Monday, November 2, 2009

Eight Places to Visit in St. Johnsbury

The Arts Council held its fall retreat in St. Johnsbury recently, and if our experience there is any indication, people living in or planning to visit the Northeast Kingdom have a lot to look forward to in the coming years.

I've mentioned a few times in this blog about the efforts all over the Kingdom to collaborate on marketing and promotional efforts. Trying to develop a single-themed message about such a huge and diverse area of Vermont presents many challenges. There is the sustainable, value-added agricultural movement whose focal point appears to be Hardwick. There is the Nulhegan Basin (surrounding Island Pond) whose primary industries are wildlife recreation and (value-added) wood products. There are the two major ski resorts--Jay Peak and Burke Mountain-- and some world-class mountain biking to be had at Kingdom Trails. There are three colleges: Johnson State College (I know, technically in Lamoille County), Sterling College in Craftsbury and Lyndon State College that provide excellent post-secondary education experiences across a broad spectrum of disciplines that build on and feed the cultural and recreational sectors. And all through the Kindgom are located hundreds of artists and artisans--all of whom create a variety of works that can be found by visiting their studios, farmer's markets, or fairs and festivals.

The Northeast Kingdom Travel and Tourism Association serves as a collection point for all kinds of information about "things to do" in the Kingdom, from outdoor recreation, to agritourism, to cultural and heritage tourism. From North Troy and Jay to St. Johnsbury; and from Canaan to Hardwick the Northeast Kingdom is diverse, quirky, independent-minded, and--as our experience in St. Johnsbury proved--generous to an extreme.

Our meeting was held in the "new" Catamount Arts Center--the former Masonic Lodge next door to Catamount's old location. (sidebar: the old Catamount site has been bought and being converted to a studio recording house by Neko Case. Check her out!) Catamount Arts now boasts two cinemas, showing independent and foreign films daily--and even the latest digital performances from the stage of the Metropolitan Opera (the next one is Puccini's Turandot, airing November 7th). They also have a cabaret room in the basement (where we held our board meetings) which, along with a few other smaller utility rooms, serve as classrooms for people of all ages. They have a gallery just behind their ticket office which, during our meeting, was showing the Art of Vermont, an exhibition featuring works that are part of the State's significant art collection. Best of all, however was the incredible spirit flowing throughout the building--no doubt caused by the excitement generated by the performance and outreach programs put together by Jody Fried and his staff . Metaphorically speaking, Catamount Arts is one of the Northeast Kingdom's significant sources of renewable energy.

Within a stone's throw of Catamount are new fewer than seven other community/cultural institutions--almost all of which, over the years, have received significant facility or program support from the Council. The Fairbanks Museum and Planetarium (Charlie Browne, Director) is a "must stop" for anyone visiting St. J , as is the St. Johnsbury Athenaeum, the public library donated by the Fairbanks family which contains one of the great examples of Hudson River School Art, The Domes of Yosemite, by Albert Bierstadt, in its very accessible gallery.

The day after our Board meeting ended, I returned to the Athenaeum to attend a concert by Helena Baillie who performed the three Bach Partitas for violin as a benefit to raise money for the Athenaeum's new Steinway grand piano. It was a tour de force and I can only hope that Minnesota Public Radio, who recorded the event, will allow its Vermont affiliate to air the program. The Athenaeum's director, Irwin Gelber, is doing for the Athenaeum what Jody Fried is doing for Catamount. The energy and excitement in both places are palpable.

Across from the Athenaeum is the Caledonia Courthouse which has wonderful public art by photographer Michael Sacca and tapestries by Elizabeth Billings--installed about 10 years ago with Art in State Buildings funding when the Courthouse was significantly renovated.

Practically next door to the Courthouse is the South Congregational Church--a venue used by many arts groups looking for world class acoustics and significant seating capcity. Like the Catamount Center, The Fairbanks, Athenaeum, and Congregational Church have all received significant funding from the Council's Cultural Facilities Program over the years--as well as frequent program support.

And while we're still "on the hill" it hardly bears mentioning that the St. Johnsbury Academy is one of the preeminent secondary educational and cultural institutions in the New England. It boasts significant programs and instruction in the visual and performing arts--comparable in quantity and quality to such storied New England boarding school as Exeter, Andover and Milton Academies--and its guest artists' performances are almost always open to the public.

Just down the hill from Catamount Arts on Railroad Street is the new visitor's center (home of the NEK Chamber of Commerce in the old Railroad Depot)--again, a facility that has benefited from the Council's Cultural Facility program, and in the middle of the next block heading east on Rte 2 is the Northeast Kingdom Artisan's Guild, a gallery and store chock full of high quality arts and crafts. Those are the seven (eight, including Catamount) I know about--there probably are more.

I realize that this is sounding a lot like a travel writer's diary, but before I leave you to discover your own favorite part of St. Johnsbury, I have to mention the hardware store across from Catamount Arts where you can purchase just about anything you could possibly need for your home; the outstanding Elements Restaurant which had no problem accommodating the Council's board, staff and guests for dinner; and--perhaps the biggest surprise of all--the incredibly well-appointed Comfort Inn where several of us stayed.

St. Johnsbury--you really should see it for yourself. It's a great way to start your visit to Vermont's Northeast Kingdom.


bmorrow said...

Yes, Johnson is waaaay out of the kingdom, silly. And Springfield College and CCV (2 sites)are way in. Impossible to get all the assets. But that's 4 colleges and 8college sites in the NEK. People never stop to think about that...I think the next largest concentration is B'ton.

Nice job bringing out St J's assets. I'm thankful.

Steve Ames said...

Nice use of links! You're high tech Alex.