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Barbara Nair, director of Spectrum Gallery in Centerbrook and Arts Center Killingworth, looks forward to future growth for her arts organization. (Photo by Margaret McNellis/The Courier | Buy This Photo)
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Barbara Nair had no clue that her weekend house in Killingworth would launch an art center, gallery, store, and more: an organization that has become a beacon for arts, artisans, and art appreciators.
The story of the Arts Center Killingworth and Spectrum Gallery began in New York City, specifically, at New York University. Barbara was pursuing a degree in nonprofit arts management when she was tasked with completing a project in order to complete her degree.
“I showed my project to my neighbors,” Barbara says, “and they said to give it a try.”
The Arts Center Killingworth was born, and its first program ran—an origami class held in the Killingworth library.
From there, the organization, a 501(c)3 nonprofit, found its home right on Barbara’s property, where there was already a studio space.
“We held classes there,” Barbara says, “but it wasn’t a gallery space. That’s when we started the arts trail.”
The Arts Festival Trail featured open studios on the shoreline, but soon, the growth of the Arts Center Killingworth made it impossible to keep the trail going.
“We started having classes, workshops, and camps,” Barbara says. “As our relationships grew, it became apparent [the community] wanted more. The more was Spectrum Gallery.”
At that point, Barbara wasn’t sure whether it was best to rent or buy, so she looked into both, and settled on the gallery’s current location, 61 Main Street, Centerbrook.
The space used to be the Essex hardware store, and after that, it was an antiques shop.
“We gut renovated it,” Barbara says. “We had to take it down to the frame. There was no insulation. We had to add tornado hooks, plumbing, electricity. I spent days looking at exit signs.”
What followed was research in New York City. Barbara took note of everything she liked about the ways galleries, museums, and her favorite shops displayed artwork and handcrafted goods.
“I always thought the changes a museum makes to [accommodate] an exhibit were interesting,” she says. “Why can’t a gallery do that?”
As it happens, a gallery can. Spectrum Gallery has movable walls, so that if the space needs to make room for an installation or a full class of 10 students, the interior can be rearranged as needed.
“The flexibility really works,” Barbara says.
Speaking of what works, Barbara couldn’t be more thrilled with her team.
“I have a wonderful staff,” she says. “They’re absolutely fabulous. It’s a team of people and everybody feels committed to doing a good job.”
This doesn’t mean Barbara isn’t always looking for volunteers, though. There are plenty of opportunities from grant writing for adult volunteers to working as camp counselors for teens.
“Teens can also volunteer to be models at our fashion camp,” Barbara says. “They can also help out at our festivals. Because we’re a 501(c)3, it counts as community service credit and they can learn about art, business, and more.”
As director of a gallery and store, Barbara says her work life “is sort of like moving.”
She and her staff work with artists to install shows and “install the store.” They handle 80 to 100 artists and artisans for some shows.
“Now it’s really a full-time job; now I go to New York to relax,” she says.
The gallery hosts six shows a year, including a festival in Essex in the summer and Madison in the fall. Barbara and her staff also handle everything from special orders to repairs.
The gallery’s current show, Lots of Laughs, runs through Sunday, May 19.
The beauty, for her, of reaching that milestone, is looking back at the successes the Arts Center Killingworth and Spectrum Gallery have had. But now, she’s looking toward the future.
“If you stand still for too long, no matter how great you are, it’s the same as moving backwards over time,” Barbara says.
To keep the space moving forward, she asks her artists and artisans to refresh their work by bringing in new pieces to share with the public. But Barbara has dreams to create a community art center.
Grant writing is an important step for the future. Barbara would love to connect with a volunteer who knows how to research and write grant proposals.
“[Having] more volunteers means more community involvement,” she says, “more programs, classes, and events.”
Other future endeavors could include comedy events, small concerts, and pop-up shows.
“I don’t have the space for pop-ups right now,” Barbara says. “I feel terrible saying no.”
One vision Barbara has—if Spectrum had more space—is to welcome high school students to exhibit in a pop-up show.
“We could make these kids feel rewarded for…being artists,” she says.
The brick building beside the gallery could provide such a space, but like the gallery itself, it would need a massive renovation. Barbara envisions an art lounge.
“There’s a floor-to-ceiling stone fireplace,” she says.
If the Art Center and Spectrum Gallery don’t expand locally, another option is to take the artists to New York, but that’s massively expensive, according to Barbara.
“I personally think it’s better to expand locally first,” she adds. “But we either need more money—or more volunteers—to move forward.”
For Barbara, moving forward must include the community.
“Your relationship is with the community at large,” she says.
That community stretches from Centerbrook to Killingworth to New York.
“My ideal life is to have a combo of both,” she says of living in New York and the small-town community she loves in Connecticut.
The Arts Center Killingworth, at 276 North Park Hill Road, offers a selection of summer camps: Fashion I from July 8 to 12, Fashion II from July 15 to 19, and Nature Art Camp for Young Artists from July 22 to 26. For more information, visit artscenterkillingworth.org. For more information on Spectrum Gallery, visit www.spectrumartgallery.org.
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