A History of the Kennebec Valley Art Association 1957-2011
by Nancy McGinnis and Deborah Fahy
For over half a century now, the Kennebec Valley Art Association and its Harlow Gallery have been helping to assure Hallowell, Maine a place on the cultural map. As holds for any organization that has weathered the test of time, the KVAA has experienced varying rates of growth and dynamic change– sometimes echoing its surrounding community, at other times leading the way. The colorful evolution of the KVAA includes the ebb and flow of resources and fortunes, and the steadfastness of community participation and support, along with history’s tendency to repeat itself and come full circle.
The group’s inaugural newsletter, written by the KVAA’s first elected president, Bob Demers, recounts that at a meeting held at the Augusta Chamber of Commerce on December 1, 1958, the Kennebec Valley Art Association was formally organized “to stimulate an interest in the appreciation and cultivation of art.”
In August, 2008, Demers was invited to speak at the opening of the Harlow Gallery exhibition “Kennebec Valley Art Association at the Crossroads: a Look Back and a Vision for the Future”. During his remarks, as was later recounted in a press release, “he asked anyone who had been a member in 1958 to raise their hand, and was thus reunited with two other charter members: Carol Burke of Augusta and Olive Metcalf of Weeks Mills, whom, up until that point, Mr. Demers had not recognized. It was a very touching moment, and the elders spent the rest of the opening catching up.”
Almost two decades ago, the late Adele Nichols, who was then serving as the Harlow director at that time, wrote vividly about the KVAA’s founding in the late ‘50’s, and the opening of the Harlow in 1963. “At a time when there were no galleries and very little art activity, KVAA burst on the area scene with visual and performing programs. Exhibits flourished in hotels, libraries, theaters, yacht clubs, schools and restaurants. Workshops evolved around the needs: Children’s Art Class, Waterfront Fairs, Museum Trips, Beaux Arts Balls, Craft and Bicentennial Exhibits.”
In 1957 a group of multi-talented artists active with the Augusta Players (which later became the Gaslight Theater) organized an art show to be held in the corridors of Cony High School, in conjunction with one of their plays. The response far exceeded their expectations; with the newfound knowledge that there was a strong interest in the arts, this small group of dedicated artists went on to found the Kennebec Valley Art Association. They formally organized at a meeting in Augusta on December 1, 1959, at which Bob Demers was elected first president of the KVAA.
Before then, concurs Demers, who resides in nearby Gardiner, “there were few opportunities for local artists to show in the Augusta-Gardiner-Hallowell area. I had established a close friendship with Fred Preble and his wife Mary, both area artists; Mary in watercolor and Fred in sculpture. I was a commercial artist and an avid Sunday painter so art and artists was a frequent topic of discussion. … Fred and Mary were personally acquainted with many Maine artists including Leo Meissner and William and Marguerite Zorach. Right from the start, their connections attracted support and works from well-known Maine artists.”
“Up until then,” Demers continues, “the only art activity in the area centered around nearby coastal areas of Maine, especially The Maine Art Gallery in Wiscasset– and the personal charisma of artist Mildred Burrage, its founder and president. It came as a surprise to her and others when our group – which had not yet even been named KVAA – organized one of its first shows in the hall of flags at the State House in 1960.”
Linwood Partridge sharing plans for the “proposed cultural center” (which became the Harlow Gallery) with Governor Reed in 1962
Maine artists, as well as nationally known artists with Maine connections, were invited to participate in the “All Maine Invitational”. Then Governor John Reed agreed that such a project would merit the use of the State House, and in later years it took place at the State Office Building. Though there was no mention of the fledgling Kennebec Valley Art Association’s sponsorship role in the printed program from 1960, KVAA members had planned and initiated the first of what was to become an annual month-long statewide Maine arts festival. This inaugural cooperative collaboration between the state and artists living and working in Maine was heralded by Governor Reed, who noted that the show reflected “the healthy vigor of the fine arts in Maine.”
This invitational event became known as the Maine Art Festival, and grew in size, quality and prestige to become one of the premiere arts events in the State of Maine through the 1960s. Exhibition programs from subsequent years show that the KVAA stepped into the spotlight, seizing the opportunity to explain and further its founding mission. The 5th Maine State Art Festival program from 1964 stated, “The first major project of the KVAA was the initiation of the Festival shows in 1960, as an immediate method of translating our purpose into direct action. Approximately 5,000 persons visit the show yearly and we hope many of these visitors carry away with them an added interest in fine art and a better idea of Maine’s cultural advantages.” At the end of the decade the state buildings became unavailable and the exhibition moved to the Harlow Gallery. By 1979 it had evolved into the July and August Summer Invitationals at the Harlow Gallery, until finally, by 1985 these exhibitions also lost momentum and came to an end.
