New Hampshire’s art scene is hot and the creative fire burns brightest in the galleries of the Queen City.
Five hundred people
That’s how many people showed up last year. It was hard to imagine that many bodies fitting inside the gallery, despite its high ceilings and spacious layout. It was even more mind-boggling to imagine one thousand eyeballs perusing my paintings. Would they widen in surprise? Roll in disgust? Blink away tears of joy?
Would they even get past the refreshment table?
You could say that I was a little nervous. It was my first “Open Doors Manchester” event as a newly juried member of East Colony Fine Art. The cooperatively-run gallery was about to play host to the season’s first “Trolley Night,” as it is more popularly known, on that cool spring evening back in 2005. It also was my debut on the Manchester art scene.
To my great relief, the evening turned out beautifully — lots of happy people, lots of happy artists and even a few oh-so-happy sales. And it wasn’t just that night — nearly every Open Doors Manchester for the past few years has attracted crowds of art lovers, curiosity seekers and others looking to have fun and, perhaps, a free glass of wine while checking out the latest art around town. It turns out that while I may be just emerging as a painter, my arrival at that Queen City gallery couldn’t have been timed much better.
Watch out, Portsmouth — without a doubt Manchester’s now a serious contender for the title of “Culture Capital of the Granite State.” It’s not just the recent popularity of the free Trolley Nights or the ever-expanding number of galleries and alternative art venues, or even the surge in creatively-coifed art students lurking about downtown.
No, this city’s cultural resurgence has come about through a combination of hard work, visionary thinking and a small but solid underpinning — and, of course, some darn good luck.
From Blight to Bright
While it seems that Manchester’s renaissance has sprung forth fully formed in the last five years, it’s really been building steadily since the mid-1990s. That’s when the city rezoned its mile of millyard — the hulking set of brick buildings lurking beside the Merrimack River. Once the home of the Amoskeag Mills, the largest manufacturer of cotton textiles in the world, time and the global economy had not been kind. “The millyard was nothing more than a blight on the city,” recalls Doris Burke, a lifelong resident of the Manchester area. When she was growing up, “they were ugly buildings by a polluted river and there were no good jobs anymore — just dirty jobs and hard labor — and then eventually, there was nothing.” Burke says the sorry state of the mills infected the whole city. Up until they were revitalized, she says, “we all thought of ourselves as ‘a poor mill town.’ It affected the collective morale of Manchester.”
By rezoning the mills from industrial to commercial, the city opened up the structures to new businesses — and new attitudes. “All of a sudden there was a new energy,” recalls Burke. “With new people coming in, everyone began to look at the city differently.”
A Button Factory for Manchester
One of the first new occupants was the Langer family, who bought one of the dilapidated mill buildings on South Commercial Street in 1992. “We needed space for our manufacturing business and the price was right,” recalls Jan Langer. “We never really thought about what to do with the rest of it.” The bulk of the huge structure remained empty until Paul Ingbretson approached them a few years later. He was a Boston-based artist looking for cheaper studio space. “He leased the entire third floor — he was thrilled by all the north-facing windows,” says Langer. “We had no idea how important northern exposure was to artists — we thought it was such a waste.” (Northern light remains constant throughout the day and is the traditionally preferred natural light to paint by.)
One artist soon led to another and Langer Place began to fill up with studios, galleries and other related businesses. “Creative people seem to attract other creative people,” says Langer. “We like to support them — they bring such great ideas on how to use the building.”
Today, Langer Place features about 50 percent “regular” businesses and half art-related venues, including among others, East Colony Fine Art. “We approached the Langers with the idea of converting their loading dock at the front of the building into a street-front gallery back in 2001,” says Randy Knowles, co-director and one of East Colony’s 21 exhibiting artists. “We’d started in Pelham, but everyone agreed that Manchester was becoming the place to be — there certainly was a lot more going on.”
