Summer Journal: Is the Upper Valley Becoming an Arts Destination?

  • Visitors take a closer look at the unveiled bronze cast of Saint-Gaudens' sculpture "Abraham Lincoln: The Man" at the Saint-Gaudens National Historic Site in Cornish, N.H., on June 26, 2016. (Valley News - Geoff Hansen) Copyright Valley News. May not be reprinted or used online without permission. Send requests to permission@vnews.com.

  • Andrew Surrena, left, and Lindsay Ohse starred in Opera North's production of Donizetti's Daughter of the Regiment. Opera North's Summerfest of performances around the Upper Valley is part of a bid to make the area a summer arts destination. (Carl Brandon photograph)

  • Sandra Lopez and Jeffrey Gwaltney appear in a scene from Opera North’s production of Tosca.

  • Red Baraat performs in Hanover, New Hampshire on Thursday, June 23, 2016. Copyright 2016 Rob Strong

Valley News Staff Writer
Monday, August 22, 2016

In the space of just one month this summer in the Upper Valley it was possible to take in the classic operas Tosca and Daughter of the Regiment, and the Broadway musical Evita, all staged by Opera North at the Lebanon Opera House, and the musical School of Rock at Northern Stage in White River Junction, which featured local kids jamming on guitars, keyboards, basses and drums.

At the Hopkins Center in Hanover audiences could choose from a performance by the Chick Corea Trio, new plays of the New York Theater Workshop in its annual summer residency and an HD screening of Shakespeare Live! from the Royal Shakespeare Theatre in England, among other draws.

There were also free concerts on the Dartmouth Green, courtesy of the Hopkins Center, and at Colburn Park in Lebanon. Visitors could stop in at the Saint-Gaudens National Historic Site in Cornish to see a new cast of the sculptor’s famous Standing Lincoln or take in the best of a juried regional art exhibition at the AVA Gallery and Art Center in Lebanon.

“Sleepy” is a word routinely, and lazily, used by the urban press to describe any rural or semi-rural place that isn’t New York, L.A. or Chicago. The assumption, often, is that such areas are bereft of the kind of arts programming found in the big cities — and if there is an arts scene, it must be painfully amateurish.

In the past decade, though, with the continuing revitalization of White River Junction and Lebanon, and the steady presence of Dartmouth College and its arts programs, the Upper Valley has raised its game as a leading regional arts center in northern New England.

The past 10 years have seen the birth of the Center for Cartoon Studies, the White River Indie Festival and the Barrette Center for the Arts in White River Junction and the establishment of Shaker Bridge Theatre in Enfield.

Through luck and design, arts organizations in the Upper Valley have capitalized on existing infrastructure, drawing both on artists and performers who have long lived in the area, and a recent influx of young talent who have grown up here and come back, or moved in from other regions to take advantage of relatively lower rent and a burgeoning arts, music and food scene.

It’s not a stampede, exactly, but there has been a noticeable flourishing of the arts scene in the Upper Valley. Such places as White River Junction and Lebanon, which have made the decision to focus on the arts as a way to bring in new residents and businesses — what is called the “creative economy” — have seen an increased vitality in their downtowns.

A National Governors’ Association report on “Arts & the Economy” stated that the arts and cultural industries bring in jobs and investment and stimulate local economies through tourism and tax revenue.

This raises some questions: What would need to happen for the Upper Valley to earn a reputation as a regional or national arts center? Could the Upper Valley become a Berkshires North if it increased its artistic offerings during the summer? And should local arts organizations even try for that level of saturation?

The Berkshires in Western Massachusetts, of course, have had the benefit of decades of such long established, internationally recognized arts venues as Tanglewood, the summer home of the Boston Symphony Orchestra, Jacob’s Pillow, the venerable American dance theater founded by Ted Shawn and Ruth St. Denis, and the Williamstown Theater Festival, which presents stage classics and new dramas every summer.

The Massachusetts Museum of Contemporary Art, or Mass MoCA, in North Adams, founded in 1999, has become one of the premier venues in New England for contemporary art and avant-garde performance. The Berkshires also boast such reliable tourist draws as The Mount, the summer home of Edith Wharton.

While Upper Valley arts organizations can’t claim the size or budgets of Tanglewood or Williamstown, they have something that the Berkshires organizations don’t: they’re year-round, and the people who have poured their hearts and souls into them have deep roots in the communities they serve because they live in or near them.

They have also worked hard to move beyond the audiences they expect to attract, to audiences who may not have had routine access to the arts, through educational programs and targeted discount prices.

“I’ve seen what can happen when a community focuses on arts and culture,” said Eric Bunge, who, prior to becoming the managing director of Northern Stage in 2013, held the same position at the Commonweal Theatre Co., in Lanesboro, Minn., in the southeastern corner of the state.

When Bunge and some friends began the company in 1989, the town, with a population of 749, was in a slump, as were other Midwestern farming communities that had been affected by the mid-’80s farm crisis.

Lanesboro, said Bunge, was the kind of town where the only traffic in the course of a few hours on Main Street might be a tractor hauling corn. It wasn’t a place that announced itself as a possible tourist destination or a cultural hub.

But over the decades the Commonweal Theatre acted as an anchor for incoming tourists, and once that happened, Bunge said, businesses, restaurants and bed and breakfasts followed. The town now attracts more than a half-million visitors annually to its cultural venues and natural attractions along the nearby Root River.