In 1962 the KVAA launched a major fundraising effort in order to purchase the building that has provided a permanent home for the KVAA ever since. The final funds needed to purchase the building, at the then-impressive price of $6,000, were provided by Genevieve Harlow Goodwin, in memory of her father, George A. Harlow, a well-respected Augusta physician. Represented by a nephew, Brooks Harlow Jr. of Florida, the family continues to actively support the gallery and the art association to this day, most recently with challenge grants and substantial gifts that have helped the KVAA continue to flourish. The creation of an art gallery out of a dilapidated old building was a tremendous undertaking. Linwood Partridge, a Cony graduate who had completed an International Correspondence School commercial art course and worked for the state as an illustrator, organized the fund raising aspect; Partridge and a group of volunteers planned dinners and beaux-arts balls to support the renovations. The reconstruction work became a part of the everyday lives of a handful of members, especially Richard Hurtibise and Richard Cote, two talented avant-garde painters who were largely responsible for the remodeling the two long narrow run-down shops that then existed, into a single spacious gallery with exposed brick.
In those fledgling days, bold aspirations were shared, according to an early newsletter, “The long range goal of the association is to establish an art center in the State capital which will include not only an art gallery and workrooms, but also a concert auditorium and theater and other facilities for varied activities implied in the broad term, “arts”. This worthy project, however, cannot be undertaken until the association has accumulated some funds of its own and had proved itself to the public, over a period of time, as a responsible, permanent organization.”
While this lofty goal never materialized in quite this fashion, although the organization has certainly “proved itself to the public, and a half century later, the KVAA has found ways to serve in some of these capacities — and crafted partnerships with other entities that have enabled it to indeed come close to this realization. In recent times the Harlow has collaborated with the University of Maine at Augusta, local public elementary and high schools, Johnson Hall Performing Arts Center, ArtDogs, Gaslight Theater, Kennebec Valley Humane Society, Family Violence Project, Kennebec Valley Historical Society, Motivational Services, Augusta Symphony Orchestra and many more. A collaborative exhibit with Brunswick-based Spindleworks in February 2011 led to the opening of SpinOff studios just down the street from the Harlow Gallery, in December 2011.
Until recently, the KVAA archives are overflowing with exhibition programs and yellowed newspaper clippings from the Kennebec Journal, scrap books and guest books, photographs of local artist members and of their work at the Harlow Gallery, newsletter archives, board records and correspondence. These historical documents are now in the keeping of the Kennebec Historical Society in Augusta, where they may be perused by the public, with advance notice. Other than the sometimes dated language and the dramatic change in the cost of living over the past half century, the board meeting minutes and member newsletters reflect in other ways how little has changed. The same energy and interest, on the part of an ever-changing group of dedicated volunteers, has been devoted to offering similar programs, resources and opportunities over the years.
We learn that in February, 1964, Paul Plumer of Hallowell offered weekly art lessons at the Harlow for beginners and advanced beginners, priced at $10 for 4 classes (payable in advance).
And all were welcome to join adult art workshops, where members could work in any medium, and took turns bringing in a still life arrangement or sitting for their peers. Each participant was asked to contribute 50 cents “to cover heat and electricity”.
We are also reminded that the challenge of making ends meet in an arts nonprofit has been, and probably always will be, ongoing. That same winter, KVAA President Linwood Partridge wrote this “State of the Union” message: “1964 will be a critical year for the KVAA. We entered this year with a balance of $384.08 in the Treasury, with several outstanding bills to pay. The condition of the budget reflects the heavy demands made upon it from unexpected expenses in building repairs plus current operating expenses.” Partridge ended his statement with a positive note, “1964 is also going to be a year of opportunity and growth for the KVAA.
Spirited and dedicated members of the KVAA planned events such as the 1965 Picasso-themed Beaux Arts Ball on New Year’s Eve, featuring Dick Noble’s Orchestra at the Augusta House. Prizes were awarded for the funniest, most original and most attractive costumes; the affair was deemed “a smashing success”, netting $250 for the Treasury.
