BENNINGTON — After inspecting the old Bennington Center for the Arts building, the new owners said upgrades and repairs would be needed, likely pushing back the reopening until late summer.
After a recent inspection of the 35,000 square foot West Road center – which was closed as its ownership was decided by a bankruptcy court – the group of artists who bought the property discovered the plumbing, air conditioning and other issues that need to be resolved.
Wes Siegrist, executive director of the Society of Animal Artists, said in an email that group members “assessed that several things needed immediate attention at the center” during a visit in late March.
“Above all, many of the HVAC systems [heating, ventilation and cooling] units needed maintenance or repair; nearly every plumbing fixture inside the building needed to be replaced due to severe corrosion; ADA [Americans with Disabilities Act] the handicap bathrooms weren’t actually ADA approved, so changes are being made to bring them up to code,” Siegrist said.
ACQUIRED IN MARCH
After the facility was donated by founders and builders, Bruce Laumeister and Elizabeth Small, in 2017 to Southern Vermont College, the college closed amid mounting debt in 2019 and was entered into bankruptcy proceedings from the chapter 7 in 2020. The group of artistswhich has members worldwide, paid $500,000 for the center last month.
The cultural center had remained closed for more than two years while the former college’s real estate assets were liquidated.
Members of the Society of Animal Artists had hoped for a late spring opening, but are now aiming for late summer, possibly August.
“I arrived in rooms with no heat and no ‘welcoming’ or even usable bathrooms in most public spaces,” Siegrist, from Tennessee, said in an email. “We had restored heat to all but one section by the time I left. The HVAC unit in this area has been made operational for airflow and may even be fully operational now. By the time I left, we had also implemented several functional toilets through testing and cleaning, which were used by workers. »
The theater is now ready for activity, he said, and “a few galleries are also fully set up and ready to go, but the public restrooms need to be finished before anything can open.”
The covered bridge museum on the property needs HVAC repairs and minor cleaning before it can open, he said.
“THE ARTISTS ARE COMING”
Siegrist said the group is considering a new name for the center and developing social media platforms.
“Right now we plan to use the slogan ‘The artists are coming…’ and we plan to have our first group of volunteers there at the end of May,” he said.
He added: “We are also actively seeking staff and welcome all enquiries.”
Renee Bemis, president of the society, is transitional president of the arts center during the search for an executive director.
Bemis said last month she can be reached in the Chicago area, where she lives, at 815-762-5016, or by email at firstname.lastname@example.org.
The group is also planning fundraising events, she said, and will seek grants.
During the recent visit, members of the society inventoried works of art, including those from a Laumeister/Small collection stored there, which is loaned to the center for exhibitions.
And the members started “cleaning up and organizing the whole building,” Siegrist said. “Cleaning and treatment will continue by professional cleaners and volunteers.”
Group members also met with people from the Palace Theater in Albany, New York, who are helping prepare the 315-seat theater, he said, and members have been in contact with people local government and arts councils.
In addition, he said, electricians fixed a list of minor infractions inside the center and ensured that all emergency lighting was functional.
The fire marshal “inspected all the fire extinguishers and advised where we needed to add more or move the existing ones for better access,” Siegrist said. “The elevator was inspected and found to be in good working order.”
The theater “was brought back to life after several days of trying to have a fully functional sound and lighting system,” he said. “We are in the process of upgrading the equipment in the theater and adding what was removed at some point.”
OPEN DURING THE 90’S
The center, on 5.8 acres at 44 Gypsy Lane, includes the theater, seven galleries, offices and other spaces. The grounds include the Covered Bridge Museum and Gardens.
Laumeister and Small had put on shows at the center with work from members of the society and had a long association with some of the members. Small recently approached the company about the group’s possibility of acquiring the facility to ensure its continued use as an arts center, Bemis said.
The society held the first organized exhibition at the center in 1994, Small said after the acquisition, and members exhibited there as individuals at annual art shows.