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Eye for art comes from Big Apple to Little City

VERGENNES — Anni Mackay, who has shown and sold high-end art at her BigTown Gallery in Rochester for more than a decade, has roots in the art world of the Big Apple. Now she has brought those skills and that history to the Little City.
She has opened BigTown Gallery Vergennes at 245 Main St., next to Vergennes Laundry, and will hold an official grand opening this Saturday, May 13, 3-6 p.m.
Mackay has promoted art, artists and community in Rochester, and successfully run BigTown Gallery there since 2003. Then the spot in Vergennes caught her eye.
The Main Street storefront had been occupied until recently by painter Peter Fried, some of whose work now hangs in BigTown Vergennes. But he emailed his friends in the field that he wanted to give up the place.
Given the nature of the artwork that her clients come from as far away as Montreal and northern New York, as well as Burlington, to see, Mackay was intrigued by the petite space next to Vergennes Laundry.
Both its size and location were ideal, she said.
“I said that’s sort of a manageable size. I can do anything in that size,” Mackay said, adding, “Rochester is not always that easy to get to on a regular basis, so it will be fun to be more conveniently located.”
Mackay, a native of southern England who owns bachelor’s and master’s degrees in fine arts, has been a dedicated booster of the arts scene in the White River Valley since moving to Rochester in 1996. In 2003 Mackay had a knitwear business that she said marketed to “high-end resorts around the country” and also sold at the Waitsfield Farmers’ Market.
While at that market, Mackay heard questions about whether she had her own shop, and she decided to find one. Mackay settled on space in a building in Rochester village’s north end, next to her husband’s established bicycle business. They bought the building and moved into the second story over the gallery.
“And I thought while I’m at it I think I’ll include some other people’s work. I had some furniture. I had some paintings. And that’s kind of how it all began,” said Mackay, who acknowledges being in her early 50s. “And it grew into BigTown Gallery.”
Before she decided on a move to Vermont, Mackay had worked for many years for Ken Tyler of Tyler Graphics, one of the most high-profile printmakers in the nation. Tyler Graphics made prints for internationally known artists such as Frank Stella, James Rosenquist and Roy Lichtenstein.
“It was a very formative experience working for him, because he did some of the most dynamic, most ambitious projects that have ever been created,” she said, citing, for example, prints of Rosenquist’s 86-foot-long work “F-111,” the original of which is displayed at New York City’s Museum of Modern Art.
That background led Mackay to aim high when choosing an artistic direction for BigTown.
“I let my interests lead the way. I was always looking to see who was doing what and why. And of course having the experience in New York before moving here I was always going to be interested in who was at the top of their game,” she said. “Who was living in Vermont and had something to contribute that we wouldn’t ordinarily be aware of?”
Mackay said she sought out art professors and artists who had moved or retired to Vermont and were still creating high-quality work.
“I knew there wasn’t a gallery in Vermont that was interested in their professional lives in a way that I felt I understood, that someone was taking them very seriously and making sure the presentation and the publicity and kinds of people that I would be drawing would be in line with the kinds of people I would be showing,” she said. “My choice was to go for: Let’s have a look at what art looks like when you’re a professional and you’ve really seriously committed to it and you may have committed your entire life to this pursuit.”
HIGH-END TALENT
Many of the artists whose work is now displayed or will be displayed in Vergennes and Rochester have connections with regional colleges, including Dartmouth, Yale, Johnson State, Cornell and the Rhode Island School of Design, and/or with Vermont.
“Just by focusing on really established artists with this local interconnectedness through education institutions in the greater region … I’ve found a wealth of talent that have also influenced very heavily the direction of contemporary American art,” Mackay said.
Many others are associated with the Modernist movement that sprang up after World War II, and there is a tremendous amount of overlap between the two groups, she said.
“It happens to be a period I’m really interested in. A lot of these guys were educated on the G.I. Bill. They were some of the early developers of Modernism,” Mackay said. “The influence of European art on American art became really apparent at the time because so many of them were educated in Paris or England or Holland or places like that after the war. And they have influenced a whole other series of artists after that.”
Mackay does not plan to branch out into organizing readings, lectures and events in the park as she has in Rochester, but hopes to become involved in the Vergennes arts community.
“I won’t be able to bring the same kind of programming that I’ve brought to Rochester, but I might be able to do some other things that have a more educational bent, to help people with their careers,” Mackay said.
The limited wall space will be reserved for established artists, but Mackay said she and those artists are willing to reach out to local talent.
“It’s not a community art gallery space. But I am very community minded, and will always lend any advice I have. And if there is any way I can help in the future, which I’m certainly looking to do, I would try to help ground people in the professional practices that are essential to make it in the art world. And there certainly is a lot of teaching talent in this room,” she said. “These people (artists) come to the openings, and all kinds of opportunities around networking and conversations can happen.”
In fact, community involvement, as well as a desire for a healthier lifestyle, led Mackay to leave Tyler Graphics for Rochester in 1996.
“He thought I was absolutely crazy to move to Vermont. But I have other passions, such as the outdoors. I’m a big hiker and bicyclist and a lot of other things. So I wanted quality of life,” she said. “And I knew I was probably going to be interested in some sort of community development project around the arts.”
And the sense of community and a belief in the value of Main Streets to the life of small towns also helped lead Mackay to Vergennes.
“I really love the synergy between people who are doing terrific things, like Vergennes Laundry and the Vergennes Opera House and the great restaurants. All those things matter. They matter a lot, actually. Main Street is really under fire right now. They say it’s obsolete. Things are too expensive now. But I still believe this is the place community happens, where culture happens, where society happens, and where socialization is happening. And I think those things are really important.”
Andy Kirkaldy may be reached at [email protected].

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