Later that year, for their Summer Art Festival: “Sidewalks and vacant lots in Hallowell will be the scene of all kinds of art activities on Saturday, July 24, when KVAA sets out to prod the area into a little more art consciousness and make a little do-re-mi for the Treasury.” Offerings included exhibits of art by children and adult, a puppet show, artists’ demonstrations, a band concert, booths selling hot dogs, soft drinks and home baked goods, a white elephant sale, and a spin-your-own-painting booth. In A Taste of Hallowell: Old Hallowell Day 25th Anniversary Cookbook author Alice Arlen quotes one-time director of the Harlow Gallery Adele Nichols, who wrote in 1966, “Our Summer Art Festival was turned over to the Hallowell Improvement Association, and thus, Old Hallowell Day was born.
It did not take long for the positive influence of the Harlow Gallery on Hallowell and the greater community to become apparent. In a 1967 edition of Maine, a publication of the Department of Economic Development, an article entitled Art Come to the Valley, described it as follows: “Accomplishments of the Kennebec Valley Art Association may be summed up this way: Interest in and appreciation of art in Maine has been increased; Mainers and summer visitors have been enabled to acquire original works which please them at prices they can afford to pay; The City of Hallowell, itself, has perked up. Many attribute the sprucing up of the commercial district which has been going on during recent years to the example set by the Kennebec Valley Art Association.”
It is fascinating to note that some of the Harlow’s more contemporary offerings, such as the Art at Home tour — which took place in September, 2011– are reminiscent of events and approaches from a generation earlier, such as Art in the Home, an exhibition of work on loan from Kennebec Valley art collectors in 1967. The literature explained: “Enjoyment of art is more than an occasional visit to a museum or gallery. It is also living with art every day in the privacy of your house. As Charlie Brown would say, “Happiness is owning an original”. KVAA appreciates the kindness and generosity of the local residents who made this show possible by sharing their happiness with us.”
In 1976, the KVAA board of directors established a general memorial scholarship fund to benefit a graduating high school student for excellence in art. According to the June, 1976 newsletter, “The gifts and bequest received for this purpose have been put into a separate account, earmarked for scholarships. It was started with $545.” This legacy has endured over the years, and in 2010 the KVAA board of directors invested $18,000 in restricted scholarship funds with the Maine Community Foundation, in the interest of improved oversight and ongoing professional financial management.
In 1983 the KVAA received a grant from the Maine Humanities Council to screen the 8 part film series The Shock of the New. This was a landmark television series by the BBC that examined key cultural movements in the arts in the 20th Century. The KVAA invited prominent local artists and art educators to speak on each film. Moderators included Abbott Meader, Phil Paratore, James Carpenter, Philip Isaacson, Leonard Craig, John Lorence, Larry Lutchmansingh and Harriet Matthews.
At the KVAA members meeting of July 1995, members voted to institute sweeping changes to operations at the Harlow Gallery. According to the organization’s August Newsletter, “Only members can show at the gallery. — Members will participate in all decisions including shows and special events. — The members corner will be renamed the KVAA Featured Artist’s Corner. — We will prepare ourselves to become a fully volunteer organization. — We will create incentives for members to volunteer (volunteer shows, recognition night, etc…) — We will have more special events (such as Old Hallowell Art Show, jazz night, poetry reading, etc…) — The board will streamline the business operation of KVAA and write a policy manual.”
Although the “members only” idea was deemed not sustainable after a few years, many new ideas were carried forward from this time of change as leadership passed to a new generation. This shift in direction marked the end of founding member Adele Nichol’s many years of service as volunteer artistic or gallery director– a role she had filled since the 1970s. Nichols continued to participate and support the organization until her death in 2000. Long time treasurer and founding member Madge Ames had resigned her office two years earlier, after 30 years of volunteer service, in various capacities, including gallery director in the 1960s.
Fast-forward to today, at the Harlow Gallery. Now a familiar fixture for generations in downtown Hallowell, members of its Kennebec Valley Art Association have come up with new and creative approaches to address both ongoing and unique challenges, ranging from cash flow to the overflowing waters of the Kennebec. The gallery was among the downtown Hallowell businesses devastated– but not done in– by the 1987 April Fool’s Day flood. Once the site of regular meetings of the Hallowell Improvement Association and the Current Events Club, the Harlow is now the venue for gatherings such as “byte the muse” (an Adobe users group), a traditional film photography group, and the Hallowell Area Board of Trade. The gallery hosts events as disparate as figure drawing, poetry readings, book signings, live music performances, Gaslight Theater rehearsals and auditions — and the annual gingerbread house contest, a much-anticipated herald of the holiday season.
