Society & Culture

Flooding at Kahn center in Johnson, Barre Labor Hall hurt creative economy

People in the industry believe the problems caused by the floods will worsen with winter weather, and artists could be left wondering what they’ll do without accessible indoor spaces

The flooded Vermont Studio Center
Vermont Studio Center via Facebook

By Cecilia Larson, for the Community News Service

Your life as a professional artist demands constant attention to detail: tracking opportunities for commissions, keeping a well-stocked pile of paints, film and other supplies and making sure you have a space to focus on your craft and make a living. And of course, there’s the art itself. 

Now, imagine your gallery collection, your supplies, your studio wiped away by water and mud. 

That’s the story of many resident artists at the Vermont Studio Center in Johnson on the banks of the Lamoille River — which saw its entire campus flooded with 8 feet of water during the catastrophic storms this summer, ruining countless works of art. Staff who watched the destruction now have to see the demolition of the Wolf Kahn Barn, which once housed eight visual art studios. The floods tore months’ worth of paintings, sculptures and other mixed media works out of the once bustling building, and it needs to be knocked down as a result.

“The silver lining is connecting with our community and feeling very supported,” said Sarah Audsley, the center’s writing program manager.

Artists and arts-related organizations had just begun to recover from the effects of the Covid-19 pandemic when the floods hit this summer. 

The heavy rains and flooding this summer not only damaged properties but prevented organizations from operating outside, or hosting outdoor events, dealing a blow to Vermont’s notable creative economy. Arts and culture contributed about $1.1 billion to Vermont’s economy in 2021, according to federal data compiled by the National Assembly of State Arts Agencies, more than education services, utilities and more.

People in the industry believe the problems caused by the floods will worsen with winter weather soon setting in and, within the next few months, artists could be left wondering what they’ll do without accessible indoor spaces.

The Vermont Arts Council, a nonprofit designated by the Legislature as the state’s official arts agency, has stepped in to support artists and art organizations in their recuperation efforts post-flooding.

The group sent volunteers and financial support to those hit the worst, providing over 30 grants, totaling nearly $60,000 in aid for artists and art organizations affected by the floods, said Amy Cunningham, the council’s deputy director. Local libraries, museums, and state archives were top of the list in aid, as the race against the clock for mold and mildew setting into books and artifacts started the moment the water rose, Cunningham said. 

“This was the first disaster where it was like, ‘We have to activate immediately,’” she said.

The organization wasn’t spared from the floods itself: Its home base in Montpelier took on 2 feet of water, resulting in an extended leave from the office until February — something its leaders know will be a further challenge based on their experience during the height of the pandemic, Cunningham said.

The Old Labor Hall in Barre — home to historical artifacts, decor and books — was devastated by a 7 feet of floodwater rushing into the building and destroying the elevator mechanisms, bakery and propane tanks. The hall’s lower level saw the worst damage. 

“We are not going to keep anything in the basement ever again,” said Ruth Ruttenberg, president of the Barre Historical Society, which owns the building. Ruttenberg joined the board of the society in 2001 and said she has seen four major floods come through the Old Labor Hall doors since then.

Following spring flooding in 2011, the Old Labor Hall received a large flood grant from the Federal Emergency Management Agency to set up sandbags, waterproof and reinforce walls and more. But it wasn’t a high enough caliber to withstand the summer floods that slammed the historic landmark and Barre as a whole.

Ruttenberg said the flooding left over a foot of mud in its wake on the main floor of the hall. As summer turned to fall, staff and volunteers came together to repair the building, shoveling out mud, breaking ground to re-cement the basement and discarding destroyed artifacts and decor.

Still, the Old Labor Hall suffered. Elevator repairs are expensive, said Ruttenberg, and the building had safety issues to address before it could once again host lively events. The hall anticipates hosting a number of wedding ceremonies, craft shows and parties through the end of the year.

Ruttenberg feels the race against the clock. “We needed to be 100% yesterday, but hopefully, hopefully very soon,” she said in an interview before some of the repairs. 

And even after everything was dried off, Ruttenberg and her colleagues needed to sit down and consider how they, and the state at large, will handle increasingly extreme flooding.

“What happened to Montpelier and the resilience that people showed, if that happens again in the next couple of years, what happens to those business owners?” she asked.

“Either we do something,” she said, “or we repeat it again.”

Vermont has been given a hand in the wake of the flooding by the Heritage Emergency National Task Force. In collaboration with the Federal Emergency Management Agency and the Smithsonian Institution, Vermont artists and art owners have been able to get help on site from preservation specialists in an attempt to recover artifacts affected by flooding.

Additionally, through the Federal Emergency Management Administration, artists affected by the floods can apply for financial aid. FEMA requires all applicants to have also applied for a U.S. Small Business Administration loan before they are eligible for relief, though. 

“I personally have not had to go through any of this,” said Audsley, the rep from the Vermont Studio Center in Johnson.

“My heart goes out to everyone who’s trying to deal with jumping through these hoops.”

The Community News Service is a program in which University of Vermont students work with professional editors to provide content for local news outlets at no cost.

Categories: Society & Culture

1 reply »

  1. The Old Labor Hall is a registered National Historical Landmark erected in 1900, the Socialist Labor Party Hall. Elia Corti was shot and killed there during a politcally charged brawl. Perhaps there is a spiritual curse hanging over the place for the deeds and secrets held within the walls and bricks. The dismantling and destruction of General Robert E. Lee’s statue was perfectly fine and encouraged (among other historical, artistic statues of significance and importance to others.) Yet, this particular building shall not be allowed to perish by declaration of which modern political faction? Who is the self-appointed authority to cherry pick historical figures, buildings, and symbolism to be retained, retired or destroyed? Let it go I say. It will only be missed by those using it for reasons most of us are not keenly aware of.