Making a home for art, too; Cooperative venture brings gallery to downtown Framingham

The Boston Globe

March 6, 2011 Sunday

BYLINE: By Megan McKee, Globe Correspondent

SECTION: REGIONAL; West; Pg. 1

LENGTH: 896 words

It’s hard to grasp the size of Framingham’s century-old Bancroft building while looking at it from Fountain Street. Situated sideways on a narrow lot, bordered by rumbling trains on one side and Farm Pond on the other, the massive cement building reaches out lengthwise to encompass almost 4 acres of floor space.

Its charming utilitarianism isn’t lost on the numerous businesses and 73 artists located there, but its potential has only been scratched, according two resident artists.

Last month, Cheryl Clinton and Marie Craig unveiled their effort to turn the building at 59 Fountain St. from a hidden gem into a destination resource for artists and art lovers from across the region. Fountain Street Fine Art is an artist-run operation that will feature monthly exhibitions in its first-floor gallery, they said, and give artists a place to show their work while offering the public a venue to interact with them.

“The gallery has been an idea in my head since the beginning,” said Clinton. Her “beginning” was in 1996, when she was the fourth artist to move in and set up a studio in the building. “Our goal is to support the artists community that’s here, expand the collector base, and educate our artists and the public at large,” she said.

The space is hosting a reception today from 4 to 6 p.m. for a new show of mixed-media works by Natick artist Virginia Fitzgerald and Lisa Barthelson, who is based in Rutland.

If last month’s opening reception for its first show is any indication, the gallery is on a promising path. More than 300 people braved stormy weather to attend it, said Clinton.

The launch of a gallery in Framingham is cause enough for celebration among artists who have limited showing opportunities, but what really sets Fountain Street Fine Art apart is its business model.

“There’s this longstanding complaint among artists in the Boston area that there’s not enough exhibition space, so they are always scrambling for venues,” said Roy Perkinson, a prolific Bancroft artist with work in the permanent collection of Boston’s Museum of Fine Arts. He is one of the gallery’s first members. “It just always seems like there isn’t enough space in which people can show their art. In response to that, in many cities, co-op galleries have arisen.”

Cooperative and artist-run galleries, in which the members pay yearly fees and volunteer their time in exchange for guaranteed exhibition time and space, are common in New York City, where real estate is at a premium. Far fewer exist in Massachusetts, with the list including the Cambridge Artists Cooperative, Westboro Art Gallery, North Adams Artists’ Co-op Gallery, and, perhaps the oldest, Boston’s 36-year-old Bromfield Gallery.

“We’re unique in Framingham” and the surrounding area, said Clinton.

Membership is not without restriction. Artists must apply for acceptance, based on whether their work contributes to a cohesive aesthetic sensibility, said Clinton.

In addition to the gallery’s member shows, there will be exhibitions from artists outside the gallery, like the inaugural show, “unscripted,” which featured 68 artists from all over the state.

Danforth Museum of Art director Katherine French juried the show.

“The work was incredibly high quality. It was very competitive, and there was a lot that didn’t get included that could have been,” said French. “We chose a very tightly juried show. I was very, very pleased with the quality of the submissions.”

Getting to this point hasn’t been easy, said Clinton and Craig. Though the women had researched artist-run galleries extensively, they had only 24 hours to decide whether to take the space when it became available in October.

After that, Clinton, a painter, and Craig, a photographer, put on hold their own art-making to renovate the space with infusions of personal cash and ample sweat equity.

Craig remembers sitting on dollies the day after they agreed to lease the space – they didn’t yet have any chairs – and wondering whether they could pull it off.

With the investment of significant time, industrial cleaner, paint, and handiwork, they were able to transform the 2,200-square-foot space into a gallery.

“It took very active imagination, but I think the end result was true to our vision,” said Clinton.

Craig said the gallery provides artists with a social outlet from their often-solitary work, and an arts-centered community space for the public as well as for other artists who work in the building.

“It’s really important to have that sense of community and encouragement,” said Craig.

And Clinton sees the gallery as an important bridge in the shifting art landscape.

“There’s this whole new world opening up,” said Clinton. “What we’re trying to do is find a new model. How do we find a way to help the gallery help the artists, and the artists to help the gallery?”

In other words, the gallery gives artists more control and flexibility for exhibiting their work, while harnessing the collective ideas and time of accomplished artists to make a successful gallery.

“We’re very interested in building relationships with members and people in the community,” said Clinton.

The new exhibition, which opened Friday and continues through March 27, features prints from Barthelson’s “family debris series,” and sculptural pieces from Fitzgerald’s “The Dress Project.”

Megan McKee can be reached at megan.mckee@gmail.com

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