Well Crafted | Gallery Profile | Seven Days | Vermont's Independent Voice

Published September 22, 2010 at 4:27 a.m.


It’s been an especially crafty summer. Never mind the usual burst of craft shows that dot the warm-season calendar. The Vermont Craft Council, celebrating 20 years of its own, has honored Vermont’s half-century-old craft movement in an aptly named “State of Craft” exhibit, through October 31 at the Bennington Museum, as well as in other showcase events throughout Vermont. Meanwhile, the first state-sanctioned craft center in the U.S. is celebrating its 40th birthday. And (pop-quiz alert) what might that be?

Vermont’s Frog Hollow, of course, so named for the lane next to the roaring Otter Creek Falls in Middlebury where the seminal gallery began in 1971.

OK, math-y types may quibble that it’s not quite 40 years yet, but it’s close. So close, in fact, that Kasini House Books has issued Frog Hollow: The First 40 Years of the Nation’s First State Craft Center, edited by Frog Hollow’s current executive director, Rob Hunter, and with a foreword by Sen. Patrick Leahy.

In an introduction, Hunter suggests that the book, initially intended to be a catalogue for a 40th-anniversary exhibit, came together in a hurry. But the book’s genesis actually dates back to 1996 with a research project on the craft center by Rachel Esch. Then a student at Middlebury College, Esch wrote a history of the craft center that now appears as chapters in Frog Hollow, covering the years in chunks. In the beginning, there was “a little country town” — Middlebury — whose community leaders were beginning to envision its future. Coca-Cola heir Allen Johnson Jr. and his wife, Linda, wanted to help shape and fund the craft center, and a group of artistic individuals — many of them recent transplants to Vermont — would populate the nascent establishment and teach its classes.

The book is augmented by memories of Frog Hollow’s past directors, artists-in-residence, member-crafters and instructors over the years. One of the last group, Carolyn Long, provides a link from the ’70s, when she taught and administered a children’s ceramics program, to the present exhibit at Frog Hollow on the Church Street Marketplace: Her nearly 3-foot-tall “Clay Angel,” created in 1976, is on view amid the historical photos, posters and other artifacts.

The book, while extolling the vision that identified Vermont with high-quality handmade items, does not overlook the fact that official funding remained scarce. “While creating the state craft center concept was easy,” writes Esch, “convincing the state government to support and advocate the title was not.” In fact, while the designation gave legitimacy to the craft center, “the title led many tourists and craftspeople alike to believe that the craft center was also financed by the state,” she notes. In fact, remembers 1977-79 director Tricia Hayes, “There was no money attached to the title at all.”

And that, crafters and administrators may grouse, remains the same today. Indeed, Frog Hollow’s story is one of exhilarating creativity and financial challenges. In the early 1990s, though, new branches opened in Burlington (1991) and Manchester Village (1992), suggesting flush times. “Clearly, ‘the Frog Hollow concept’ was a winner,” writes Esch. “By its 25th anniversary, Frog Hollow had annual gross revenues of over $1.7 million and was visited by over 500,000 people a year. Over 1000 students of all ages and abilities were enrolled in craft classes, and even more were involved with demonstrations and lectures.”

Times changed. While Frog Hollow revels in the craft center’s colorful personalities, über-talented crafters, exhibits, educational programs and famous customers (President Clinton!) over the years, it speaks plainly to the problems, as well. During Barbara Lalancette’s brief tenure at the helm in 2002-03, she says, “a contraction began.” The expansion of Frog Hollow — now supporting administrative offices outside Middlebury — and the grant-funded craft school in Burlington could not be sustained. Especially in the shifting global economy: The years following 9/11 saw declining sales and the rise of new, less expensive competitors. And, Lalancette says, little progress was made during this time to keep the craft center competitive in the increasingly important marketplace of the web.

As often happens when organizations are stretched too thin, “people were looked upon as the problem rather than the circumstances,” Lalancette charges — a loaded remark that no doubt has many unhappy stories behind it.

The next few years saw a period of holding on, turning around, making tough decisions and repositioning the craft center. Says 2003-07 director David Furney, “Thanks to the artists, the board, the very supportive Chittenden Bank and an incredibly dedicated staff, all of this was done on less than a shoestring.”

One of those dedicated employees was Rob Hunter, then gallery manager in Middlebury. But as the Manchester location foundered and ultimately failed, the original Frog Hollow struggled. Staffing shortages required Hunter to take on management of the Burlington gallery, as well. Not surprisingly, he burned out. Hunter describes taking a job in California to “recharge and expand my experiences.” In the two years he was gone, the Middlebury gallery closed its doors.

Hunter writes, “It is sometimes the absence of something that makes us realize the value of it.” For him, that was not just the craft center but Vermont itself. He ended up moving back, without a job or a plan.

But both found him. Asked if he might be interested in returning to the organization, Hunter accepted the directorship of a leaner, more focused Frog Hollow with a single gallery. In his short time there so far, Hunter says, the jurying system has been revamped, and Frog Hollow is exploring “new outlets of craft education” with a variety of other institutions. Significantly, “for the first time in over a decade we are not dependent on a line of credit and have, in fact, shown a notable increase in sales despite economic trends and forecasts.”

Hunter’s pride in his “remarkably resilient” organization is justified by the contents of the gallery itself. One constant: Vermont artisans keep on making beautiful things, and Frog Hollow aims to continue selling them. “Call me an optimist, but I have every confidence that it will easily endure for another forty years,” declares Hunter, “and another forty again.”