But a decade ago, it would have been hard to imagine where we are today. The dawn of the 21st century found the KVAA at a crisis point. Membership had dwindled to about 75 or 80 artists, mostly elderly and largely inactive. The volunteers upon whom the organization had always relied to function were no longer stepping forward, and thus gallery hours were unreliable. The building had many structural problems that seemed insurmountable, given a total annual budget of around $30,000. In 2002, the board of directors considered disbanding the KVAA. Instead, they took a leap of faith and tapped a modest endowment fund to hire Linda Murray, the KVAA’s first paid Executive Director, in 2003. Two years later, the KVAA board of directors conducted an organizational assessment and developed the KVAA’s first strategic plan under the leadership of Linda’s successor, Deborah Fahy. The group updated the mission and vision statements, and created an overarching set of organizational goals. This essential work paid off, and has resulted in a revitalized and reengaged KVAA in recent years.
Diverse, exciting and sometimes daring exhibitions have increasingly attracted notice from the press and positive feedback and enthusiasm from the greater community. Membership and gallery attendance have increased and diversified. Financial support comes from an increasing number of individual donors and local businesses. The organization now has a solid track record for successful grant proposals. Volunteerism is at an all-time high, thanks to assistant director and volunteer coordinator Nancy Barron.
“The new economy wants creative people,” declared Don Tuski when he took over the helm as president of MECA (Maine College of Art). “What the economy needs and what business people need are creative people. Artists can solve problems from a mile away and from a lot of different angles.” The Harlow is attracting local residents, both long established, and newly arrived. As people retire or relocate to Maine, many of whom have chosen art as a second career or as a hobby, the local cultural landscape is changing. With its walkable downtown, architecture and history, restaurants and watering holes in addition to music and arts offerings, there is a palpable downtown vibe that assures Hallowell a place in the both the local creative economy and the cultural tourism market
Economically speaking, the KVAA has weathered its share of ups and downs, its vitality ebbing and flowing over the course of the decades. Cultural organizations tend to be even more vulnerable to the vicissitudes of the times than for-profit businesses. “During times of national economic erosion, arts nonprofits tend to be like canaries in a coal mine,” acknowledged Maine Sunday Telegram art critic Daniel Kany, in praising the remarkable sustainability of the KVAA and its Harlow Gallery. He went on to say, “…over the past few years, the Harlow Gallery …has consistently stepped up and forward in the quality of its programming and presentation.”
It doesn’t hurt that the KVAA/Harlow is located in picturesque downtown Hallowell, which arguably packs more history and culture, past and present, into each square foot than anyplace else in Maine. But the association, and its gallery, are an integral part of that history and culture, more so these days than ever.
“My aunt (Genevieve Goodwin) would take me to visit in those early days, when I was just a youngster,” Brooks Harlow recalled in a recent conversation. “What a different experience! To me, back in the ’50’s, both the community and the gallery were much more limited and narrow—with little exposure to new and different ways of thinking and seeing. But now Hallowell has turned into a wonderful place, and we’re thrilled that the Harlow is front and center!”
Most recently, outreach efforts have been focused on attracting those who consider themselves non-artists, to to join the KVAA under a new community membership program. “Historically, we have focused on practicing artists –until recently they comprised about 90% of our membership,” explains Fahy. “But we know there are many people in the wider community who support the arts and value what we do, and we are working on strategies to reach out to them. There are hands-on creative and learning experiences for everyone at the Harlow Gallery, no matter their age or prior experience.”
“The Harlow Gallery in Hallowell, home of the non-profit Kennebec Valley Art Association, is truly a jewel,” says Peggy Siegle, of Brunswick, not an artist but a lover and collector of contemporary Maine art. “The member artists who show their work and volunteer at the Gallery are committed to bringing not only exceptional art to Hallowell but also workshops, art talks, events and classes. The Harlow is an important destination for those who want to see and experience fine Maine art, for families, for the community, and those who would support the incredible creativity that is right here in Central Maine.”