Langer Place remains one of the most popular spots on the Open Doors Manchester tours. “Sometimes, people get off the trolley and never get back on,” says Langer. “They spend the whole evening visiting the galleries, meeting the artists in their studios and just enjoying the whole vibe of the place.”
More than just the Millyard
While the brick buildings down by the river are humming with creative enterprises, they aren’t the whole story. “Manchester always had an arts community,” says Lee Forgosh, co-owner of Art 3 Gallery on West Brook Street. “It was just a much smaller community.” Small, perhaps but with deep roots: The Currier Museum, for example, began building its world-class collection back in 1929, one year after the New Hampshire Institute of Art (NHIA) graduated its first class of students. And the local art club, the Manchester Artist Association, just celebrated its 30th anniversary this year.
While these organizations have long provided a solid foundation for the visual arts scene in the Queen City, they are by no means staid or static. The Currier, for example, is currently building a 30,000- square-foot expansion so they can have even more space for their popular special exhibitions, community events and art classes.
The NHIA is growing to meet an ever-increasing demand for its services as well. After it began offering an accredited four-year Bachelor of Fine Arts program
in 2001, enrollment skyrocketed. In response to the sudden influx of traditional four-year college students, the school has been increasing its studio and dorm space. Its renovations of several old buildings is bringing a mini-revitalization to the north side of Elm Street, Manchester’s main downtown thoroughfare. It’s been a win-win situation for both the school and the city. “Our students find it very encouraging to make connections with local galleries and the established artists here,” says Jessica Kinsey, NHIA’s development director. And while it’s too soon to tell if the Institute’s graduates will establish roots in Manchester, they do lend an extra dose of creative vitality to the downtown.
In and out of the mainstream
In fact, Manchester’s existing arts scene is so vital that it’s getting near impossible to list all the places to see paintings, pottery and sculpture in the downtown area. And the scope of work is broadening as well. From internationally recognized artist Dennis Sheehan’s newly expanded gallery at Langer Place to the diverse array of regional exhibitors you can find on the wall at City Hall to the more traditional offerings at the Manchester Artist Association’s gallery at 1528 Elm Street, the breadth of work is as strong as the Merrimack River in springtime.
And you don’t have to just show up at galleries, either. Local cafés, building lobbies and hotels are exhibiting local artwork, too. “Businesses around here really get that supporting the arts makes sense,” notes Joni Taube, co-owner of Art 3 Gallery. “The owners of the new Manchester Hilton Garden, for example, wanted to showcase their commitment to the community by hanging art by New Hampshire artists in their lobby.”
Manchester does seem particularly blessed by having leaders who’ve made the connection between a thriving city and a supported creative economy. Back in 2000, for example, business leaders Ann Zachos and Alice de Souza formed “Arts Builds Community” to bring together artists, directors of arts organizations, local government and business leaders to map out a “cultural blueprint” for the city. While the group disbanded in 2004, their legacy carries on. You can thank them for the “Cultural Guide” that is published every year by the city’s Visitors and Convention Bureau and for the ManchesterArts.org Web site. But perhaps their biggest contribution is for laying the groundwork for the on-going arts revival — and for helping others believe it could and should happen.
Perhaps one of the healthiest signs of Manchester’s arts evolution is found on the third floor at 21 West Auburn Street — the sometimes home of the Monastery Arts Collective. This loosely organized group formed last year to create “a supportive artistic community for those interested in experimental art.” Jaime Grady, one of their founding members, said what he and his fellow collaborators wanted to create “didn’t really fit into the established art scene, so we made our own scene.” They kicked off their Manchester debut with a deliberately edgy show called “Lollipops and Hand Grenades.” It featured the interactive and improvisational work of the collective’s band of painters, poets, sculptors, musicians and writers. The response was unexpectedly positive — and has continued to be so. “I was shocked by how accepting the Manchester community was,” says Grady. Currently the group is producing shows for Manchester Community Access television, holding monthly “jam sessions” and beginning work on a community mural project with the local United Way chapter. “We didn’t really expect to be accepted this readily,” says Grady.
