is a happening place now,” Andrews declares. “There’s a new energy, even in this down economy.”