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Folklife Center switching gears, expanding

MIDDLEBURY — The Vermont Folklife Center (VFC) is putting in motion a strategy to embrace new technology and export its archives, exhibits and programming well beyond the confines of Addison County’s shire town. This will most immediately become obvious as it rents out a portion of its spacious 88 Main St. headquarter.
“We’re a statewide organization whose offices happen to be in Middlebury,” VFC Executive Director Kathleen Haughey said in a written statement. “It’s time to bring our message and programs consistently to more cities and towns in the state.”
Founded in 1984, the Vermont Folklife Center boasts a wealth of photos, artwork, historical documents, interview recordings and other assets to celebrate and perpetuate Vermont’s cultural heritage. The center has for more than a decade been housed in the stately John Warren House in downtown Middlebury.
The VFC has typically hosted many exhibits every year at the John Warren House, where educators, students, authors and citizens have come to pore over the nonprofit’s considerable resources. But the 21st century has ushered in new technology and devices that expand the center’s reach.
For example, the VFC is in the process of digitizing its archives, thus allowing them to be viewed online throughout the world.
Moreover, the center will be acquiring Virtual Reality (VR) camera devices that can immerse the user into three-dimensional, computer-generated environments. In addition, the VFC is investing in storytelling media such as comics, documentary films, traveling kiosk exhibits, and “Vermont Untapped,” a new podcast.
“Virtual reality technology and viewing experiences present new horizons in documentary storytelling, and we are exploring those horizons to bring them to you,” said Ned Castle, the VFC vision and voice director and media producer who is leading the VR research for the center.
The organization’s new technology and growing influence has prompted officials to take a new look at its Middlebury home.
“To expand our statewide reach, we will shift resources that have been focused on activities in Middlebury to activities across the state — toward dynamic, portable traveling exhibits and through new technologies,” Haughey said.
Supporting these statewide efforts will mean staging fewer, but more targeted exhibits at the VFC’s gallery in Middlebury — exhibits that officials said will powerfully reflect the center’s current fieldwork.
After showing in Middlebury, these exhibits will travel the state to reach new audiences.
The VFC will continue to host workshops in Middlebury, but will ramp up these offerings in other parts of the state, including St. Albans and Putney.
More eyes on VFC materials could translate into more critical funding for the organization.
“We need to grow our donor base,” said John Barstow, the VFC’s development director. “If we don’t get out there more, we won’t.”
At the same time it’s increasing its regional and worldwide visibility, the VFC wants to reduce its Middlebury footprint. Barstow said there’s currently more than enough space for the organization’s 10 full- and part-time workers. Until recently, the four, 300-square-foot rooms on the second floor of the John Warren House were each hosting a single employee.
Now the center is advertising all four of those rooms for rent.
Barstow said rent revenues will be used to maintain the John Warren House, which is more than 200 years old.
Workers displaced from the second-floor are being accommodated in other parts of the building — including in the former VFC store space, which closed late last month. All of the items sold at the store were consigned by the artists/craftspeople who made them. Barstow said many of those items can now be found at the nearby Henry Sheldon Museum of Vermont History.
Officials said the VFC Holiday Gingerbread House competition, which has sometimes been on display on the second floor, will definitely continue to be held and the submissions displayed.
Barstow believes prospective renters will see the John Warren House as a great place to do business.
“It’s widely considered to be one of the most beautiful buildings in Addison County,” Barstow said. “We own it outright. It’s a huge asset, but not liquid. So now that we’re thinking that this is less about this place being a destination, let’s… see if we can rent spaces on the second floor.”
Reporter John Flowers is at johnf@addisonindependent.com.

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