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Art Notes: Briggs Opera House uses shutdown to script its next act

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    The cast of "Songs for a New World" recognize the band at the conclusion of the show in the Briggs Opera House in White River Junction, Vt., on Sunday, May 3, 2015. It was the last Northern Stage production to be held at Briggs before the theater company moved to its new downtown location. (Valley News - Sarah Shaw) Copyright Valley News. May not be reprinted or used online without permission. Send requests to permission@vnews.com. valley news file photo

  • Eric Bronstein descends the stairs of the Briggs Opera House in White River Junction, Vt., after an evening playing jazz with friends and new acquaintances Thursday, Oct. 19, 2017. (Valley News - James M. Patterson) Copyright Valley News. May not be reprinted or used online without permission. Send requests to permission@vnews.com. James M. Patterson

  • Photographed at the Briggs Opera House marquee in White River Junction, Vt., on May 28, 2020, owner David Briggs is looking for a long-term future for the performance space. (Valley News - Geoff Hansen) Copyright Valley News. May not be reprinted or used online without permission. Send requests to permission@vnews.com. valley news file

  • Danielle Cohen, acting as Thomas McKean, left, and Julie Frew, acting as Joseph Hewes, prepare their costumes before a rehearsal for the musical '1776' at the Briggs Opera House in White River Junction, Vt., on March 27, 2018. Director Perry Allison cast seven women to portray male characters. (Valley News - Carly Geraci) Copyright Valley News. May not be reprinted or used online without permission. Send requests to permission@vnews.com. Carly Geraci

  • Bill Carmichael, as Mr. Pendleton, plays a classroom scene with Will T. Travis, as Pharus Young, middle, and Claxton Rabb, as David Heard, right, as director Jarvis Green observes at left, during a rehearsal in the Briggs Opera House in White River Junction, Vt., Wednesday, November 2, 2016. (Valley News - James M. Patterson) Copyright Valley News. May not be reprinted or used online without permission. Send requests to permission@vnews.com. valley news file photo

Valley News Staff Writer
Published: 6/9/2021 10:12:54 PM
Modified: 6/9/2021 10:12:56 PM

WHITE RIVER JUNCTION — A little over a year ago, David Briggs started a process that would, if successful, result in a renovated and fully resourced Briggs Opera House that would serve as an incubator for arts organizations and performers.

His idea was to put out a request for proposals and see what came back. Successful proposals would have to include plans to renovate the venerable theater, which is burrowed into the Gates-Briggs Building, and to build up an endowment for it. Briggs, 74, isn’t going to be around forever, and there’s no generation following him to take ownership of the massive brick block that casts the biggest shadow in White River Junction. If the opera house is going to survive that transition, it’s going to need an independent operator.

Briggs also thought that the pandemic shutdown of the arts sector was the perfect time to start planning for the opera house’s future. Over the past year, planning for the opera house’s independence has moved ahead.

“We’ve confirmed through our work over the last year that there truly is a broad need” for a space like the Briggs Opera House, he said.

He received two proposals, but both were from outside the Upper Valley. He declined to name the people who pitched their ideas for the opera house, but one of those ideas is still in play, Briggs said.

Most important is the need to build a strong local foundation, he said. To that end, five people have joined the board of a new nonprofit incorporated last year to continue to lay the groundwork for the opera house’s future. The board, and Briggs, are embarking on a plan to talk to more people engaged in the arts in the Upper Valley through a series of Zoom meetings this month. The immediate goal is to hear from people in the arts, business, downtown White River Junction, government, fundraising and potential donors and to draw more board members from those ranks, with an eye to expanding the board to 18 to 20 people.

“Whatever is the next step for the Briggs, it needs to have a broader base of support,” said Perry Allison, one of the new nonprofit’s board members. “We really want to do a lot of listening and hear what ideas they have” and gauge the level of support, she added. The larger board would then be charged with implementing the plan.

