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Art notes: Nonprofit crafting a future in a new location

  • Lisa Brahms, of Norwich, began as executive director of CraftStudies in June after working as director of education at the Montshire Museum. CraftStudies sold its Hanover building, where the organization shared space with the Hanover League of New Hampshire Craftsmen gallery, and is in the process of moving to the former 25,000 Gifts building in White River Junction, Vt., Brahms was photographed at the new location on Thursday, July 8, 2021. (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 — James M. Patterson

Valley News Staff Writer
Published: 7/8/2021 9:32:52 PM
Modified: 7/8/2021 9:59:44 PM

The pandemic proved decisive for many arts organizations, forcing some to close, while opening doors for others.

At the crossroads of those forces stands CraftStudies, the venerable craft education nonprofit. Last week, it completed the sale of its longtime home in Hanover and moved to White River Junction, and hired a new executive director.

But CraftStudies isn’t ready to reopen; first there must be a rebirth. After teaching countless Upper Valley residents how to throw a pot or solder a piece of jewelry, CraftStudies now has an opportunity to plan a second act.

“It’s been a daunting year,” Rosemary Orgren, a CraftStudies board member who just finished a seven-year stint as board chairwoman, said in an interview. “The last 18 months has been filled with drama.”

Since its founding, in 1952, CraftStudies was affiliated with the Hanover League of New Hampshire Craftsmen, and the two shared space on Lebanon Street until last July, when the league closed the Hanover gallery.

The gallery had been operating in the red for some time, Orgren said, and the pandemic made its financial difficulties insuperable.

CraftStudies, which split off from the League in 1999, owned the Hanover building, and it soldiered on last summer, running a few education programs and holding a fundraising auction online.

Director Suzanne Jones stepped down at the end of August after 20 years at CraftStudies.

“I really felt that for CraftStudies to move on and to grow, they needed a different perspective and set of skills than mine,” Jones said Thursday.

In the interim, Hilde Ojibway kept the lights on, a role she’s now performing for AVA Gallery and Art Center in Lebanon.

Much as Jones decided to step aside, the CraftStudies board decided the organization needed to move. Its studios for metalworking and ceramics, the organization’s primary activities, were cramped, tucked into a basement under the Craftsmen’s gallery and invisible from the street. Its multi-media studio was on the third floor, inaccessible and under-utilized.

And without the gallery, it made more sense to sell the building than to hang on to it.

“When they left, we were asset-rich and cash-poor,” Orgren said.

That situation has been turned on its head. CraftStudies sold its building to entrepreneur Tillman Gerngross for nearly $1.2 million. It’s leasing the former 25,000 Gifts building at 608 N. Main St., in White River Junction, from Listen Community Services with an option to purchase at a price of $290,000.

Right now, CraftStudies has time to plan.

“Given the realities of construction costs and timelines, we’re sort of taking it step by step,” Lisa Brahms, the newly hired executive director of CraftStudies, said Tuesday.

The organization hired Brahms away from the Montshire Museum of Science, where she’d worked as director of education. Before that, she worked at the Children’s Museum of Pittsburgh as director of learning and research, and as a researcher at the University of Pittsburgh Center for Learning in Out of School Environments.

The Children’s Museum of Pittsburgh is celebrated for its emphasis on the arts and for being the first children’s museum in the U.S. with a makerspace, where children can get access to tools and materials for arts and crafts.

The aim at CraftStudies, then, is to build it up and make it bigger, more accessible, more inclusive and more comprehensive than before.

There’s plenty of space in the new location. The old building in Hanover comprised around 4,500 square feet, with the gallery taking up about a third of it. The new place has about 4,000 square feet at ground level and another 3,500 square feet in the basement.

Just as important, the location is much more visible and will be easier to make accessible. And its location among the many arts organizations of White River Junction make sense, Orgren and Brahms said.

On Tuesday, the new space had a just-moved-in feel, with a row of tables down the middle of the long, narrow building, but with furniture and equipment placed haphazardly against the walls. Pieces of white paper, held to a bare wall with tape, were covered with ideas written out in magic marker.

The notes and the new space made tangible the opportunity in front of an organization rooted in ideas of craftsmanship from the first half of the last century. Everything is new.

Strategic planning starts soon and the organization has a building committee. The board also plans to add a few more members. Once there are architectural drawings and a strategic plan, a round of fundraising will begin.

The new home provides much larger space for its big programs but also more space to expand programs that hadn’t gotten as much attention.

“I’m hoping we can explore the outer limits of other crafts,” Brahms said. Her own interest is in textiles, she said.

Expanding programs also is intended to bring in more people, particularly teens and adults. CraftStudies has a roster of 50 to 60 instructors in a range of disciplines.

Programs likely won’t resume in full until next year, and the first space to open will probably be for ceramics, Orgren said.

A garage on one end of the building seems ideal for kilns. Ceramicists would like to have a wood-burning kiln for firing their work, Orgren said.

That, Brahms added, is for the 10-year plan.

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




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