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Space Race

State of the Arts


Published March 30, 2005 at 5:00 p.m.

Location, location, location ... isn't just about real estate. "Place" is also important to arts organizations, and finding a home, or keeping the one they've got, is a constant worry for many. Yet one of the other constants in this world is change, so it's not uncommon to hear of a venue closing its doors -- and another one opening.

What surprised us this week, though, was the abruptness with which a beautiful downtown Burlington artspace, the Phoenix Gallery, said goodbye. Passersby have surely noticed the sign on the door that begins ominously, "Dear valued patrons, artists, and members of the Burlington Community, we sadly inform you ..." The letter goes on to extol the gallery's proud achievements over the past three years, including the exhibit of contemporary Chinese masterworks still hanging in the darkened room, and a recently created monthly "literary salon."

What the letter does not spell out -- the "events beyond our control" -- is a basement full of water. "We have about $100,000 worth of art to replace," laments Gallery Director Manon Eiker. "I tried to hold it together, but when you have several artists totally distraught..."

It was bad enough the gallery wasn't making any money, suggests Eiker, revealing that the Phoenix likely would have closed at the end of summer anyway, after some scheduled shows were finished. But this huge, unexpected expense was the last straw. The gallery's insurance, apparently, will not fully cover the loss because the source of the flood -- a burst pipe under the street -- was outside the building. Other tenants, including owner Redstone, sustained losses as well, according to Eiker.

Eiker says Williston-based gallery owner John Byors is negotiating with Redstone to be able to use the street-level space a little longer, essentially to honor a touring Vermont Arts Council exhibit, entitled "Art of Achievement," that was scheduled to open April 20. Just in case that doesn't work out: The exhibit, featuring 27 of the state's finest artists, is on view at Montpelier's T.W. Wood Gallery through April 17. But we'll keep you posted. Best of luck to the Phoenix, and may you rise from the ashes once again -- somewhere else?

Meanwhile, a new performancespace is taking shape at Lake & College. That's the name, and the location, of the ambitious, still-under-construction project owned by "redevelopers" Melinda Moulton and Lisa Steele of Main Street Landing. The vast building includes a 2400-square-foot black-box theater and a two-section cinema with 240 seats, as well as some 30,000 square feet allocated to public space.

Though the cinema may not open for another year, the theater lights are scheduled to come up on July 3. The leading man is Matt Wohl; his organization is the brand-new Waterfront Theatre. Actually, the 34-year-old Vermont native is a behind-the-scenes guy; he was introduced to theater at age 10, working summers at the now-defunct Champlain Shakespeare Festival. "That's how my mom kept me off the streets," he jokes. Wohl grew up to direct the Orlando Fringe Festival for four years, followed by more theater work in Los Angeles. But becoming a father prompted him to move back home. "With my partner Angela and son Jacob, we felt really far from family," he says.

When he returned to Vermont, Wohl found a job for two years heading up Art's Alive, which happens to rent space at Union Station -- also owned by Main Street Landing. One day, Moulton recalls, she was sitting in her office telling Wohl about her vision for the new project, and learned about his theater background. "His vision was the same as mine," Moulton exclaims. "He was 'the man.'"

One thing led to another and ... this Friday, April 1, from 5 to 8 p.m., Wohl is hosting a free informal event at Union Station to talk about the new performance space. Operated by Waterfront Theatre, the nonprofit enterprise will "exist primarily for local companies, providing a home for the many groups in the area that don't have their own space," he says. Education will also be an important component, Wohl explains; classes are in the plans, and not just for thespians but for aspiring techies as well.

Speaking of technology, Waterfront Theatre is no bare-bones black box: Expect state-of-the-art lighting and sound, as well as fold-up stadium seating. Wohl emphasizes the versatility of the space, which he says can be used for everything from plays to stand-up comedy to dance -- yes, there's even a sprung hardwood floor. And it's all environmentally correct. "Down the road I'd like to set up an endowment to defray the cost of renting the space," Wohl says. "I don't want to give it away, but get to a place where it's nominal."

One final note: When The Waiting Room folded last month, the Burlington Slam Poets lost their stage. But the wait for a new one is over. The flows resume at 135 Pearl, every second Sunday of the month, beginning April 10. For more info, see And kudos to this venue for its own expanded vision, embracing diversity not just in "orientation" but in performance -- drag queens and folksingers, poets and punk bands, all are welcomed "home" at 135 Pearl.