"Good news, bad news," says Joyce Mandeville. "It was a print, not something from the permanent collection." The executive director of the T.W. Wood Gallery doesn't take lightly the water damage discovered this past week on one of the large-scale prints by current exhibitor Sabra Field - especially because she thinks it was vandalism. But these days, Mandeville has a worry that overshadows everything else: the survival of the gallery itself.
The primary cause for alarm, she explains, is that Vermont College is for sale by its owner, The Union Institute (TUI). That Cincinnati-based university bought the Montpelier campus from Norwich University in 2001. Dedicated to low-residency undergrad and graduate programs, Vermont College comprises 11 hilltop buildings; one of them houses the Wood. But while the college's future ownership is the biggest unknown now, Mandeville says the gallery's already-meager financial support has been eroding for some time.
After Norwich took over the school, in 1972, the Wood was given a stipend, which enabled the gallery to hire its first paid director. "Through the years that support was cut back and cut back," Mandeville says. "When I came on six years ago, we had the space for free and that's it."
This arrangement continued for about three years after the Union Institute purchase. Then, "two years ago we were charged rent, and it goes up every year," Mandeville laments. "We're just bleeding red ink. I don't want to get into a dogfight with TUI," she adds, "but when they came in, they did tell the city they'd take care of the gallery."
On November 16, Mandeville and assistant Melissa Storrow held a public forum about "the future of the Wood Gallery." About two-dozen people showed up to hear why the place is endangered, and to discuss how it might be saved. "That was gratifying, that so many people were concerned," says Mandeville. To continue the dialogue, a second forum is taking place on December 19.
The options on the table include: a strength-in-numbers consortium with other beleaguered arts organizations, such as Lost Nation Theater and Monteverdi Music School; finding a new home, perhaps in a state-owned building; or closing up shop.
It's not exactly earth-shattering news to hear of an arts institution teetering on the edge of insolvency. And, Mandeville says, faux sarcastically, "Some of your readers will think, 'Poor them, they have to pay rent - who doesn't?'" But in addition to exhibiting numerous contemporary Vermont artists each year, the nonprofit T.W. Wood Gallery does have a unique history, and raison d'être, in the state of Vermont.
In 1896, Thomas Waterman Wood (1823-1903) endowed his hometown of Montpelier with a large number of paintings - his own genre portraits and scenes, and other works he'd collected from his contemporaries. Decades later, the gallery also became the repository for Vermont's WPA artworks - that is, pieces created in the state during the federal Works Progress Administration of the 1930s. Every state has its own collection, but receives no federal funding for housing, restoring or insuring. "There are now roughly 800 pieces," Mandeville says. "In the time I've been here the insurance has doubled."
The Wood's permanent collection actually belongs to the City of Montpelier, which gives the gallery $7500 a year; that amount pales in comparison to the annual rent expense of $15,000. The gallery has a small endowment "which we've had to dip into pretty heavily," the director reveals. The largest corporate donation, a one-time gift, was $5000. And Mandeville says she noticed "a big sea change" in donations after 9/11. "We've had multiple disasters - my family's giving to Darfur. The only arts organization we're able to give to is the Wood."
Bottom line: The gallery's modest income "has left us in this kind of marginal size," Mandeville says. "We've never grown to the size that we attracted the big bucks."
She and Storrow are the gallery's only paid employees - part-time, with no benefits - yet they manage to keep up "a very ambitious exhibition schedule," says Mandeville, with 12 to 14 shows per year. That does not include rotating selections of Wood paintings from the permanent collection. The capacious, high-ceilinged gallery also serves as a function room for the college.
One small source of revenue for the gallery is renting out some of the Wood paintings to corporations - Vermont Mutual has an ongoing display at its Montpelier headquarters. "It would be interesting to do more with corporate renters or buyers," says Mandeville. She also acknowledges talking to Christie's, the New York art auction house. "I'm hoping to interest them in looking at the vault. We might be able to de-accession without damaging the collection. Should we divest part of our collection and invest, or buy a building?" she muses. "I'd like us to stop being the Blanche DuBois of the art world."
Is there a market out there for a talented but less-than-famous American painter of the Civil War era? Mandeville doesn't know yet. "I'm the first to admit that what I know about art begins and ends with this place," she says. What she's not willing to concede is a final show at the T.W. Wood Gallery.