Compiled by Mike Dunphy
On May 1, Margaret Coleman began her tenure as executive director of the T.W. Wood Gallery in Montpelier, taking over for Ginny Callan, who helmed the gallery for four years. She arrives with a tremendous resume in the arts, most recently executive director of ArtShape Mammoth and Flynndog Gallery in Burlington. Less than an hour into her first day, Coleman was kind enough to sit down with The Bridge to speak about her long background in the arts, the Vermont arts scene, how she came to T.W. Wood, and plans for the future.
The Bridge: Can you tell us about your background?
Margaret Coleman: I grew up in Sheboygan, Wisconsin, and went to the University of Minnesota, where I graduated with a degree in sculpture. I took a little extra time to graduate and rented a storefront with some friends and opened a community art gallery. We funded it by putting a recording studio in the basement. I worked on that for several years before I started to apply to grad schools and ended up at the Pratt Institute in Brooklyn.
What led you to a career in the arts?
Coleman: I’ve always been an artist. I’m interested in expanding the definition of making art, and looking at creative practice through a more expansive lens than the traditional art world.
What drew you to sculpture?
Coleman: Flexibility of medium. I wanted to learn as many different mediums as possible to have options. I’ve always believed in using what you have. When I didn’t have a studio or facilities, I worked on my porch with chicken wire and fiberglass and patched things together right there outside.
One of the interesting things with art is that we promote it so much for children, but then if they want to go down that career path, there’s often trepidation by family and friends. Was your family supportive of your choice?
Coleman: I had a really supportive family and not a lot of push back. I think the most important thing to remember is that learning to think and work in creative ways opens up possibilities instead of narrowing them. That’s what I would say to parents of a high school student worrying about their child going into art. You could look at it as being limited, but you could look at it as being very open because you can do so many things with it. That’s a perspective people need right now to survive and make a way in the world. There aren’t really the jobs anymore with a direct path. You have to have fluidity.
Looking back on your career path, are you surprised where it’s led you?
Coleman: It makes so much sense now, but I wouldn’t have guessed it. When I went to grad school, I thought I was going to be a sculpture professor, but things changed, and developing community became important to me. Also, when I graduated in 2009, there were no jobs. I remember applying for an entry level job somewhere and asking one of my professors at Pratt for a recommendation only to find out we were applying for the same job. I thought, “Oh my God, I’m never gonna get hired.”
How did you end up in Vermont?
Coleman: I was doing an iron casting residency at Salem, New York, and had a couple of free days with my partner, so we said, “Let’s go to Vermont. We’ve never been there.” We stayed for five days and loved it. It was just beautiful, and I felt like the creative scene aligned with me. I remember saying, “We’ve got to figure out how to move here.” It also seemed like a place where I could move from New York and still maintain a contemporary art connection.
How do you assess the Vermont art scene?
Coleman: One of the things that I learned almost immediately was that there are amazingly talented people working throughout the state and in unexpected places. The other thing that really was exciting to me, especially coming from Brooklyn, was the commitment to craft Vermont artists have. If I were going to summarize the work happening in Bushwick [a Brooklyn neighborhood] when I was there, it would be fluorescent colors, spray paint, and cardboard. When I got to Vermont, I was pulled back into connection with some materials that require more facilities than artists in Brooklyn had access to. In New York, you’re working with what you have available, and what you have is cardboard or milk crates.
What drew you toward the role at T.W. Wood?
Coleman: It was the whole package of the things that I care about—education and accessibility in the arts. The tie to art history is also a huge aspect, and that trajectory of building art practice with a foundation in art history. So having the contemporary in conversation with the historical. The art education programs and really strong commitment to those programs was another draw for me. I feel like I’m in a place where I can put my interests, talents, and time, and feel like I’m contributing and making a difference.
What do you think drew T.W. Wood to you?
Coleman: Throughout the conversations and interviews it became clear to all of us that there was a mutual commitment to community and building that community through the creative arts. I think that my varied experience and background was appealing because I’ve had experience in every kind of creative event planning and organizing, including conferences, retreats, and exhibitions.
Do you arrive with a definite agenda or do you plan to feel it out more?
Coleman: There’s a little bit of both. The most important thing right now is to get to know the community and get a good handle on the different programs that are happening and how to continue the things that are successful and make sure that they continue to do well. I have a lot of ideas, but I want to meet people and listen and develop those ideas in a way that makes sense. So I’m not ready to overturn anything or just come in and say we’re gonna change this, that, and the other. I want to listen and integrate effectively.
Going forward, what do you see as the biggest challenges of this new role?
Coleman: There’s always the challenge of starting in a new place, getting to know the place and the people and making a smooth transition. Right now while Ginny Callan is here, she has very graciously offered to show me the ropes and meet with me as much as we need to as I get to know the different programs we offer. I’m looking forward to jumping in and helping with our current campaign to raise money for an elevator, which will make our galleries more accessible. So, we have a lot of work to do!