HALLOWELL β€” Six decades in, the Kennebec Valley Arts Association continues to foster artistic expression in the community.

The association formed in 1958, but the group’s history starts a year before that. Madge Ames, an Augusta woman who one of the founding members of the group, wrote in 1957 that “there was no place for the local aspiring artist to show his work, and each one felt very much alone.”

Members of the Augusta Players, now the Gaslight Theater in Hallowell, hosted an art show in the hallways of Cony High School alongside one of their plays.

“Accordingly, an open invitation was extended to anyone in the area who wanted to exhibit. The response was far beyond anyone’s expectation,” wrote Ames, served the association until 1993, filling the roles of treasurer and co-chairwoman during her tenure. “From this experience and the new found knowledge that there were many area people interested in art, came the formation of the Kennebec Valley Art Association.”

The first meeting of the association took place Dec. 1, 1958, at the former Blaine Restaurant on Water Street in Augusta. There were 82 members, including 65 “charter members” who each paid $3 in dues, according to documents from 1959.

In 1963, the group bought the Harlow Gallery at 160 Water St. in Hallowell. A donor from Connecticut, identified as Mrs. James Goodwin in the association’s history reportedly donated $3,000 to the group. The gallery was named after her father Dr. James Harlow, of Augusta. The association raised a total of $6,250 and took out a loan to cover the purchase.

Ray Skolfield, a renowned Hallowell artist, paints in front of the Harlow Gallery in September 1985. Skolfield, who died in 1996, and his work were honored during a 2009 exhibition at the gallery celebrating what would have been his 100th birthday. Staff file photo

The Harlow Gallery is synonymous with the association, often being referred to interchangeably, according to officials.

Helen Ferrar, of Manchester, is an artist and member of the Association’s board of directors. When Ferrar was a child, her mother volunteered at the Harlow Gallery. Having moved to Hallowell from New York City, the gallery was a place she hung out while her mother volunteered.

“I remember the smell of it,” Ferrar said. “It was very kid friendly as long as you were well-behaved. I would lay on the benches and get Italians from Boynton’s.”

Financial troubles at the Harlow were well documented. In 1979, the gallery was closed during January and February because of the high cost of fuel. After a flood in 1987, $10,000 in work had to be done to the building. Volunteer Director Adele Nichols wrote in 1993 that the Harlow was “facing a crisis” and had to begin charging an entry fee.

Executive Director Deb Fahy said the building was swallowing most of the association’s funds.

“All of our assets were sunk in the building,” she said.

David Hodsdon, of Jefferson, was the treasurer of the association from 1999 to 2004. He said he looked through financial statements carefully and found money to make vital repairs.

“Things were kind of hanging by a thread at that time,” he said. “I found some money and (we) did some repairs on the building.”

LEAPS AND BOUNDS

The aforementioned location headquartered the association until this year, when it moved to 100 Water St. Fahy said by leasing space in the new building and selling the former location, the group now has an investment fund for the first time. Further, it gave the gallery room to expand.

“The programming was so large that one room was just not sufficient,” she said.

Fahy added that the association’s board of directors’ president, Susan MacPherson, took courses to become a real estate agent to help see the sale of the building through.

The gallery has changed by leaps and bounds, Fahy said, since she was hired by the board in 2004 to serve as executive director, a position Hodsdon helped create during his tenure.

“I joined as a member that year and it so happened they were looking for an executive director,” Fahy said. “The board at that time was getting tired of running the business and was looking for a way to reinvigorate the gallery.

“I told people I was working at the Harlow,” she added, “they didn’t even know it was there.”

Fahy was instrumental in the association’s first-ever strategic plan, which involved ramping up fundraising efforts, keeping better records and forming committees within the association. She said she also introduced collaborations between local groups, like the Friends of the Kennebec River Rail Trail, who are co-hosting an exhibition at the gallery until Oct. 27, to diversify patron bases. She said the groups will split commissions from any art sold in that show.

One of the marquee events at the gallery is the annual Young at Art exhibition that takes place in March. The 15th installment was this year, providing opportunity for students from kindergarten to eighth grade to have their art in a professional setting. This year, students from 21 middle and elementary schools took part in the show.

Fahy said about 300 households are members of the Harlow Gallery, be them artists or “friends” of the Harlow.

“We put out a call to a lot of schools … and each teacher picks a certain amount of work and we show it at the Harlow,” Fahy said. “We have 500 to 600 people come that day.”

As well as giving students a chance to display their work, Fahy says the event also shows that the art gallery is not just a place to buy art; it’s a place to gather.

The kids “are in a professional art gallery and they see the place is… for everybody,” she said. “It kind of just breaks down barriers.”

GALLERY CONTRIBUTIONS

Ferrar said there is a misconception about art galleries that patrons need to have deep pockets to purchase art, but the Harlow Gallery is enjoyable without cost.

“You don’t have to buy art to look at it,” she said. “They can show up with a few bucks to contribute, but they can contribute in other ways.”

Ferrar said that the gallery provides an non-intimidating place for artists of all levels to participate and interact with art.

“It’s a gathering place for people,” she said. “You can take classes there, you can meet people there, you can celebrate people’s work.”

Recent struggles at the new location have been tied to the ongoing construction in Hallowell. Fahy said that when the fences were on the gallery’s side of the road, visitation suffered like many other downtown businesses.

Workers direct traffic Thursday on Water Street in Hallowell in front of the new location of the Kennebec Valley Art Association in Hallowell, at right. The nonprofit is celebrating its 60th anniversary. Staff photo by Andy Molloy

“We all knew this was coming and it would be a tricky year,” she said. “People just weren’t coming down; there were no walk-ins.

“But as soon as the fence came down the numbers shot up,” Fahy added. “We’re already seeing numbers that are better than last year in the new space.”

MacPherson said the gallery influenced her family’s move from Winthrop to Hallowell, along with Hallowell’s vibrant downtown.

“It’s an organization that I truly wanted to support because it’s easy to forget how much difference art makes in our lives,” she said. “Those of us who are not articulate can explain ourselves through art and images.

“Supporting is an honor and privilege,” she added.

Hallowell Mayor Mark Walker said the Harlow Gallery and Kennebec Valley Arts Association contributes highest to the “arts vibe” in the city’s downtown. He said he has purchased several paintings from the gallery and knows a number of the association’s board members.

“It’s just a huge part of our downtown,” he said. “They’ve done a fabulous job of bringing regionalwide-, statewide-, world-wide-class art to our town.”

Walker said that budding art collectors could high-quality pieces at reasonable prices at the Harlow.

MacPherson, who has been on the board for six years and president for three, said the Harlow Gallery has a “different focus than just selling art.”

“A private gallery is important but they go with a stable of artists that they know will sell,” she said. “The Harlow’s goal is to speak for the community and let the community speak for itself.”

A celebration is planned for Oct. 26 for the association’s 60th anniversary. The event is by invite only and interested parties must contact the association before being able to purchase a ticket. A live and silent auction is planned, along with tapas, cocktails and live music.

Sam Shepherd β€” 621-5666

[email protected]

Twitter: @SamShepME

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