A Life: Ellison C. Lieberman, 1919 — 2012; ‘She Sold More for Me Than Anybody Else Ever Did’
Frank and Ellison Lieberman in the home they rented on High Street in Woodstock, in 1950 -- they moved to Woodstock in 1949. (Photograph courtesy Anne Bower)
An undated portrait of Ellison Lieberman, who founded what it thought to be the first commercial art gallery in Vermont. (Photograph courtesy Anne Bower)
Woodstock — After World War II, Vermont experienced a small first wave of settlement by the creative class; writers, artists, designers, filmmakers and musicians fled Boston and New York .
Ellison and Frank Lieberman were among them, coming to Woodstock from New York in 1949, not long after they were married. Ellison had suffered a bout of tuberculosis and was told that she could no longer live in the city. Frank found a job in Woodstock. From this modest beginning, Ellison Lieberman would have a powerful influence on her adopted hometown and state.
Raised in Montreal and trained as an artist in Paris and London, Ellison Lieberman saw that there were artists in Vermont, but no galleries to show and sell their work. In the early 1950s, she opened a small gallery in a corner of Woodstock’s White Cupboard Inn.
Although documentation is scarce, Lieberman’s gallery is thought to be the first private art gallery in the state that was dedicated to showing the work of Vermont artists. While other Vermont museums and galleries started earlier, notably the precursor to the Southern Vermont Arts Center, founded in Dorset in 1922, Lieberman’s Gallery 2 was founded as a business, and her aim was to earn a living and to help the artists she represented do the same. Her venture nurtured two generations of visual artists.
“When Ellison owned the gallery, I was able to support myself completely with painting,” said William B. “Wimby” Hoyt, who came to Hartland in 1973.
“She sold more for me than anybody else ever did,” said Charlet Davenport, who moved to Woodstock from Boston in 1962.
The roster of artists whose work she exhibited ranges across the state and the decades. Artists in the Upper Valley alone include, in addtion to Davenport and Hoyt, Sabra Field, Georgina Forbes, Clay Kanzler, Barbara Kaufman, Lolo Sarnoff, Sanford Ross, Judith Brown, George Tooker, Jim Richmond and Virginia Webb. She also showed artists from around Vermont, including Clement Hurd, the celebrated children’s book illustrator, and Emily Mason, a leading exponent of Color Field painting who has long spent summers in Brattleboro with her husband, Wolf Kahn.
Lieberman’s influence on the visual arts in Vermont was significant enough to merit a pair of awards from the Vermont Arts Council in 1979. She was the Woodstock Historical Society’s citizen of the year in 2003.
Lieberman died in December at age 93. She asked that there be no memorial service, but a group of friends and fellow artists are planning a get-together for her in May.
Born in Montreal to Scottish parents, Ellison Cooper was not a deprived child. She defied her mother’s desire that she be introduced to society as a debutante, but relented so long as she could go to Mexico to study with Diego Rivera, she told Woodstock Magazine in 2009.
Instead, she and her mother decamped for London during World War II. Her father, a civil engineer, had died when she was 15 and her mother died during the war. She worked for British intelligence, in communications and code-breaking, work that proved too stressful for her, said Anne Bower, Frank Lieberman’s daughter from a previous marriage.
She met Frank Lieberman in London, where he was working in the U.S. War Information Office. She moved to New York with him after the war, and they were married in 1945. They had planned to make a life in New York, but after Ellison spent a year in a Saranac Lake, N.Y. sanitarium to recover from TB, she was told to remain in the country.
Frank found a job as art director at Elm Tree Press, a Woodstock publisher and printer that also produced Print magazine, a quarterly journal of the graphic arts. The press closed up shop, leaving the Liebermans in a precarious financial state. They pulled through with the help of friends.
“Ellison often talked about how kind people in Woodstock were,” Bower said.
They also showed an entrepreneurial bent that would emerge in Gallery 2. “They had all these little schemes for making money,” Bower said. Frank favored Ascot ties and they tried to start the Woodstock Ascot Co. They also tried to make and sell spice wheels for cooks. Neither venture took off and Frank established himself as a freelance graphic designer.
