CREATING COMMUNITY: THE ARTISTIC LEGACY, AND FUTURE, OF THE SHIRES OF VERMONT
By Cherise Madigan in Partnership with the Bennington Area Chamber of Commerce
Acclaimed artists have long sought inspiration in the natural beauty and bucolic communities of Bennington county, and the region’s growing creative landscape is poised to play a pronounced role in shaping the economy, identity, and community of the Shires.
“We’re really in a hub of creative activity,” observed Bennington College President Dr. Mariko Silver, an accomplished academic who has worked to continue the College’s legacy as a leader in the arts. “You can’t underestimate the extraordinary natural beauty found here, and the opportunity to engage with multifaceted creative communities.”
“The arts are vital to a thriving community,” added Bennington Area Arts Council President Michelle Marrocco. “Arts and culture form our identities as individuals, and as communities, in so many ways.”
Various virtuosos have found a home in the Shires of Vermont over the years including poet Robert Frost, artist Norman Rockwell, and author Shirley Jackson, to name a few. While that history continues to draw visitors and enthusiasts to the place where such artists created their respective masterpieces, it has also played a role in shaping Bennington’s identity as a thriving epicenter for the arts. In 2017, the county was even ranked third by the National Center for Arts Research in their listing of the top arts-vibrant small communities.
“I grew up in Bennington, and was influenced by a community that included Robert Frost, Shirley Jackson, John Gardner, Bernard Malamud, Kenneth Noland, Nicholas Delbanco, Jules Olitski, and more,” said Eric Peterson, now the Producing Artistic Director of the Oldcastle Theatre Company. “The arts were important here, revered here, and one could run into important writers and painters in the grocery store. As a kid, I realized that having a career in the arts wasn’t a pipe dream — it was truly possible.”
The accolades seem endless. Beyond figures like Frost and Rockwell, the region also houses influential institutions like Bennington College (a longtime leader in modern art of all varieties, boasting alumni like painter Helen Frankenthaler and photographer Sally Mann with exhibits by the likes of Jackson Pollock); bustling museums, galleries, and collaboratives like the venerable Bennington Potters; and innumerable individual creators to boot.
And as that landscape continues to expand — evidenced by evolving institutions like Southern Vermont College’s Laumeister Art Center —the potential for growth seems exponential.
“So many artists, historically, have been spirited to our community by fellow artists,” mused Judi McCormick, an artist in her own right and President of the Board at Manchester’s Southern Vermont Arts Center. “Our area is a hotbed of artists, and that has been a major draw for people to move to Southern Vermont. The quality of life here is so rich in the arts.”
Though those resources lend themselves to a high-caliber creative industry, it’s not just the pro’s that find inspiration and opportunity in the Shires — students, amateurs, and aspiring artists also benefit from the region’s arts-rich schools and institutions, like Bennington’s Summer Sonatina Piano Camp.
“Arts and culture are accessible here in a way that they aren’t elsewhere,” explained Marrocco. “Almost everyone I meet here is an artist in their own right. Dabbling in painting, or guitar, or dance as a hobby isn’t unusual, but here folks can share it; there are opportunities to exhibit and perform.”
“The arts are one of the most compelling reasons to love Bennington,” added David R. Evans, President of Southern Vermont College. “We are surrounded by visual artists ceramicists, and musicians, as well as the incredible natural beauty that inspires many of them.”
That raw and resplendent natural beauty found in the Shires has attracted many, including author Megan Mayhew Bergman — a faculty member at Bennington College and Director of the Robert Frost Stone House Museum.
“There’s a beautiful tradition to belong to here, but there’s also a sense of freedom; a come-as-you-are mentality in Vermont that is very healthy for artists,” explained Mayhew Bergman. “For me, having a healthy connection to the natural world has been central to my work. At the same time, I can live in this very remote place but drive a few hours and be in New York City.”
“It is nurturing here, it’s beautiful here, the people are interesting and the community is extremely diverse,” added Dina Janis, Artistic Director of the Dorset Theatre Festival. “When you have such a beautiful place, it becomes a place that draws artists.”
Janis also cites Vermont’s legacy for spirited and bipartisan civil discourse, and she’s not the only creative leader to find inspiration in Town Meeting Day or community conversations — while attending an emergency meeting in his hometown of Arlington, illustrator Norman Rockwell was inspired to paint his iconic “Four Freedoms,” which went on to grace the cover of the Saturday Evening Post.
Epitomizing the circuitous nature of the Shires arts landscape, that series has inspired another Arlington resident — Joshua Sherman, of Joshua Sherman Productions and The Mill — to not only craft a full festival of community events, but to produce a theatrical production of Rockwell’s quest to create the “Four Freedoms.”
“There’s something about that dialogue which makes for an incredible environment for art to be created in,” Janis concluded.
“Our cultural and artistic history builds a strong foundation to inspire new generations of creatives,” said Marrocco. “The historical significance of these figures creates opportunities for dialogue about why this work matters, what context it was made in, and how that can affect our futures.”
But what does the future hold for the Shires? Though the exact picture may never fully be in focus, Marrocco contends that the arts do provide a sort of road map for the path forward.
“I see so much excitement building in this community right now, which I hope will continue to grow,” she added. “I hope this continues to be a community that supports artists; I want creatives to continue to build their lives around their art in a way that supports them and their families.”
With such vast artistic resources and institutions in the Shires, and a low cost of living compared to more metropolitan creative communities, making a career in the arts is a uniquely accessible endeavor in Bennington county. And as both local and regional entities work to ensure the area’s economic development, the artistic assets found in the Shires can’t be dismissed.
“In Vermont people really care about development that is not going to damage the quality of what we have here,” Janis explained. “Nothing does that better than the arts; it’s low impact, but can be an incredible driver.”
“Arts institutions have a significant influence on the growth of our economy,” added Carolyn Blitz, an active member of the Shires creative landscape who serves on the boards of both the Bennington Museum and the Southern Vermont Arts Center. “ My hope is that we can bring the accomplishments of our visual and performing arts institutions to the forefront, and that visitors will see us as a destination where they can enjoy and celebrate great talent.”
While the arts have historically played a role in the region’s tourism economy, local leaders hope that the industry can leave a more lasting mark on the population by attracting new residents to live, work, and create in the cradle of the Green Mountains.
“Whether you’re a young person, just starting a family, or in the later years of life, you want to come into a vibrant cultural environment,” explained Silver. “It’s not just about entertainment, but engagement; about making and doing, as well as enjoying. That is a critical component of community.”
“Bennington is a famous name, and this community can build on the extraordinary art that has already been created here to attract visitors and potential emigrants from states and countries near and far,” added Peterson. “Bennington has an impressive past, and with businesses, government, citizens and the colleges working together Bennington can become a jewel in the Green Mountains.”
While contributing to the Shires economy and population in more measurable ways, the arts also play a rather ephemeral role in the region by fostering dialogue, human connection, and social change. And in the end, that impact may bear the most permanence.
“The arts have the ability to communicate challenging issues or subjects in a way that other mediums can’t,” said Anne Thompson, Director and Curator of Bennington College’s Usdan Gallery. “They afford the opportunity for deeper conversations as a community.”
“I see the arts as a crucial and profound component of the human experience,” added Eric Despard, the Artistic Director of the Laumeister Art Center and an active composer, arts educator, and concert musician. “Through study, practice, and creative exploration we endeavor to answer the big questions in life. The arts enrich our lives, often challenge our perceptions, and heal our hearts, minds, and souls.”