That’s no small task. As Briggs described it last year, the theater would need $3.5 million in renovations to upgrade it and make it more visible and accessible. The plan also calls for an endowment of $6.5 million to provide investment income that would defray operating costs. Once that funding is in place, Briggs would convey the theater to the new operators, for $1.

That $10 million fundraising effort is still in the plans. By comparison, Northern Stage raised a bit less than $9.3 million to build the Barrette Center for the Arts.

Having an endowment is key to the theater’s role as an incubator of new arts organizations, Briggs said. It could enable some performers with little or no financial resources to get their legs under them, and it would reduce the need for constant fundraising.

“We don’t have to have annual campaigns if we do it right the first time,” Briggs said.

Best known as the hall that housed Northern Stage from 1998 to 2015, the Briggs has since then become home to a wide-ranging cast of performing arts groups, including JAG Productions, Opera North, White River Indie Films, We the People Theatre and a number of musicians who have held concerts there.

“I love the space, and I think there are a lot of people who feel that way,” said Allison, a founder of We the People Theatre.

While that gives the Briggs a broad base of artists and supporters to draw from, the 240-seat theater occupies an increasingly crowded arts landscape. The next year, post-pandemic, will yield a sense of whether that’s enough reason to conserve for the long run a theater that first opened in 1890.

Hood Museum to reopen soon?

Virtually alone among visual arts venues in the area, Dartmouth College’s Hood Museum of Art remains closed to the public.

Director John Stomberg writes in the Hood’s recent quarterly update that while the museum will continue the virtual programming that has brought it a much wider audience during the pandemic, “At the same time, our galleries now are readied, our staff retrained, and our building polished — we are ready to welcome all of you back in real space and real time once again.”

Unlike other arts organizations, the Hood is shackled to a larger institution. The college is moving to its full reopening on Aug. 1. In an email, Stomberg said the museum’s expected reopening date is Aug. 4.

In the meantime, the museum has not been idle. It recently announced the acquisition of a collection of 6,000 images from the John Kobal Foundation, a massive, London-based archive of photographs from Hollywood studios.

Kobal, who died in 1991, visited Hollywood studios that were sitting on file cabinets full of negatives and vintage prints — publicity portraits as well as photos taken on set and behind the scenes — and began acquiring them. The collection provides a view of Hollywood history from 1916 to 1970, when movies recast the American story.

The Hood will use the photographs as a teaching tool, but expect an exhibition in 2022.

A ‘Cranbrook Connection’

It’s always a treat to read about an exhibition outside the Upper Valley that tells me something about artists in my own backyard.

Amy Lilly’s review in Seven Days of “Cranbrook Connections,” on view through June 26 at Studio Place Arts in Barre, Vt., furnished a surprise tour of Upper Valley artists who attended the Cranbrook Academy of Art, in the Detroit suburb of Bloomfield Hills.

One of the Upper Valley’s best-known artists, the late Clifford West, was a Cranbrook graduate, but so too are fiber artist Louise Glass, of Piermont; ceramicist Oona Gardner, of Norwich; the longtime collaborators Andrea Wasserman and Elizabeth Billings, of Vershire and Tunbridge, respectively; Ronni Solbert, of Randolph, best known as an illustrator, including the classic novel The Pushcar War, by her partner, the late Jean Merrill; and Jenny Swanson, of Cornish Flat, who teaches ceramics at Dartmouth’s Hopkins Center for the Arts. Nearby in New Hampshire are photographer France Menk, of Walpole, and painter Tom Driscoll, in Wilmot.

Although these artists will likely have work on display closer to home, a visit to Barre might be in order. Or maybe a gallerist will make a pitch to bring “Cranbrook Connections” here.

How to begin

The coronavirus pandemic shut down the arts as much as any other segment of daily life, and it curtailed the Valley News’ arts coverage, too. Now that the arts are re-emerging, the Valley News is resuming its arts coverage. As with everything else that’s reopening, we’re going to start slowly and see how it goes. Send information about visual art to artnotes@vnews.com and about performing arts to highlights@vnews.com.

Alex Hanson can be reached at ahanson@vnews.com or 603-727-3207.




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