The Mill District Local Art Gallery aims to give artists a ‘sense of place’


According to Hannah Rechtschaffen, art has a value that goes far beyond its aesthetic appeal: it can also be a key factor in helping to stimulate and maintain a healthy economy.

And as director of the North District Local Art Gallery, Rechtschaffen oversees a new kind of hybrid art space: a gallery and store that showcases the work of up to 30 artists at once, offers workshops and conversations. individual with artists, and is also part of a larger development, the Mill District in North Amherst, which incorporates retail, restaurants, food markets and housing.

“We’re part of something bigger here, where everything is designed to fit together,” she said. “And that helps give our artists greater exposure and gives them a sense of community.”

The Mill District was developed by WD Cowls Co., the lumber and wood products company that has been in Amherst since the 18th century. The company created the mix of shops, boutiques and housing in recent years on the site of a former sawmill and streetcar station just off Route 63.

And when the new development was planned, Rechtschaffen said Cowls President Cinda H. Jones told her, “I really want to have an art gallery here. I thought that was a great idea, and was even more thrilled when she let me figure out how to do it.

Since its official opening a year ago, the Local Art Gallery, which is connected to a large general store, has been attracting more attention from artists and customers, Rechtschaffen said. More than 30 artists are now on a waiting list looking for a space there, she says, while the number of artists whose work is exhibited at the same time has increased from 22 to 34 as the work of three new artists has just been added to the mix.

Artists rent space on a monthly basis, paying $20 per linear foot for the amount they use, and the store takes a 24% commission on all sales, which Rechtschaffen says is considerably less than what art galleries usually take. Commissions return to the gallery for special events, marketing and other “cutting edge” opportunities, she explains.

“You basically determine how much work you want to show and what you want to show,” said Rechtschaffen, who has a background in theater and previously worked as a program coordinator for the Arts Outreach Service at UMass Amherst. “We work with the artists on what they want to do.”

In the gallery, which measures approximately 1,000 square feet, a wide array of artworks – paintings, prints, fabric pieces, mixed media, photography, fine jewelry – hangs on living room-style walls, while several pieces of furniture handmade by Liz Armstrong and Rebecca Wheeler are currently grouped together to form a kind of island in part of the room.

A round table, meanwhile, exhibits the works of the potter Zahava Friedman. Greeting cards and other gift items are also for sale in the store, and many artworks are modestly sized.

“Some people are intimidated by walking into an art gallery, where the work can be very expensive and very large,” Rechtschaffen said. “We want to have things that are more affordable and where you feel like you’re walking into a store.”

She notes that she’s back and forth on the title of the space, wondering if calling it a store might be better than a gallery; she finally decided that not to call it a gallery would amount to short-selling artists.

“You can see, though, that we aim to be both,” says Rechtschaffen.

Maggie Hodges, a landscaper from Amherst, loves this arrangement. She has been renting space in the gallery for about two months, sharing a corner of the room with wood craftsman Roy Johnson; his paintings are mounted on a wall just above a table made by Johnson which also contains some of his wooden decorative pieces.

“I like the flexibility you have here,” says Hodges. “And it’s another place to advertise my work.”

Rechtschaffen says she’s open to anything artists want to do, like sharing space; she notes that having Hodges’ paintings on display above Johnson’s table “gives you a great perspective of how a painting would look above your own kitchen or dining room table” .

Focus on the local

To exhibit their work at the North District Local Art Gallery, artists must live within approximately an hour’s drive. The artists currently on display hail from 17 cities, including Franklin County and the North Quabbin area.

“We want it to be a place where established artists and new artists in the region can find a home,” Rechtschaffen said. “When you buy work from a local artist, that money stays in the community.”

Textile artist Emily Stewart, also from Amherst, is one of three new artists to join the gallery. Every three months, new artists are welcomed with an artistic opening, the most recent taking place on October 28th. A recent morning before this opening, Stewart came to adjust some of her work.

“I love what they’re trying to do here and be a part of it,” she said.

Rechtschaffen says she’s starting to have a bit of a problem with how many other people want to be included in the gallery. Some of the artists who work there have been with the space since it opened, she noted, and there is no time limit on how long they can stay. But with a growing waiting list, she may have to consider swapping some artists for new ones.

In a way, however, she doesn’t see this as a problem but as a sign that the gallery is working as she and Cinda Jones had hoped. Rechtschaffen’s official title at the Mill District is actually Creative Director of Locations and Special Projects, and as such she manages the gallery but also plans and oversees events at the Mill District. She also talks to potential commercial tenants and developers.

Placemaking, she says, is essentially about looking broadly at the arts, culture and history of an area, and the people who live and work there, and making decisions about developments as to how they fit into this global mosaic.

“You want to pay attention to how a specific place develops and changes,” she said, “because most places change in one way or another. But regardless of the changes, you want art and culture to be part of it.

The local art gallery has also added regular Sunday afternoon sessions, where resident artists hold art-making classes, demonstrations, or talks. And at the end of the year, the gallery will be reconfigured, as some wall abutments and other parts of the gallery are movable. “Our plan is to rethink everything,” says Rechtschaffen.

Want another incentive to stop? The local art gallery will be hosting a holiday sale on Nov. 12 from 1-4 p.m.

Steve Pfarrer can be contacted at [email protected]


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