The Wood Art Gallery: Callan Offers Fresh Leadership

by Nat Frothingham

The Wood Today: Celebrate Art

Many, many people both in Montpelier and beyond know, remember, like and admire Ginny Callan, the creative and spirited woman and entrepreneur who started the Horn of the Moon Café in the late 1970s and kept it going for more than a dozen years — an amazing restaurant and center of community life — at 8 Langdon St.

About two years ago, Callan was hired as executive director of the T.W. Wood Art Gallery just as the Gallery was moving into and renovating a new space at 64 Barre St. — not just a new space, but a new and permanent home and at a moment Phillip Robertson, the Gallery’s volunteer Curator and past Director described as “a rebirth of The Wood.”

Here’s what the rebirth of The Wood looks like during a recent visit and face to face conversation with Callan.

During the two years that Callan has been at the helm, an active board of directors with active committee has been attracting volunteers.

“They are getting hammers in their hands,” Callan said. Also paint brushes and rolls of carpet.

Volunteers from National Life have been renovating exhibit rooms and painting and improving classroom space. “All of our work has been done by volunteers,” Callan said.

Classroom space — yes.

Under the inspiration and guidance of professional theater artist, sculptor and mask maker Ellis Jacobson, the Wood’s After School Arts Program is flourishing. Callan took me into a classroom and showed me some of the colorful work that schoolchildren are producing — with daringly adventurous results.

After seeing what kids can create in the After School Program I visited an exhibit room painted a deep, almost scarlet-red.   Curator Phillip Robertson directed my attention to “Skyscrapers” a painting by Italian-American painter Joseph Stella (1877 to 1946).  “Skyscrapers” painted in 1936 captures the thrusting drive and ambition of American urban architecture of the period.

In the same exhibit room were sketches and paintings of T.W. Wood. Some of the sketches were studies — intricate studies — that Wood had pursued to get an element — like an ornate bench on a ferry boat — to get that ornate bench right — before it became part of a larger painting. Or to get a human figure, or even a face,  right, before it was incorporated into a later, larger work of art.

One of Wood’s paintings depicted a view of Montpelier more than 100 years ago, looking more like the country village it was than the busy traffic-crowded state capital that it is today.

The After School Arts program now in its second year for children 6 through  12 years of age is just part of The Wood’s outreach to young people. The now-expanded summer art camps for children have gone from two weeks to six weeks plus school vacation art camps.

As I attempted to understand The Wood’s impressive collection of artwork from the Depression era (New Deal) Works Progress (or Works Projects) Administration I turned to The Wood’s online web site.  There online courtesy of Onion River Community Access was an almost hour-long talk about “Murals and Buildings of the New Deal” by the highly entertaining and knowledgeable Devin Colman, Vermont State Historian from the Vermont Division of Historic Preservation.

Remember this was Depression era art and the murals were often placed in public buildings. As Colman explained, what the federal government wanted was the heroic farmer, the idealized worker, the historic patriot which filled these public spaces when some people during the 1930s were struggling and others were selling apples or pencils on city street corners.

One of The Wood’s priorities and it’s a priority that’s being realized is to exhibit the contemporary work of Vermont artists and to exhibit art work from local art associations.

“We just got a Ron Slayton painting,” Callan said toward the end of our time together. Slayton (1910 to 1992) was one of the few Vermont artists who participated in the 1930s WPA arts project. He founded his own Dog River Art School in 1968 and was Curator of the Wood Arts Gallery at Vermont College from 1962 to 1984. “We’re going to have a special exhibition of Ron Slayton next spring from May 1 to June 29,” Callan said.

The exhibitions, the summer art camp, the art talks, caring for the collection, staying even with salaries for the executive director and a two-person (part-time) staff adds up to an annual budget of $150,000 a year.

