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Craft Center at Frog Hollow to close Middlebury gallery due to plummeting sales

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By JOHN FLOWERS

MIDDLEBURY — The Vermont State Craft Center at Frog Hollow (VSCC) will close its Middlebury gallery this Saturday, Jan. 31, and then move to sell its 1 Mill St. building to retire the growing debt the nonprofit has accumulated during the past year as a result of plunging sales.

Craft center officials on Monday were scouring the Middlebury area for new venues in which to hold the organization’s arts education classes, which the VSCC plans to continue offering even as it enters a period of self-imposed hibernation. It’s too soon to tell when and where the country’s first state craft center will re-emerge in the community it has called home since 1971.

“Nobody on the board takes lightly having to take these actions, but we also understand our financial responsibility to our employees and to artist members,” VSCC board Chairman Chad Somerset said on Monday. “We have to make the right decisions on their behalf. We don’t want to get into a tight spot we can’t get out of. We want to do it in a thoughtful manner and figure out the next, best step for Frog Hollow.”

The VSCC will continue to operate its gallery on Church Street in Burlington, though officials are considering privatizing that venture.

The impending closure of the VSCC’s Middlebury headquarters comes seven months after the organization ceased its operations in Manchester. Deidre Healey, executive director of the VSCC, explained the souring economy has had a disastrous effect on sales at the craft center, which counts more than 300 artists from throughout the state as members. Revenues at the Middlebury and Burlington galleries were down a combined $300,000 between 2007 and 2008, according to Healey.

Craft center officials took several steps to minimize the red ink. Along with closing the Manchester outlet, the VSCC overhauled its bookkeeping department and stepped up its fund drive, which netted $50,000 in 2008 — a sharp increase from the approximately $6,000 raised in 2007.

Still, Healey and her colleagues learned this past fall that the Middlebury gallery’s days were probably numbered.

“In September, we saw there had been a big dip (in sales), and it was pretty dramatic,” Healey said. “We were on alert, at that point. We started working our way through October and saw more of the same. The board started making financial projections and saw our organization was in considerable trouble and that we needed to figure something out — and figure it out fast.”

Healey explained the timing of the sluggish art sales couldn’t have been worse, as it coincided with the all-important holiday shopping season during which the Burlington and Middlebury galleries tend to record the bulk of their annual sales.

The center recently appealed, in vain, to state officials for a special budget appropriation of $100,000 to help the VSCC weather its current financial storm. Somerset and Healey had reasoned that since the VSCC had sold a combined total of $20 million in artwork over the past decade to generate $1.4 million in sales tax revenues, it was appropriate to ask the state for a little money back.

“Frog Hollow is good for the business of Vermont and we expected to be able to make that case,” Healey said.

But the state itself is facing a multi-million-dollar budget deficit and has no money to spare.

VSCC officials notified member-artists in November that things were looking grim. Then, earlier this month, the board of directors made a tough decision.

“We decided we were going to suspend operations in Middlebury altogether,” Healey said. The center was scheduled to hold a sale at the Middlebury store from Wednesday, Jan. 27, through its final day of operation on Saturday, Jan. 31. Artists are being asked to collect any of their wares that don’t sell.

Center officials this week were speaking with a local broker to list the 1 Mill St. property, currently assessed by the town at $283,700. The structure has a 4,000-square-foot gallery and another 3,000 square feet of space for its arts education classes. Plans call for the organization to re-emerge in a much smaller headquarters in the Middlebury area that will host a smaller staff sometime in the future.

Healey said it appears likely the organization’s administrative functions will move to Burlington, at least in the short-term.

The VSCC, which is not filing for bankruptcy, plans to use proceeds from the sale of the building to retire debt and position itself as a stronger, leaner operation when it re-emerges.

The VSCC currently employs around 15 people, approximately eight of whom staff the gallery on a part-time basis. Healey was unsure on Monday about how many people will lose their jobs when the lights go out at the Middlebury gallery.

CLASSES CONTINUE

She said VSCC’s education classes will be go on through at least the winter and early spring at locations that will be announced in the near future. Some area artists, for example, are being recruited to host classes in their studio space.

Frog Hollow Craft School will hold a meeting at the Ilsley Library community room on Monday, Feb. 9, at 6 p.m. to discuss the end of classes at 1 Mill St., and the future of those classes in other spots in the community. Anyone with questions or suggestions is invited to attend or to contact Barb Nelson at 388-3177, ext. 7, or e-mail at bnelson@froghollow.org.

Healey said area artists are lamenting the upcoming closure of the Frog Hollow gallery, but she noted the VSCC is not the only arts organization that has fallen on tough economic times.

“People are, of course, disappointed, but I got an e-mail from one artist … who said ‘This is the third notice like this I’ve gotten from one of my galleries recently,’” Healey said. “There are other arts organizations in Vermont that are hard-hit. Chaffee Arts Center (in Rutland) suspended their operations for the winter and they are looking at selling their building. We are hearing bits and pieces from different organizations that are having to make similar sacrifices.”

Weybridge-based wood carver Gary Starr has been involved with the VSCC for 23 years, as a board member and exhibitor. He maintains his own Web site (www.stardecoys.com) and sells his wares through 14 different stores throughout the country, but said Frog Hollow has been a very important venue through which he and other artists have gained sales and exposure.

“It’s certainly a blow to local artists,” Starr said of the latest VSCC news. “It will definitely make a difference for my business. Frog Hollow was an important outlet, not just for Middlebury, but for Vermont.”

Healey hopes the VSCC will soon be back to serve Starr and hundreds of other artists throughout the state.

“We don’t want this to be a permanent stop, but we have to do something,” Healey said.

“It isn’t the end. Some incarnation of Frog Hollow will go forward.”

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