Putting a new face on a historic treasure: Sheldon Museum melds old and new

MIDDLEBURY — Among the antiquated pots, vintage quilts and clothing, age-old images of Lake Dunmore and local farms at Middlebury’s Henry Sheldon Museum perches a brand new fire-engine red tandem bike made with hydraulic disk brakes and a Bronx electric-assist motor.
Produced by RAD-Innovations, an international bike company with a base in Vermont, the bike is definitely 21st century. But thanks to Sheldon Executive Director Bill Brooks — an avid cyclist himself — it has found its way among artifacts of the past.
The bike is one of many in the Sheldon’s current exhibit, “Pedaling Through History,” a collection by Burlington’s Glenn Eames of bicycles from the past 150 years, bike memorabilia and information about the sport.
While most of the rest of the exhibit is an ode to the history of bicycling, and the rest of the museum is an ode to the history of Addison County, contemporary pieces are no longer out of place at the Sheldon.
Since Bill Brooks arrived at the Sheldon four years ago, he has orchestrated a series of exhibits featuring contemporary artists and artifacts, proving that history is made every day.
“When I came, because of the challenges that I heard in the community of people saying they had been here and didn’t need to come back, I wanted to combine my interest in history and art,” he said. “Also, the museum was founded in name as an art museum and historical society, I want to fulfill those two missions.”
One of the most successful was a fashion exhibit in 2013 by South Burlington artist Wendy Copp. The exhibit, “Fashion and Fantasy at the Edge of the Forest,” combined the museum’s vintage clothing collection with Copp’s own clothing, shoes and masks — all made with natural materials.
“(The fashion exhibit) was so amazingly stimulating and out of this world. It was really a fantasy,” said Emmie Donadio, curator of modern and contemporary art and director of events and programs at the Middlebury College Museum of Art. “It was one of the best exhibits I’ve seen of contemporary art practice anywhere.”
Donadio has been in Middlebury for 39 years, and was briefly a board member at the Sheldon. From her perspective, the Sheldon has morphed into a world-class exhibition space.
“The museum has much more dynamic programming,” she said. “Whereas I think people used to think of it as the local historical society, which definitely has a place, it now seems livelier.”
Other recent exhibits have featured Warren Kimble — renowned Vermont folk artist — and the late Arthur Healy, an art professor at Middlebury College from the 1940s-1960s.
“Warren Kimble All American Artist: An Eclectic Retrospective” featured both the Brandon artist’s folk art and his post-folk art series. His more recent work includes “Widows of War,” honoring widows of Iraq, and the “Sunshine Series,” in celebration of President Barack Obama’s inauguration.
In 2014, the museum displayed Arthur Healy’s work alongside the art of nine of his students who went on to become artists in the exhibit “Arthur Healy: A Retrospective.” The exhibit celebrated Healy, an important figure in Middlebury for many years, and demonstrated not only the impact of his work, but also the impact Healy had on future artists.
“Bill does a wonderful job of looking critically at people important in Middlebury and then expanding the reach of the exhibition for a wider contemporary audience,” Donadio said.
In summer 2014, the Sheldon collaborated with Historic New England on “Lost Gardens of New England and the Creative Carvings by Norton Latourelle.”
The blooming exhibit featured works by Latourelle, a Shoreham woodcarver and sculptor, as well as paintings, watercolors, drawings and photographs of New England gardens and landscapes from the past.
Brooks’ chooses most of the exhibits, relying on his own, unique aesthetic.
“It’s not necessarily sophisticated in the sense that it’s the work you might see by Impressionists or by masters,” he said. “It’s unusual, it’s not run of the mill at all.”
Once he has an idea, Brooks works with Mary Ward Manley, associate director of the museum, and Eva Garcelon-Hart, research center archivist, along with a massive roster of volunteers to develop an exhibit. For eight weeks this summer Vanessa Dikuyama, a Middlebury College intern, also joined the staff.
Dikuyama helped develop the current exhibit on bicycles and has spent much of the summer working with Brooks, Manley and Garcelon-Hart throughout the museum.
“You never realize how much work and attention to detail museums require,” she said. “It’s very interesting. Also, if they want to reach the community and do something for the community there’s a lot that’s part of being attentive to what the community needs.”
In an effort to offer more to its community while also reaching out into the wider world, the Sheldon Museum joined in a formal alliance with Historic New England in November 2015. Through the alliance, Sheldon members have member-like access to the nation’s oldest and largest regional heritage organization. Similarly, Historic New England members have free access to the Sheldon Museum, discounts at its shop and other member benefits.
For both organizations, the alliance — a two-year memorandum of understanding — is an opportunity to collaborate and build a stronger relationship.
The Sheldon is the only Vermont property that Historic New England is associated with. For Carl Nold, president and CEO of Historic New England, the alliance offers more visibility in Vermont and expands the resources his organization has access to.
“The Sheldon has archeology, history and art as part of its mission, it’s a very broad scope,” Nold said. “Although we focus on domestic life, we have a wide collection as well, so this was quite a complementary fit … They’re doing the kinds of things our constituency is interested in.”
Brooks’ passion for art and history extends back to his childhood in Washington, D.C., visiting the National Gallery of Art at the Smithsonian and The Phillips Collection.
“I used to go to the National Gallery early on Saturday mornings when no one was there, walk through and pretend it was mine,” he said. “My interest in art has always been there and grown as I’ve gotten older.”
Brooks graduated from Kenyon College in 1964, at which point he served in the Air Force for four years then moved to Salisbury, Md., and worked as a banker for 25 more.
While in Washington, Brooks dated a woman who introduced him to folk art and sparked the fire that inspired him to retire early and return to school. He began collecting folk art and has an extensive personal collection (see “Brooks Turned Passion into Collection”).
Two years after retiring early, Brooks received a master’s degree in American Folk Art Studies from New York University, in a program co-sponsored by the Museum of American Folk Art.
“I was 52 when I graduated,” he said. “There weren’t too many jobs for 52-year-olds who had just gotten their master’s degree in American Folk Art Studies, who had only done internships and who didn’t have much experience. But here I am, it all worked out.”
As a child, Brooks spent summers splashing in Lake Champlain, where his grandfather bought a property in 1919 that his family still owns. Additionally, his mother lived in Middlebury and before long, Brooks found himself here as well. Before starting at the Sheldon, he ran the Vermont State Craft Centers and worked at the Calvin Coolidge Presidential Foundation.
It’s his involvement with the community, his love for folk art and his appreciation of Vermont history and culture that has made Brooks so perfect for the Sheldon. His unique eye for combining history and contemporary art is what draws visitors to his exhibits.
“I respond to certain things, I can’t articulate what it is but when I see it, I know it,” he said. “I think I have a role here to educate people about the history of Vermont, but also to bring in exhibits that are engaging and that will bring in the public and introduce them to the artists.”

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