I live in Arlington, in southwestern Vermont, and once or twice a year I write about the cultural riches of this tiny postage stamp of a place. Norman Rockwell lived in Arlington from the 1930s into the 1950s. Grandma Moses lived in the next town, Bennington, as did Robert Frost.
Vermont was our 14th state. Between 1777 and 1791, it was the Vermont Republic, with wee Arlington its hub. The Green Mountain Boys lived here, before Ethan Allen posthumously went into the furniture business.
Today, we’re 2,277 souls living in a quiet rural valley, framed by the Green Mountains on the east and the Taconic Mountains on the west. The place is mostly farms and forests, with a base of small businesses and the same big opioid problem every Vermont town has. And the area is art-rich. The Bennington Museum, the Clark Art Institute, the museum at Williams College, where I went to school, and Mass MoCA in North Adams are my local museums. I’m blessed.
The Clark is a sad case. It’s $70 million in debt after an expansion no one loved. Most ask “why?” It’s an argument against too much vision. It’s in austerity mode as it pays its debts. Mass MoCA is great, the world’s biggest contemporary art space. Now 20 years old, it still has the creative energy of a start-up. Williams College is proposing to build a new museum — price tag over $75 million — for the most idiotic reason: Its distinguished 1980s museum building doesn’t comply with the school’s wacky carbon plan; it leaks too much heat. Williams obviously has too much money. Don’t give them any.
The Bennington Museum is a museum of history and art, focusing on Vermont. It does great programs on a shoestring budget. “Fields of Change: 1960s Vermont” and “Color Fields: 1960s Bennington Modernism” are its two clever new shows. I like history museums. Art doesn’t exist in a box. It lives in its time, with people and events and good and bad choices.
The shows are linked. In the 1960s, about 50,000 out-of-the-box young people moved to Vermont, the tail end of Appalachia. They were change agents, but “Fields of Change” isn’t about collision. In Vermont, it wasn’t that angry. It’s an exhibition about amalgamation and common purpose. It’s a show about “Freedom and Unity,” Vermont’s motto since 1779. Vermonters were always the quirkiest of Yankees. Sometimes with discord, sometimes with unexpected harmony, old timers and newcomers made remarkable statements on ecology, human rights, and craftsmanship. “Fields of Change” considers each topic.
The Bennington Modernism show focuses on the Color Field Movement’s roots at Bennington College, the elite former women’s school in town and counterculture’s Vermont calling card. Color Field artists such as Helen Frankenthaler, Jules Olitski, Kenneth Noland, Paul Feeley, and Pat Adams found an incubator at the avant-garde school. Bennington College had lots of crazies in the 1960s, but it did something extraordinary: In our little Vermont icebox, it fostered a year-round growing season in ideas.
Town and gown intersected more easily here. Bennington was barely urban in the 1960s, about 14,000 people. The college people and the locals mixed in this little place where shopping and schools brought people together.
The two exhibitions did something I thought wasn’t possible, or even healthy: It made me think twice about the hippie invasion in the 1960s and into the 1970s. We’re smelling the last pot-infused gasps of this Draft Dodgiest Generation, but maybe they weren’t so bad, and maybe some of them were responsible adults.
Smartly, “Fields of Change” starts with a road. A December 6, 1960, photograph of the new Interstate 89 construction and good maps show the path of the highway network through the 1960s and 1970s that opened isolated Vermont to easy, safe access. The new highways created a booming tourist, retirement, and second-home economy. Vermont had been a summer destination since the 1870s; the highways made the ski industry possible. The “Flatlanders” found Vermont.
The first gallery presents a glass hive of cultures buzzing around each other. A photograph of the “Symbols of Security” float from the 1960 Bennington Battle Day parade celebrates Vermont vigilance and self-reliance from the American Revolution to the Cold War. The Battle of Bennington in 1777 — granted, it was actually fought in neighboring Hoosick, N.Y., but never mind — led days later to the British defeat at Saratoga. The monument to the battle is still Bennington’s architectural centerpiece. A modern papier-mâché missile brought parade goers to the present.
Old Vermont was intensely patriotic. To the old Vermonters, self-defense, freedom, and equality were the legs on which the state of mind stood. The photograph didn’t surprise me, but it seems so unreal. Old Vermont looked tired. A big corporation — Union Carbide — paid for the float. It’s posed. It’s from another era, but it makes a good base point.
Big parts of the exhibition are documentary photographs. They give a crisp, “you are there” feel. In 1963, Bob Dylan first performed “The Times They Are a-Changin’” at Bennington College. In 1961, the Bennington Lions Club, a middle-class club of locals on the other side of town, did a minstrel show. Vermont sent teams to Mississippi to register black voters in the 1960s, some from schools such as Middlebury and Bennington but many organized among Vermont’s average joes. Liberal Democrats started winning Vermont elections.
In 1967, Bennington built a new high school in a Brutalist style designed by Benjamin Thompson and Associates in Boston. Its open concept and sleek lines made it the most avant-garde school building in the state. That the building is noisy and concrete and uninspirational would have been the skunk in the show’s progressive garden party. The high school still functions today. It’s not a terrible place; after all, people once lived in caves. But it’s not a practical place, either.