The gallery, first open only in the summer, was another matter. The commercial resources for artists were very limited in Vermont. There were good historical society museums, and the University of Vermont’s Fleming Museum and St. Johnsbury had its Athenaeum and the Fairbanks Museum, but there were few, if any, options for artists to show and sell their work.
But Vermont had supported traditional arts and crafts through a Depression-era state government program, and artists had started coming to the state, lured by the landscape and the low cost of living. Stinehour Press, for example, was founded in 1950. George Tooker moved to Hartland in 1958 with his life partner and built a home from a barn they dismantled in White River Junction.
“I wish someone would write a book about this, all the people who moved here in the 1940 and ’50s,” said Lizi Boyd, an artist and illustrator who lives in Norwich. Her mother, Nancy Wickham Boyd, established a workshop in Woodstock in the 1940s, and Lizi Boyd used to stop into Gallery 2 on her way home from school.
So Lieberman found herself in a community of artists, still relatively small, that was waiting to be served.
Even Lieberman couldn’t remember the exact date she opened her gallery. What’s clear, however, is that she was far in advance of the state’s major era of arts development. She was more than a decade ahead of the creation of the Vermont Arts Council. Most other major organizations opened in the late 1960s or thereafter, including Chaffee Art Center in Rutland (1961), the Helen Day Art Center in Stowe (1981) and the Upper Valley’s own AVA Gallery, which was founded in 1973 by artists in Hanover and Norwich.
“When it really started to happen was the late ’60s and early ’70s,” said Ellen Lovell, who was the Arts Council’s first program director, in 1970, and later served as executive director. She is now president of Marlboro College.
In those years, when that large second wave of artists came to Vermont, Lieberman was prepared to represent them.
The relationship between an artist and a gallerist is essential, and not always well understood. A good gallery owner can make an artist’s reputation, and Lieberman had the eye, the business acumen and the social grace to help many artists to early success.
“Gallery owners are your agent, they represent you,” Hoyt said. “So they are very crucial to your existence.” He called Lieberman “a surrogate mother,” a comment several other artists echoed.
Lieberman was a regular presence in artists’ studios, visiting to look at their work. “She knew what people were doing and she followed them,” said Davenport, who had her first show at Gallery 2 in her 20s.
Hans Meijer, who began helping Lieberman in the gallery in 1981 and purchased it from her in 1986, said they drove to galleries around the state every Thursday.
The artists Lieberman represented remembered her way of encouraging them, even when she didn’t accept work for exhibition. She urged them to make work that mattered.
“She was never suggesting that you should do work that would sell,” Georgina Forbes said. “Of course, good work usually does sell.”
She also took a smaller cut than many galleries, and made sure her artists were paid. “I could count on her to be honest,” said Sabra Field. “That was huge.”
The gallery was a going concern, but it wasn’t necessarily a lucrative one, at least not at first. It moved a handful of times to locations in downtown Woodstock, in search of lower rent and better foot traffic. When the economy was strong, it fared well.
“It was very successful,” Meijer said. “The ’80s and ’90s were pretty darn good, business-wise.”
But rents rose in Woodstock. At its last location, Meijer said, rent was $4,000 a month. He sold the gallery in the early 1990s, and it closed a couple of years later.
The Liebermans supplemented their income by buying a series of four homes in Woodstock, fixing them up and reselling them. Bower lives in a home in Pomfret that they purchased sight unseen for $100. The artists she worked with sometimes helped with the renovations.
“I’m sitting in the kitchen right now,” Bower said in a phone interview, “and most of the floor was laid by Wimby Hoyt.”
Near the end of her life, the artistic spirit that made her want to run off to study with Diego Rivera made a surprising return. Bower discovered boxes of Lieberman’s work while insulating the attic of that house, work she’d done decades before. That resulted in an exhibition in the Bridgewater Mill in 2009. The opening reception was packed and many of the artists she had represented bought nearly all of her drawings and paintings on offer.
“She was just in her element,” Bower said. “You could see her just beaming in the sudden, delightful change in how people saw her.”
Alex Hanson can be reached at ahanson@vnews or 603-727-3219.