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Ashland Arts Center folds

After 13 years of providing social and financial support for area painters, sculptors, photographers and fabric artists, the Ashland Arts Center will fold for good at the end of June, the latest victim of coronavirus.

Amid responses of shock and grief in the community, the AAC board announced the closure, noting the nonprofit “struggled over the years with decreasing revenues and increasing costs,” now combined with declining tourism from the pandemic.

The spacious, two-story edifice on Main Street, a property of the Provost family for generations, was a bubbling hub of artists working on site, displaying their creations, teaching art classes and serving as the nucleus for First Friday Art Walks. It included a wine bar, live music and much social life.

Many of the artists were winners of annual grants from Ashland lawyer-developer and philanthropist Lloyd Matthew Haines — and proudly showed art at AAC funded by the awards.

“It was a tremendous struggle under the best of circumstances,” said muralist Denise Baxter, who founded AAC and was executive director for 12 years. “Closure is going to have a real impact on our community. It will affect hundreds of artists one way or the other. Dozens have been making their living in that building. Tourists and residents spent so many hours connecting with artists.”

Longtime Ashland artist Denise Kester, who sold her paintings in a central spot of AAC for years, said, “It’s epic sad, a huge loss for our community. ... It was a great venue to sell art and will be a big financial hit. I will miss our artist community, and the monthly party it was during art walk. But it was struggling, and rent was going up. Still, it was a shock. I thought we would open back up. Maybe it can resurrect, but probably in a smaller space.”

A Tidings Facebook thread was peppered with grief-filled words. AAC-based artist Jane Groveman Sterling said, “I’ve been in and out of grief since I got the letter. I loved being part of the community of artists. So many evolutions of management and change to keep going. We survived because of a generous donor for years. Lost that donor and couldn’t survive the high overhead.”

City Planner Brandon Goldman, an AAC board member, said, “The Art Center has done so much to promote the arts and our local artists. For so long it’s been an institution of creativity. The closure is a true loss to the community, but the nonprofit organization will persist and return in a new form one day, after this crisis is behind us.”

Artist Pegi Smith said, “Saddened to know. I remember when Denise was first talking about this. It was my very early days of painting, and she asked if I wanted to hop on board. I eagerly said, ‘Of course!’ It had come so far from then. I’m truly sorry to see this disappear.”

Nature artist Deb Van Poolen said, “I am very sad to not be able to teach classes in the wonderful little classroom any longer. Not sure what place might be a substitute.”

Sue Densmore posted, “What a loss. My granddaughter and I went regularly. Learned fun techniques, met the artists, introduced her to so many different media. All the artists were so generous and thoughtful to her.”

“My heart is breaking for Ashland and her citizens,” said Joy Fate. “This is such a gut punch for our community. The restaurant industry and small businesses are suffering.”

Gina DuQuenne, a manager with Neuman Hotel Group, said, “Wow, we lost another staple of Ashland. Unbelievable. When does it stop?”

“So many losses,” said Nancy Walsch, “and it’s happening here and all over the world. I’m afraid this is only the beginning. But humans are pretty resilient ... we will recover, just like what happened after WWII.”

“I don’t use the word ‘tragic’ often,” said Susan Bizeau, “but this is a tragic loss to our community. So sorry.”

Author Darla Claire said, “This is such a big loss to our artists and community, it’s heartbreaking. Yet it is not a shock considering the severity of the pandemic. It is my hope the vision for the future art community will indeed restructure and again be a viable outlet and resource for our art community and citizens. We’ve got to brace ourselves for more closures but I know it will turn around. It will be different, a closer community that in time will thrive.”

In deciding to fold, the board studied a range of options, including becoming all-volunteer, hiking rents to artists, doing membership drives, and asking for commissions, but they said the pandemic would wipe out any gains. The board’s letter to artists noted they face diminished venues for sales because so many galleries, fairs and auction houses have shut down.

However, the board has new members and is committed to “expanding the vision” during this period of “voluntary dormancy and rejuvenation.”

It said AAC will become “fiscally sound and operationally streamlined” as it uses its depth of experience to support artists and present their work to the community.

Andy Atkinson / Mail TribuneExecutive Director and muralist Denise Baxterout of the Ashland Art Center.