Which leads to The Wood’s Celebrate Art Fall Gala celebration of art (and fundraising event) on Saturday, Oct. 14 at The Wood from 5:30 to 10:00 p.m. Included at the events is Dancing with the CBT Band, piano music with Andy Christiansen, a Great Silent Auction, Art Action Stations including mask making, fun selfies and print making cards. Food (beer and wine, too!) will be supplied by Bon Temps Gourmet. The Gala silent auction will include original artwork by August Burns, Anne Davis, Marcia Hill, Linda Hogan, Andrew Kline, Andria Lovejoy, Daniel Neary, Daniel Pallullo and Michael Struas, gift certificates and more!

T.W. Wood Art Gallery: A Thumbnail History

What was eventually to become the T.W. Wood Art Gallery in Montpelier got its start in the final decade of the 19th century.

That 1890 to 1900 decade was both agitated and tangled. But it was also an immensely creative period in the history of Montpelier.

Think of Fanny Hubbard Kellogg and her bequest to the City of Montpelier. Think of her nephew John Hubbard who contested the will.

Think also of Thomas Waterman Wood, born in Montpelier in 1823 and described in a Smithsonian biographical sketch as a largely self-taught artist who as a young man worked in his father’s cabinet shop, then  painted signs, “made patent drawings for inventors and attempted some portraits.”

Wood went on to gain prominence in New York City opening a studio there, becoming both president of the American Water Color Society (in 1878) and president of the National Academy of Design from 1891 to 1903.

Out of that contentious 1890–1900 period came the opening of the Kellogg-Hubbard Library in 1896 and the T.W. Wood Art Gallery in 1897. 

One quality about Thomas Waterman Wood  we should not forget. Even though he became a noted American painter and a prominent figure in the New York City arts world — throughout his life he honored his ties to Montpelier. Even at the height of his success in New York City he regularly visited Montpelier in the summer and owned a house and studio here. In 1895 when he wrote an open letter to a local paper proposing to open an art gallery in Montpelier, he promised to donate a representative collection of his artwork.

He was good to his word. When the Wood Art Gallery opened in 1897, he donated 42 of his paintings watercolors and sketches. Later on, this original gift was augmented with his donations of copied works of the so-called “Great Masters” and with additional paintings and works of art from friends of Wood in the arts world. When he died in 1903, Wood left the bulk of his estate and artwork to the Wood Art Gallery.

His role in founding the gallery, his donations of art, and the large bequest from his estate gave the Wood both its start and its legacy.

In the years after World War II ended in 1945, the Wood Art Gallery enlarged its collection when it was designated by the U.S. federal government as the official Vermont repository for 90 works of arts created during the Depression era (1929 to 1943) made possible both by the New Deal Works Progress (Projects) Administration and other federal agencies that paid for arts projects during that period. Some of these works of art were produced in Vermont. Other works of art were produced in other states but are part of the Vermont repository.

In 1948 the Kellogg-Hubbard Library began a discussion with the Wood Art Gallery about co-locating the Gallery at the library and in 1953 the Gallery became the T.W. Wood Art Gallery in an upper floor space of Kellogg-Hubbard Library.

This arrangement lasted until 1985 when the Gallery moved up to a space at Vermont College which was then a Montpelier campus of Norwich University.  In 2001, the Vermont College campus in Montpelier was sold by Norwich University to Union Institute and University. Then in 2007, Union Institute decided to leave Montpelier and it sold the Montpelier campus to the newly-formed Vermont College of Fine Arts. In 2017, the College of Fine Arts discovered a compelling need for additional space in its flagship building, College Hall, and in 2018 the Wood Art Gallery and in 2018 moved to its own space at 46 Barre St. near downtown Montpelier.

At its new 46 Barre Street location, the Gallery joined with two other partners, Monteverdi Music School and River Rock School to found a new non-profit educational corporation called The Center for Arts and Learning. This partnership enabled the three organizations to purchase the former Central Vermont Catholic School.

To better express its mission both as a gallery and a museum for contemporary American art, The Wood changed its name to T.W. Wood Gallery: A Museum for American Art.

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