by Joyce Marcel
American Reporter Correspondent
November 6, 2009
BRATTLEBORO'S PETER PAN OF ART
DUMMERSTON, Vt. -- I first met Mara Williams 20 years ago, when she came from New York City to be the director of the Brattleboro Museum and Art Center.
"Wow!" I thought, "She's Auntie Mame!"
But when I had breakfast with her last week, she corrected me. "No," she said. "Peter Pan."
Theatrical, stylish, sophisticated, knowledgeable, warmhearted, effervescent, articulate and generous of spirit, Williams has seduced us all into having an untold number of adventures in art. Now the museum is celebrating Williams and her contributions to the area's cultural life with a champagne brunch on Sunday.
When Williams first came, she was 33 and more or less at loose ends. She had degrees in theater, art and curatorial affairs, but she had not written her Ph.D. dissertation and was working instead at an art gallery in New York.
The museum, which was founded in 1972, was a "little teeny institution and kind of dark," when she arrived, she said. "It was in a pretty tired state. I went on to find out what great shows they had done in the past - it had a splendid history."
The recruitment committee "worked her over." They took her to the glorious and now-departed Hamelman's bakery. They took her to Delicate Mountain. They took her to the Brattleboro Food Co-op. They took her up Western Avenue to admire the Victorian homes.
"I came in from Canal Street, and it was before the Windham Housing Trust got hold of those buildings," she said. "Brattleboro looked like a mill town. 'Mara in a mill town!' I thought. 'I can't do it.'"
But being offered the directorship of a museum - even in a mill town - was a big accomplishment for someone so young.
"So I came, intending to spend five years before I made my next career move," she said. "The first year I wanted to go home. I had a wood stove and almost burned the house down. There were no taxicabs to take me home at 10 o'clock at night when I'd worked a 10-hour day and had to drive up an icy mountain road. No Chinese food delivery! I went down to New York every single weekend. Of course, the boyfriend I had did not survive the commute."
But Williams - like so many of us - didn't leave. Instead - like so many of us - she discovered the Yellow Barn and Marlboro music festivals and Sandglass Theater. She joined Brattleboro Rotary. She raised money for the hospital. She met "really cool people and developed some wonderful friends."
Then, just when she was finally planning her escape, she fell in love. The respected Vermont jurist and chief judge of the U.S. Second Circuit Court of Appeals, James L. Oakes, began courting her. He had recently lost his wife, and Williams was thinking he might contribute a new wing to the museum in her name.
"When, in the middle of dinner, I realized that his intention was to date me, you could have knocked me over with a feather," she said. "I was sipping a glass of white wine and I spit it out all over the table. He said, 'I understand the age difference.' I said, 'It's not the age difference. You're one step away from the Supreme Court. I run a small art museum in Podunk, USA.' Then he said the one thing that made me fall in love with him on the spot: 'Have you looked in a mirror lately?' No one had ever said that to me before in my life."
Williams and Oakes married happily and she began a curatorial consulting business in Vermont. She joined forces with artist Linda Rubinstein to create more shows for the museum. And she remained here after Oakes died. She's now the museum's chief curator.
In some of Williams' early shows, I confess, I wondered about her choices. But as the museum grew, the shows became increasingly more exciting and rewarding. This past season was a triumph.
Williams' show, "Vermont Collects: Modern and Contemporary Masters," showed us the heights a small museum can attain - major works not only by great artists with local connections such as Wolf Kahn, Emily Mason and Jules Olitsky, but also wonderful art from the likes of Robert Rauschenberg, Julian Schnabel, Sol LeWitt, David Hockney and Jim Dine - just to mention a few. The show's through-line? All the work comes from private area collections.
That means Williams has met - and earned the trust of - people fortunate enough to have such splendid art on their walls. And because they trust her, she can show it to the rest of us.
Williams believes in the intrinsic value of the aesthetic experience, but what makes her rare (and perfectly suited to Brattleboro) is her devotion to sharing it.
"While it's important to collect and preserve and do art history and have critical dialogue, that's not the role of the Brattleboro Museum in the context of the lives of Brattleboro," Williams said. "It's not about my art history or my critical theory. It's about a viewer, a member of our community, walking in and taking a moment out of their everyday lives and standing in front of an art object and having a challenging, exciting, powerful, happy, sad, giggle-fest wonderful time.
"My whole thing about art in the context of community is that it gives us a chance to pause. To be creative. To integrate our minds, our spirits, our emotions. The best thing I do is pass on my absolute utter enchantment with art."
The champagne brunch at the Brattleboro Museum and Art Center is on
Sunday, Nov. 8. It begins at noon. It costs $25 a person and is open
Joyce Marcel (joycemarcel.com) is a columnist and journalist.