New Middlebury shop and gallery Sparrow Art Supply aims to strengthen local artist community – Seven Days | Candle Made Easy

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  • Caleb Kenna
  • Beth Svenningsen

Beth Svenningsen was fresh out of graphic design school and looking for a job in New York City when the pandemic hit.

She and her fiancé, Mitch Bluestein, had long dreamed of moving north to Vermont to be closer to skiing and hiking trails like the ones they explored in Addison County. With Bluestein’s podcast production job on the horizon, it seemed like the ideal time to move from Brooklyn to Middlebury.

When Svenningsen, 30, and Bluestein settled in Middlebury in December 2020, she immediately started looking for places to buy supplies for her watercolor painting. She discovered that the nearest shops were in Burlington and Montpelier, 55 and 75 minutes’ drive from her new home, respectively.

“I know people in Vermont are okay with driving places, but it just seemed like a stretch,” Svenningsen said.

Shortly after moving, Svenningsen joined the Brandon Artists’ Guild to meet other local artists and learn more about the creative community. There she learned that due to the lack of local shops, many local artists were buying materials online. But that’s not a good option, Svenningsen said, because shopping for art supplies is such a tactile experience. “When you shop online, you don’t have those random discoveries,” she explained.

However, Svenningsen didn’t seriously consider opening her own art supply store until she found out about the Kick Start Middlebury grant. Sponsored by the City of Middlebury and the Better Middlebury Partnership and funded by local organizations and the City Business Development Fund, the grant offers six entrepreneurs $15,000-$20,000 to start or expand businesses in downtown Middlebury.

Svenningsen applied and was awarded a Kick Start Middlebury scholarship in July 2021. In November, she signed a lease for a retail space and on March 11 opened Sparrow Art Supply.

The store is located on the ground floor at 52 Main Street next to Middlebury Mountaineer, just in front of Otter Creek Falls. Its white interior with wooden floors is minimally decorated, drawing visitors’ eyes to its colorful contents. In the main room there are paints, brushes, canvases, sketchbooks, crayons, ballpoint pens, linoleum blocks, air-dry clay and other painting supplies. The smaller room is a gallery with works by local artists.

The store’s only notable decoration is a glowing blue sparrow hanging from the black-and-white painted wall behind the checkout counter. When Svenningsen and Bluestein first moved to Vermont, they quickly discovered that his remote work and freelance art work, combined with the strict COVID-19 guidelines, would allow for little social interaction. The couple took up birding to explore their new home and learn more about Addison County’s wildlife population.

Svenningsen named the shop after the American sparrow, the first bird she learned to identify and which later represented her love for the local art scene.

“It feels fitting to have a name that’s so filled with hope,” she said.

Svenningsen has an extensive artistic background. After graduating in studio art from Skidmore College in Saratoga Springs, NY, she worked as a freelance set designer for theatre, dance, film and window displays in New York City. She then returned to school for a certificate in graphic design, which she completed just before the pandemic hit.

The connections Svenningsen forged at the Brandon Artists’ Guild helped create the 40-page business plan that won her the Kick Start Middlebury grant. She also researched existing businesses in Middlebury, foot traffic into the town center and visitor shopping behavior. She spoke to art supply store owners in similar-sized college towns across the country, who offered helpful advice on their business models.

“[The business plan] actually made a significant difference when I realized that this could be possible,” said Svenningsen.

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Acrylic paints at Sparrow Art Supply - CALEB KENNA

  • Caleb Kenna
  • Acrylic paints at Sparrow Art Supply

Karen Duguay, managing director of Experience Middlebury and coordinator of the grants program, said the selection committee liked Svenningsen’s vision of Sparrow as more than just a retail store with a gallery space that could draw visitors into the city centre.

“We were very happy about the application [Svenningsen] coming because we knew she had a lot of energy and she wanted to be community oriented,” Duguay said.

The current exhibition at Sparrow’s Sense of Relief gallery features the relief prints by some 20 artists from across the state, including Middlebury’s Halina Lyons, Vergennes’ Janet Seaburg, Killington’s Dawn Leone and Essex Junction’s Linda Blackerby. The prints went on display on May 13 and will remain on display until July 10.

Svenningsen said she wants the gallery to be accessible to artists of all skill levels, as it can be difficult for beginners to break into the exhibition scene. “It’s created a magnet for people who make art, and it brings people here who wouldn’t necessarily go to an art supply store,” she said.

Sparrow’s first show at the gallery, Nice to Meet You, attracted more than 40 entries and ran from its grand opening on March 11 through early May. Sarah Schumacher from Middlebury was one of the artists whose work Svenningsen chose for the exhibition.

“[Sparrow] is more accessible to artists like me and other people in the community,” Schumacher said. “It’s a great resource for Middlebury artists trying to break into the art world.”

Visitors can purchase all of the artworks exhibited in the gallery. Though Sparrow retains a 40 percent commission on those sales, the exhibits are still a great way for local artists to boost their earnings, Svenningsen said.

In another attempt to support artists, Svenningsen has held a number of open studio sessions in the retail section of the store. Each 1.5 hour drawing session included either a still life display set up by Svenningsen or drawing figures using a live nude model. Svenningsen said clients have expressed keen interest in attending sessions on other media and courses from local artists, which she plans to start in the coming months.

Since opening the store, Svenningsen has used Instagram and a biweekly newsletter to reach out to the Addison County community. She recently published an online customer survey to find out what type of new inventory they would like to see, when they are most likely to shop, and what types of workshops would interest them.

She tracks how many people visit the store each day and hopes to develop an online ordering system and curbside pickup for customers who can’t come down the stairs to shop in person.

“The idea for this room [still] is very community oriented, be it the gallery or the workshops,” said Svenningsen.

Duguay believes Svenningsen’s consistent efforts to connect with the local artist community and solicit feedback on social media will make her successful in the long run. “She has really good energy and people appreciate that,” Duguay said. “She’s really good at unlocking what people are actually looking for.”

Correction on June 9, 2022: Svenningsen earned a certificate in graphic design, not a master’s degree.

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