By Steve Noble
What it took for two artists to land their big dream: a studio, gallery, retail, and educational space that they can call their own
Randi Solin and Natalie Blake are artists and business owners whose work in glass and clay, respectively, requires volcanic heat to transform their visions and techniques into beautiful and lasting objects.
Perhaps this discipline best explains how they persevered, through a seven-year saga, to find a home for Fulcrum Arts, the business they share.
Their commitment to their art and their business, and their experience seeing beauty emerge from extreme conditions, might be the only reasons they stayed with their mutual vision long enough to write a happy ending.
“It’s been an unbelievable journey. Most people don’t understand why we didn’t quit,” said Solin. “For me, personally, I didn’t really question it. The fact that we own our own businesses in the arts/creative economy, we know what it is to struggle and persevere.”
Their plans are rapidly unfolding for the Fulcrum Arts Center — a half-million-dollar project to purchase the former Tom and Sally’s building on Route 30 and transform it into studio, gallery, retail and educational space — which should be completed in October.
Then — whew! — they’ll celebrate with a public party.
The success of Saxtons River Distillery, which draws enough tourist traffic from Route 30 and into the building to justify staying there, convinced Solin and Blake that their vision could work.
With the help of Nick Marchese of Hand of Man Artisan Builders, they’re transforming the uninspiring metal building they call “our ugly duckling” into a dream come true.
“I go through incredible exhilaration and sheer panic,” said Solin. “I can’t believe we did this.”
That’s understandable, seeing as how it took seven years to get here.
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Solin was one of the first artists to take tenancy, and she saw that the building could serve a community of creative ventures. In 1999, she started the Open Studio Tour and Sale. Blake moved in up the hall a couple of years later. They met by chance and hit it off.
“Our businesses were parallel, and our personalities were so yin and yang,” said Blake.
One thing they had in common was a sense that their businesses had outgrown their Cotton Mill studios. They needed more space for teaching and retail, and had both decided that something about the way they were doing business wasn’t working.
In a sense, each was a victim of her own success, but there are worse problems. They adapted.
Solin’s 26 years of glassblowing experience include 18 years as owner of her business. Her work is in the permanent collections of the White House, United States embassies in Algeria and Guinea, and museums; it has been featured in solo exhibitions and galleries across the country. She has won many awards.
Blake has also worked for 26 years in her medium — clay — and has owned her own business for nearly 20 years. She started in functional pottery, switched to porcelain decorative vessels, and then to wall-art-tile murals. Recently, she’s focused on public art.
Her,work, too, graces many permanent collections and galleries, and she’s won many awards.
Still, they both saw that they needed to change things up, particularly in fallout of the 2008 recession.
“Over the last seven years there’s been a paradigm shift in the art world. Everything we’ve been doing, it’s not working the way it’s supposed to be,” said Solin, who added that she wanted to trade a life of traveling to and from galleries, festivals and shows for one where she controls her own destiny.
“In the end, bringing people to us and staying home more will be the shift I’m working for,” she says.
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So Solin and Blake formed Fulcrum Arts and began looking for a home. They were aided by winning the Brattleboro Development Credit Corporation’s business plan competition, a check for $20,000, and a hearty handshake from then-Vermont Gov. James Douglas.
Initially, they set their sights on the former Tri-State Automotive building on the corner of Flat and Elm streets, a derelict brick building that was owned by the New England Youth Theatre.
Many in the arts community included this property in their vision of an area arts campus. Leaders from NEYT, the Brattleboro Music Center, and Nimble Arts (now the New England Center for Circus Arts) began gathering at least monthly to discuss siting their facilities all in that one area of town.
“We met a lot. We were completely committed to the vision,” said Solin.
Those plans went awry, but not before Fulcrum had sunk some $60,000 into planning and studies, Solin says. The fact that the Tri-State building ranked as an EPA brownfield site scuttled the deal, and Solin and Blake felt fortunate that the purchase and sale agreement they’d negotiated allowed them to withdraw and recoup their costs.
That said, “I remember being pretty discouraged,” Solin notes.
Regrouping a few months later, they considered the former Riverview Restaurant, now the Whetstone Station Restaurant and Brewery, but they figured that to be too small, despite its ideal location right on the Connecticut River.
A call from their real-estate agent put them onto their next building: the former Sanel Auto Parts Building on Flat Street, and that seemed like the perfect fit. At 15,000 square feet, it was big enough. It was well located on Flat Street, and it seemed to offer everything they were seeking.
Solin and Blake worked tirelessly for two years to make that deal work. They secured commitments from the eight tenants the building could house, and lined up funding from private sources and the Vermont Economic Development Authority.
They poured more than $10,000 of their own money into plans, lined up approval from the town, and had the enthusiastic support of the regional arts community. The builder was ready to go. The bank was ready to go.
Then the seller backed out.
Not just backed out, but backed out “beyond the 11th hour, with one sentence, in an email,” said Solin. She declines to speculate why.
“I sobbed for three weeks,” said Blake. “We definitely looked at each other like, Are we jinxed?’”
Then in June 2012, Blake and Solin got word that the town of Brattleboro was seeking proposals for the Archery Building, which it had acquired in 2006 as part of the Union Station project.
Once again, the two artists dug in, worked 80-hour weeks, and sank another $3,000 into developing plans to meet the town’s two-month deadline. Though they were the only people to submit a proposal, those plans, too, fell through: The renovations would have been too costly, and they wouldn’t have been able to own the building for 14 years. It was time to move on again.
“The Archery Building was like a rebound relationship,” Blake says.
Then, in October 2012, word came that the Tom and Sally’s building was up for sale. Blake and Solin immediately saw the swan inside the ugly duckling of a building: There was space and parking, plenty of tourist traffic, a pleasant backyard that runs down to the West River, and they would own it outright. They could do with it whatever they wanted, free from the constraints of historic preservation, non-profit boards of directors, and special environmental issues.
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Less than a year later, they’re within reach of moving into this home for their mutual enterprise and their individual businesses. It’s the realization of an idea they first formulated seven years, several buildings, and a whole lot of lessons ago.
Not only do they manage successful careers as artists, they’re also self-taught veterans of business planning, financing, zoning regulations, non-profit organizations, historic development tax credits, and environmental regulations.
“We’re not just teaching young people about how to find your identity through molten metals, but also how to run a business,” said Blake.
As a postscript, many of the people they’ve dealt with on this journey have left the stage. Town officials have moved on; the people at the bank are working elsewhere; potential partners have taken other paths. Blake and Solin have stayed at it. And they’ve remained committed to Brattleboro.
(It’s true that, in frustration, they did briefly consider looking at sites in Greenfield, Mass., and elsewhere. They just couldn’t do it.)
“I just think that [Brattleboro is] such a special place,” said Solin. “When I won the business plan competition, I made a promise to the people in the town: I took very seriously that that money has to go back to the community. Though I think people would understand that we gave it our best effort.” —Steve Noble