I loved the section on the 1960s Vermont craft industry, especially the young ceramicists and psychedelic textile makers. They weren’t aimless hippies but intense, community-minded people. Bennington Potters revived an old ceramics industry. Cheap living expenses and a libertarian vibe spurred a creative economy, as did the romance of small, handmade production in a laid-back environment.
Action protecting Vermont’s natural beauty is an important theme. Billboards were outlawed by 1970. The show has some good images on Vermont’s stringent land-use laws in the early 1970s. It took a few years for these laws to strangle the economy. Still, the place is pretty, for those who came at the right time, and visual pollution is confined to rural slums. Population growth stalled by 1990. Young people moved here in the 1960s for a freedom-loving spirit. Today they leave, for many reasons. It’s tough for businesses to expand. It’s hard to build anything.
I thought the exhibition was unfair to the old Vermonters on the issue of race. Since Vermont was so isolated for so long, it developed a unique identity. No place values equality more than Vermont. Vermonters died and suffered by the thousands to keep the country together and ban slavery, nationally, in the Civil War. Vermonters prohibited enslavement in its first, revolutionary state constitution in 1791. There’s not much social stratification here. In the country, we have space but we know our neighbors, their wins, and their woes. Snobbery, prejudice, and social climbing are reviled.
A photograph of a blackface minstrel show sponsored by the Lions Club in Bennington in 1960 gets the banned-book treatment, kept in a binder labeled “Some Viewers May Find the Enclosed Image Offensive.” It’s there to “prevent unintended trauma.” For me, this was a bit of an eye-roller. I think 1945 concentration-camp shots, Pol Pot’s skull collection, or September 11’s Falling Man provide a reality check on what truly induces trauma. The installation offered comment cards, which is smart. They’re displayed in the binder, too.
Who knows why these yahoos did a minstrel show in 1960? I know working-class and middle-class Vermonters in the 1960s were decent, giving, and, yes, sometimes very odd people. The photograph needed to be more deeply researched. Vermont in the 1960s wasn’t Alabama. Indeed, in 1969, the show tells us, the local Episcopal church hired a dynamic African-American rector.
Personally, I would have displayed the minstrel photograph together on the wall with photographs of local civil-rights protests and the very good material on how the new rector linked what he called “the unique Vermont-style Yankee individualism” with the Black Power movement’s quest for human brotherhood transcending race. I think viewers can deal with the dissonance. People in Vermont drive with “Vermont Tough” vanity plates for a reason.
An early, self-abusive white-privilege screed with the title “We Are White People” is on display. It was a Bennington College mass faculty letter to the editor of the local newspaper in 1968. It’s so ineptly written I thought it was inspired by Dada. Bennington College is a famous place for many reasons, and in the 1960s it was unusually famous, and notorious, as a sexual free-for-all. I suspect 100 Bennington College faculty would have signed a letter in 1968 putting Lolita on Mount Rushmore. The fiction writer Shirley Jackson was a Bennington College faculty wife. Even she thought it was a weird place.
I’d take anything political coming from the Bennington College faculty in the 1960s with a silo of salt, but the show uses “We Are White People” as a launch pad. The label tells us that “the letter’s frank admission of guilt . . . is remarkably prescient over 50 years later as we continue to struggle with overt racism and other issues of racial inequality in Bennington and throughout Vermont.” This is a history show, isn’t it? Moving back and forth in time is manipulative. It stops being history and becomes polemics. And who’s guilty? Need we call Perry Mason? Vermont was always slave-free and as equality-friendly as any place on earth, ever. What’s the “overt racism” now? If I walked into the show from Peoria, would I know what in the world this referenced?
“Color Fields: 1960s Bennington Modernism” is a separate show but isn’t. The artists seem to have found a bracing free-spiritedness in Vermont, a Yankee rigor and a colorfully extreme place. We’re green for spring and summer, then scarlet, yellow, and purple, then white and icy blue, then mud brown, and green again. Superb artists taught at Bennington College. Pat Adams, Paul Feeley, and many others abhorred the New York gallery rat race, so they’re not famous. Their work is a revelation.
By the time I’d heard so much about race, it was good to see in a case a copy of Playboy magazine from 1972. Playboy had great writing, plus centerfolds the Green Mountain Boys would have found revolutionary. Richard Pollack’s “Taking Over Vermont,” from the April 1972 issue, was careful, clever reporting on voting demographics and the opportunities they presented in this tiny place. In the 1970 census, Vermont had 444,732 people, of whom 287,575 were over 18. In 1970, 107,527 people were between 18 and 34. In an off-year election, about 150,000 people voted. A tiny 75,000 plus one could win the day for a countercultural candidate.
Goose the numbers with what Pollack called “some sort of latter day Children’s Crusade” — a movement to get serious counterculturalists to settle in Vermont — and you’ve taken control. Arithmetic isn’t normally the Left’s best friend, but here, it was. Deane Davis, a Republican, won the governorship in 1970 with an apathetic turnout, 87,458 votes, good for 57 percent. A little invasion, a little persuasion, a little group action, a little ballot harvesting, and, presto, a few years later, you’ve got Bernie Sanders.