Idea hatched to beautify downtown Middlebury construction site

MIDDLEBURY — Town Hall Theater is recruiting local artists to put a prettier face on a chain link fence that will temporarily encircle one of Middlebury’s most prominent downtown parks for the next three years.
It’s being called the “Chain Link Gallery” project and will take center stage at Triangle Park, which will be surrounded by the impending $72 million effort to supplant the Main Street and Merchants Row rail bridges with a tunnel. The heaviest construction work on that tunnel is expected to occur in 2020.
But more immediately Triangle Park will become one of four Middlebury Village sites at which workers will drill four deep shafts as part of a drainage system for the downtown rail bed that borders the Otter Creek. The fence is due to go up in a few weeks, according to project managers.
Needless to say, downtown property owners and merchants weren’t thrilled by the prospect of having a bland, institutional chain link fence greeting tourists and shoppers. But they conceded a fence is needed to shield people from the potential dangers of heavy equipment and excavated earth.
Fortunately, a citizens group called Neighbors Together — founded a few years ago to help downtown Middlebury weather the tunnel project — anticipated future fence fatigue and brainstormed ideas on how to beautify the pesky partition. They envisioned a constantly rotating art project and wisely put THT and its executive director Douglas Anderson in charge of the logistics.
“A lot of our early ideas were about covering it up,” Anderson said. “And then we had this breakthrough — that this chain-link fence could be a cool thing.”
Anderson has had experience organizing outdoor art in public venues in Middlebury. Who could forget the “Big Chair Project” in 2014 that saw five area woodworkers craft Gulliver-sized seats to draw attention to the non-profit organization’s annual membership drive?
The fence presents a new visual arts challenge.
“I think people were expecting us to put some potted plants in front of it, but that’s not our style here at THT,” Anderson said. ‘We realized that a chain link fence is nothing but a big grid. So much art and tapestry is based on the grid, so why not celebrate this fact? So we’re creating the Chain Link Gallery. We’re asking artists to design whatever they can dream up for these big 10-feet-wide-by-8-feet- high panels.”
“Once you start looking into it, you learn that chain link is a bona fide art form,” Anderson concluded.
THT will contact a long list of artists associated with the theater’s Jackson Gallery. The organization will also send an email blast to the more than 6,000 people on the THT list-serve.
Anderson stressed one doesn’t have to be a professional artist to be considered for Chain Link Gallery participation. Grade schools, clubs, computer specialists and artists of every stripe and level of experience are invited to chime in with their ideas.
The sky’s the limit in what concepts and materials artists can pitch.
“We’re hoping for ideas that include unusual, easily obtainable materials — string, plastic cups, ice cream spoons, plastic ribbon, and-who-knows-what,” Anderson said.
Designs can run the gamut from surreal to Old Master.
Anderson recalled a recent trip through Porter Henry, N.Y., during which he saw a chain link fence adorned with lime-green colored bicycles, to stunning effect.
Chosen artists will be invited to oversee installation of their design by a Neighbors Together workforce of a half-dozen people per artwork, according to Anderson. As many as four individual artworks will be displayed at one time. They will remain on the fence for two or three months before being replaced by different pieces to form an entirely new exhibit, Anderson said.
“We think of it as an actual rotating gallery,” Anderson said. “No matter how wonderful a piece is, if something were up for three years, we’d get bored with it.”
Organizers plan to shake up the project during the summer of 2020, when the heaviest work in the downtown will take place.
“We envision one huge mural running the entire length of the fence — perhaps 100 feet long,” Anderson said. “A townscape perhaps, or a dreamscape, or who knows what? And, if possible, we’ll light it from behind in the evening. Downtown Middlebury will glow.”
Neighbors Together will pay for the cost of materials, using money it received through a Vermont Agency of Transportation grant.
Anyone interested in becoming part of the Chain Link Gallery should email Anderson at [email protected]. THT officials will accept submissions at any time over the next two years, and hope to have some in hand within a few weeks for installation of initial artwork as soon as next month.
“Done right, this project could get press throughout New England,” Anderson said. “We’ll be turning an eyesore into something marvelous, turning a big negative into a big positive.”
“This could be something that could draw people to town,” he added.
Reporter John Flowers is at [email protected].

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