“The ripple effect from Lanesboro having that kind of attention was that communities around it saw tremendous benefits,” Bunge said.

Bunge sees the same sense of possibility in this area, particularly in White River Junction. “There’s so much potential here,” he said.

When Bunge visited White River Junction as part of the recruitment process he saw that a large part of groundwork for building a creative economy had already been laid. And the railroad hub had the kind of advantages that Lanesboro never did: proximity to Boston, New York and Montreal, established restaurants, artists’ studios, theaters, a lively gallery scene, historic sites and, perhaps most significantly, a nearby Ivy League college with a performing arts center that draws both internationally-known and up-and-coming artists.

The presence of the Hopkins Center lit the fuse, said Bill Coons, artistic director of Shaker Bridge Theatre, which marks its 10-year anniversary this season.

“Without the Hopkins Center I don’t think this place would have grown the way it has,” Coons said.

Evans Haile, who became executive director of Opera North last year, having served previously as director of the Cape Playhouse on Cape Cod and as conductor of the Gainesville Orchestra in Florida, said “I was not aware of — until I came up last year, frankly — the incredible cultural attributes that are in the Upper Valley.”

The promise is there, Haile said, for the Upper Valley to “be a true cultural destination.”

Since Haile became general director of Opera North, their marketing tracking shows that audiences for their shows come from across the country, as well as locally. Because the younger generations are more mobile, Haile said, they are looking for places to travel in the summer that have a cultural cachet.

What Haile would like to see is the various arts organizations in the Upper Valley “create a kind of a plan so that we can really market among ourselves and market on a national level,” he said.

This might involve local arts organizations working with hotels and restaurants in the area, Haile said.

Or, Haile added, it might involve further, more frequent collaboration with other cultural and historic sites. This summer the Opera North company performed recitals at the Saint-Gaudens site, in Cornish, Marsh-Billings-Rockefeller National Historical Park in Woodstock and The Fells Historic Estate and Gardens in Newbury, N.H.

Each concert was tailored to the specific site, and “brought a larger context to making it more of an event, and not just a concert,” Haile said.

Carol Dunne, Northern Stage’s artistic director, came out of a summer theater background, and was for many years the head of the New London Barn Playhouse.

What Dunne sees taking root is not necessarily a Berkshires-like summer festival of arts, but year-round artistic and educational programming. The appetite is there, she said.

Northern Stage’s July presentation of School of Rock was so successful that the company added another date to its four already scheduled, sold-out performances.

“It brought a lot of people into the theater who’d never been there before, and I think they learned more about our company and out-reach program,” Dunne said.

The raised profile of the arts in the Upper Valley springs from a number of sources, said Margaret Lawrence, director of programming at the Hopkins Center.

Last summer the Hopkins Center, as part of its Community Venture Initiative, started the Free For All series of concerts and films held on the Dartmouth Green and in Spaulding Auditorium.

“It’s not just an appetite for the arts but a broader appetite for culture, for engaging in ideas and intellectual pursuits. There’s an appetite for recreation and an appetite for connecting with other people. That creates a creative synergy that resonates and draws even more people because people see it happening. All the ships rise when the water goes up,” Lawrence said.

AVA Gallery and Art Center has similarly seen an increase in visitors, and interest in their educational programming.

Bente Torjusen, the outgoing director, noted that the gallery’s guestbook in recent weeks was signed by visitors from many local communities, and by people from Montreal, South Carolina, Oregon, California, Massachusetts and Pennsylvania. Some artists come from as far as California to study with AVA faculty. And the juried regional exhibitions have, in recent years, attracted artists from 90 communities throughout Vermont and New Hampshire.

Whether all of this translates into building a regionally or nationally recognized arts center is another question, said Torjusen. There are several concerns, she said. The Upper Valley population is not that large, and there is always a struggle to financially support the arts, as well as provide the necessary infrastructure.

“How wonderful that the arts flourish, but the arts also have to be nourished,” Torjusen said.

As the artistic director of Shaker Bridge, Coons has met quite a few people in the area who still haven’t heard of the theater, much less gone to shows there. On the other hand, Coons has also seen subscribers come from as far away as Concord, Woodstock and Bradford, Vt., because the theater fills a particular niche, producing only contemporary plays in an intimate, 78-seat theater in-the-round.

The verdict is still out, however, on whether the Upper Valley can become an arts hub, Coon said.

“I think it wants to be, but I don’t think it is yet. I think there’s a kind of self-awareness of some people in the area that it would be really cool if it did become an arts hub,” he said. “Certainly the demographic is there, but I wonder if the population is large enough to actually support it.”

The Upper Valley has its own qualities, and perhaps local arts organizations shouldn’t stray too far from their mission of serving that population, said Lawrence.

“We’re really different,” she said. “We are a year-round community that doesn’t sizably change in population through the seasons. ... The Berkshires are quite quiet in the winter and it swells exponentially in the summer. It’s filled with summertime-only festivals, which we’re not and probably never will be. ...

“I tend to love the Upper Valley being for the people of the Upper Valley. ... I think we’re a significant artistic community in and of itself, but perhaps one that doesn’t need to exist for outsiders. We want to be careful not to appear like we’re a closed club. Our value is very intrinsic here,” Lawrence said.

Bigger is not always better, Torjusen added. “Growth has to be monitored. You can get too big, too fast. There is an inherent danger there.”

Nicola Smith can be reached at nsmith@vnews.com.