A new arts initiative is gaining momentum in Chester, thanks to its founders who pride themselves on pushing the limits and following their passions. The Vermont Institute of Contemporary Arts, or VTica is part gallery, part school, and part community center.
When Abby Raeder met Robert Sarly, the VTica was just a twinkle in his eye, remembers Raeder: "We were both living in Andover, having no idea each other lived in Andover. At one Weston Playhouse gala, we bumped in to one another." Sarly struck up a casual conversation, but Raeder cut to the quick. "I said, ‘What are your hopes and dreams?’" remembers Raeder. "And he stopped, he scratched his head, and he said, ‘Well, I’ve always wanted to own an art gallery.’ So I looked at him straight in the face and I said, ‘Why don’t you?’ And I turned around and I walked away." Sarly laughs at the memory of that meeting. "I was just looking for a glass of wine at the reception!"
Four months later, Sarly called Raeder and told her he’d found a building for a gallery. He’d buy it if she helped him. "And we started talking about it. I started my research," says Raeder. But she didn’t expect the next development. "In the process of my research, I fell madly in love with the man." And Sarly fell in love with her too. "Two and a half years ago it started, and it’s still going strong."
True to its founders’ spirits, VTica is about spreading the love – of the arts. And it’s not a small project. The couple spent almost a million dollars converting an old American Legion hall into a large gallery space. Above it, new apartments stand ready to host resident artists. Eventually, the barn out back will be converted into a museum. And VTica’s calendar is full of performances, films, and workshops.
VTica also has a storage facility designed according to standards from the American Association of Museums. Once it’s certified, VTica will be able to hold works from major museums like the Guggenheim and the Museum of Fine Arts. "It is temperature controlled and humidity controlled," says Sarly, noting it could be one of the few, if not only, places in the region with that certification.
Right now the main gallery walls are covered with the ecstatic pinks and oranges of Chester painter Jeanne Carbonetti. "I just find the work vibrant, feminine, lively and just spectacular," Raeder says.
Raeder moved to Andover from New York eight years ago. She has a background in interior design. Sarly still splits time between Andover and Boston, where he works in finance – he’s also a painter. Compared to those cities, Vermont might seem like an artistic backwater. But Sarly says it isn’t so: "There are fourteen towns from east to west, from Bellows Falls through Weston, Londonderry, Manchester, that contain over forty galleries. That’s more galleries than exist in Boston’s South End."
But where many local galleries showcase representational art – like paintings of barns and cows – VTica is hoping to push the envelope. "When you’re picking artists, pick artists you haven’t seen before," says Raeder. "Pick artists that are doing really unusual courageous things." Sarly adds, "And if we can be successful in that, we can bring the 21st century into Vermont to coexist with the sentimental 19th century Vermont that persists and endures and will continue in any case."
In addition to making the arts accessible through classes and workshops, Raeder and Sarly are also hoping to make them accessible financially. "I don’t want to be an ultra-pretentious gallery that people feel uncomfortable when they walk in because everything’s so expensive that you can’t afford it," says Raeder. "This show right now, the work starts at $100, and it goes up from there."
At the back of the gallery, local artist Christina Anderson leads a drawing class inspired by the surrealists. Students have been drawing with their eyes closed and collaborating on what are called "exquisite corpse" drawings. Student Tom Huntington is here with his wife Kate. "This is the first time I’ve done anything like this," Tom says. Kate says Tom intended to only sign her up for the class. "And I said, ‘Will you do it with me?’ and he said, ‘Okay.’ Because this is our new, second half of life. And it’s been great. We love that this is here, that we can do this. It’s nice."
The Huntingtons came to town from Maryland a year ago, buying the Country Girl Diner down the street. Chester, it seems, is a place for new beginnings.