Grady, who traveled extensively after growing up in New Hampshire, chose Manchester as the place to put down his artistic roots because “it has such potential to grow as an art scene.” He just hopes that it doesn’t “get ruined by its own success.”
A valid concern, of course, but one can hope that we still have plenty of time to enjoy it before Manchester goes all East Village on itself.
(Nevertheless, I do have to admit that I personally can’t wait to be ruined by my own success.) NH
Support Your Local Artists
There’s something really thrilling when you find a painting that really grabs you and you decide that you have to take it home. This is a more likely occurrence, I believe, in New Hampshire since there is so much reasonably priced artwork for sale throughout the state.
Supporting your local artists is a lot like supporting your local farmers market in many ways — you’re buying something that is locally grown, contributes to the local economy and is much more environmentally friendly since it hasn’t been shipped from half-way around the world. Not only will your new artwork be something unique, but buying a painting or piece of sculpture also offers you a chance to build a relationship (whether directly or indirectly) with a local artist for years to come. Try doing that with a discount print from a big box chain store!
Sure, you can buy lots of less expensive reproductions for probably the cost of an original painting, but as Art 3’s Joni Taube says, the art you hang in your home or office “makes a statement about who you are as a business or a person.” It becomes your own personal expression, in a way.
Should you buy art as an investment? Well, many of the artists on the New Hampshire scene could be up and coming, but as both Forgosh and Taube say, “Buying art with the idea of making money on it later is a real gamble.” Bottom line? Purchase art because you’ll enjoy looking at it and living with it every day. What could be a richer investment than that?
Guide to Gallery Hopping in the Queen City
If you’ve ever been to a big-city gallery, you know that it can be somewhat intimidating. One of the best parts of Manchester’s — and all of New Hampshire’s — art scene is that it is much, much more relaxed. At Art 3 (www.art3gallery.com) for example, co-owners Lee Forgosh and Joni Taube go out of their way to make their openings enjoyable. “Just come in and browse,” says Forgosh. “We want to make people feel welcome — it’s supposed to be fun and informative.”
The Open Doors Manchester/Trolley Nights are a great way to get an overview of the bigger art venues in Manchester and are completely free and open to the public. There’s often music and refreshments at each stop. The final tour for the season will be held on Thursday, November 16 from 5 p.m. to 7 p.m. For more information, visit the Intown Manchester Web site at intownmanchester.com.
But you don’t need a special invitation or event to visit any of Manchester’s galleries — most have regular business hours and welcome browsers. At places like East Colony Fine Art (www.eastcolony.com), you can meet the artists, too, since they are the ones staffing the space each day. They’re just regular folks and love to discuss their work. In fact, if you’re ever at an opening and don’t know anyone — introduce yourself to the artist. They’ll be happy to answer any questions you have about their work or the gallery. (And they’ll be relieved too since they are often facing a bunch of strangers themselves!) Art is, after all, a conversation between the painter and the viewer — if you find an image that speaks to you, believe me, any artist would like to hear that.
All gallery openings are open to the public and always free. You don’t have to buy anything — many people go just to see what the local artists are up to. Of course, the art is for sale (credit cards are taken), but really, there is no pressure to buy.
Open Doors Trolley Night
November 16, 2006
Rosemary Conroy is an artist, naturalist and freelance writer living in Weare. Perhaps best known for her work co-hosting and writing “Something Wild” for the past eight years on New Hampshire Public Radio, Conroy is also striving to break out as a wildlife artist. She recently received a vote of confidence from the NH State Council on the Arts, who awarded her one of their new “Artist Opportunity” grants this year. An avid conservationist, Conroy hopes to keep alive the spirit of artists like Albert Bierstadt and Benjamin Champney, who inspired people to appreciate and then protect places of special scenic beauty, like New Hampshire.