HALLOWELL – The “a-ha” moment came last June, when Deb Fahy and Nancy Barron attended a session at the Portland Museum of Art led by Kennedy Center president Michael Kaiser.

Fahy and Barron, co-directors of the Harlow Gallery on Water Street in this river town, listened attentively as Kaiser ticked off 10 things that art organizations should do to survive difficult times so they can thrive when times improve.

The two women felt pretty good, because they and the volunteers who help run the community art center already employed many of the ideas that Kaiser suggested. They also realized there was more to do.

“He lit a huge fire under us,” Barron said. “One of things that session did was it verified a lot of the things we were doing well. We realized that our task wasn’t impossible, because if you listen to the news and hear about the economy, it’s scary. It can paralyze you. But he gave us hope.”

Emboldened, the women returned to Hallowell fully committed to the gallery and its long-term success. They brought with them a two-part strategy to ensure it would survive and thrive: more long-term planning to improve the quality of exhibitions, thereby better defining the gallery in the eyes of the community, coupled with a modest and focused fundraising effort.

The Harlow Gallery, owned and operated by the nonprofit Kennebec Valley Art Association, has become something of a Maine institution over the years. In many respects, it is the epitome of a grassroots arts organization. It’s an art center that in reality operates more like a community drop-in center, and is often the center of activity in an active Maine town.

It has been around more than 50 years, and has occupied its current space on Hallowell’s historic Water Street since the early 1960s. Its annual budget is miniscule — just less than $90,000, supported partly by more than 350 dues-paying members to the art association.

The gallery distinguishes itself for promoting the arts in general and the work of its members in particular while serving as a gathering spot for the community at large. It guiding philosophy is rooted in the belief that the arts are integral to a well-rounded and vibrant community, and can be a key factor in personal growth and self-improvement.

This mission is borne out in the kinds of exhibitions the Harlow has mounted lately — exhibitions about hunger, domestic violence and racism. Those are hardly the subjects of typical shows in community art centers. But Fahy says it’s critical to the mission of the gallery to go beyond the expected.

“I feel it’s important as a nonprofit gallery that we take a chance,” she said.

Added longtime member Nancy McGinnis, “For many years, the gallery was very much a traditional, conservative — think little old lady — art gallery. But we’re now bursting at the seams with innovative ideas and approaches to art and a creative way of looking at life.

“It’s not your grandmother’s gallery, or even your mother’s. It’s a perfect fit for Hallowell.” 

HALLOWELL TO THE CORE

Indeed, the story of the gallery is very much entwined with the fabric of the town and the culture of the Kennebec River valley. This is a place known for its brick buildings along Water Street, which are full of antique, specialty and one-of-a-kind shops, and quirky restaurants with inventive menus.

In many ways, Hallowell represents the polar opposite of its neighbor just up the road, Augusta. While Augusta has national retail chains, cookie-cutter restaurants and a downtown that has seen much of its local charm eroded, Hallowell has held fast to local culture.

People who live here are proud of their town, and have historically supported local businesses. When Slates Restaurant across the street from the gallery burned a few years back, residents raised money to help support employees while they were out of work during renovations.

It’s a proud, micro-local community with bonds that are strong, in part, because of the culture and lifestyle of living along the river. The Kennebec floods often, leaving residents and businesses alike scrambling to evacuate and save and salvage possessions and property. The ritual of that routine brings people together and strengthens the idea that they’re all in it together, Fahy said.

The gallery mirrors that culture and attitude, she added. It’s inclusive and cohesive, and reflects the interests of art association members and the community at large.

It opened in 1963 and was named for George Harlow, an Augusta physician and father of the Kennebec Valley Art Association’s chief benefactor, Genevieve Harlow Goodwin, who gave $3,000 toward the $6,000 purchase price for the three-story building. The association owns the building outright.

The building itself dates to the late 1800s, and is both a blessing and a curse. It’s a blessing because it’s historic and quaint, and has been a local landmark longer than it has been a gallery. It’s a curse because it is costly to maintain, and has been a source of frustration and consternation for generations of gallery managers.

The art association rents out two apartments on the second floor — one as an art studio, the other as a small living space. The third floor, which overlooks the river, remains undeveloped. It has no heat, no water. It could represent a source of revenue, but the Harlow has never been in the financial position to improve it. Many plans have been hatched over the years, but none acted on. 

COMMUNITY-CENTERED GOALS

One of the outcomes of Kaiser’s talk last June was the realization that the gallery won’t be able to proceed with a building plan anytime soon, Barron said.

And that’s OK. The gallery has no debt, and the board is not interested in taking on debt to develop the space, she said.

“One of the things Michael Kaiser said was, ‘Don’t build until you are ready.’ It was such a weight off our shoulders to hear that,” Barron said. “We can put that plan aside and concentrate on what we can do, which is programming, programming and programming. You will see it this year. You’ve already seen some great things, and you’re going to see more of it.

“That is why the planning piece is so important. It’s so easy to fight the fight that’s right in front of you and not ahead.”

Toward that end, the gallery has refined its mission, added new board members and done many small things to improve its local profile. Its Facebook page is active; its website interactive.

Fahy and Barron have recruited new people to serve on an exhibitions committee, as there’s a renewed emphasis on community involvement. The board has put together a development committee that’s charged with raising money for various initiatives.

One is simple and refreshingly modest: a Kickstarter campaign with a modest goal of raising just $850 for the gallery’s annual Young at Art youth exhibition, which it has hosted since 2004. The campaign ends at midnight Monday, and at press time was a few hundred dollars short of its goal.

Other campaigns are larger and designed to help with the gallery’s annual operating budget.

The overall goal is simply to get more people through the doors. Once they come in, they tend to stay involved, Barron said.

“My whole thing is, get them through the doors,” she said. “After that, they come back. They always come back.” 

Staff Writer Bob Keyes can be contacted at 791-6457 or at:

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