Art and commerce find a home: Mill District Local Art Gallery aims to give artists ‘a sense of ownership’

  • Painter Maggie Hodges talks about the space she shares with wood artist Roy Johnson in the Mill District Local Art Gallery in North Amherst. “I like the flexibility you have here,” she says. STAFF PHOTO/CAROL LOLLIS

  • Hannah Rechtschaffen, director of the Mill District Local Art Gallery in North Amherst, talks about her vision for the space, including the art workshops that take place there. STAFF PHOTO/CAROL LOLLIS

  • Painted furniture by Rebecca Wheeler, in foreground, is seen with repurposed furniture by Liz Armstrong in the Mill District Local Art Gallery. STAFF PHOTO/CAROL LOLLIS

  • Fiber artist Emily Stewart hangs work at the Mill District Local Art Gallery. She’s one of three new artists joining more than 30 others displaying their work in the space. STAFF PHOTO/CAROL LOLLIS

  • Pottery by Zahava Friedman in the the Mill District Local Art Gallery in North Amherst. STAFF PHOTO/CAROL LOLLIS

  • Paintings by Macaylla Silver hang in a front room at the Mill District Local Art Gallery. Director Hannah Rechtschaffen says that space can be adjusted for many kinds of art.  STAFF PHOTO/CAROL LOLLIS

  • Fiber artist Emily Stewart hangs work at the Mill District Local Art Gallery. She’s one of three news artists displaying their work in the North Amherst space. STAFF PHOTO/CAROL LOLLIS

  • Hannah Rechtschaffen, director of the Mill District Local Art Gallery, says the hybrid model the space uses to display work “gives artists a sense of ownership.” STAFF PHOTO/CAROL LOLLIS

  • Hannah Rechtschaffen, director of the Mill District Local Art Gallery, talks about her vision for the space next to paintings by Macaylla Silver of Leverett. STAFF PHOTO/CAROL LOLLIS

Staff Writer
Thursday, November 03, 2022

As Hannah Rechtschaffen sees it, art has a value that goes well beyond its aesthetic appeal: It can also be a key factor in helping drive and sustain a healthy economy.

And as the director of the North District Local Art Gallery, Rechtschaffen oversees a new type of hybrid arts space: a gallery and store that showcases the work of some 30 artists at a time, offers workshops and one-on-one conversations with artists, and is also part of a larger development, the Mill District in North Amherst, that integrates retail, eateries, food markets and housing.

“We’re part of something larger here, where everything is designed to go together,” she said. “And that helps bring our artists some more exposure and give them a sense of community.”

The Mill District has been developed by W.D. Cowls Co., the timber and wood products business that’s been in Amherst since the 18th century. The company has created the mix of stores, shops and housing in the last few years on the site of a former sawmill and trolley station just off Route 63.

And when the new development was being planned, Rechtschaffen said Cowls President Cinda H. Jones told her, “‘I really want to have an art gallery here.’ I thought that was a great idea, and I was even more thrilled when she let me figure out how to do it.”

Since its official opening a year ago, Local Art Gallery, which is connected to a large general store, has been attracting more attention from both artists and customers, Rechtschaffen said. More than 30 artists are now on a waiting list seeking space there, she says, while the number of artists whose work is displayed at one time has grown from 22 to 34 as the work of three new artists has just been added to the mix.

Artists rent space on a monthly basis, paying $20 per linear foot for how much they use, and the store takes a 24% commission on all sales, which Rechtschaffen says is considerably less than what art galleries typically take. The commissions go back into the gallery for special events, marketing and other “artist-forward” opportunities, she explains.

“You basically determine how much work you want to show, and what you want to show,” said Rechtschaffen, who has a background in theater and previously worked as the program coordinator for the Arts Extension Service at UMass Amherst. “We work with artists on what they want to do.”

In the gallery, which measures about 1,000 square feet, a wide range of art — paintings, prints, fabric pieces, mixed media, photography, fine jewelry — is hung on the walls salon-style, while several pieces of handmade furniture by Liz Armstrong and Rebecca Wheeler are currently clustered together to form something of an island in one part of the room.

A round table, meantime, displays work by potter Zahava Friedman. Greeting cards and other gift items are also for sale in the store, and many of the artworks are of modest size.

“Some people are intimidated walking into an art gallery, where the work can be very expensive and very large,” said Rechtschaffen. “We want to have things that are more affordable, and where you feel like you’re walking into a store.”

She notes that she went back and forth on the title for the space, wondering if calling it a store might be better than a gallery; she decided in the end that not calling it a gallery would be selling the artists short.

“You can see, though, that we aim to be both,” Rechtschaffen says.

Maggie Hodges, an Amherst landscape painter, likes that arrangement. She’s been renting space in the gallery for about two months, sharing one corner of the room with wood craftsman Roy Johnson; her paintings are mounted on a wall just above a table made by Johnson that also holds some of his decorative wood pieces.

“I like the flexibility you have here,” Hodges says. “And this is another place to advertise my work.”

Rechtschaffen says she’s open to whatever artists want to do, such as sharing space; she notes that having Hodges’ paintings displayed above Johnson’s table “gives you a great perspective of how a painting might look above your own kitchen or dining room table.”

Emphasis on local

To display their work in North District Local Art Gallery, artists need to live within about an hour’s driving distance. Artists currently on display come from 17 towns, including from Franklin County and the North Quabbin area.

“We want this to be a place where both established and newer area artists can find a home,” Rechtschaffen said. “When you buy work from a local artist, that money stays in the community.”

Fabric artist Emily Stewart, also of Amherst, is one of the three new artists who have just joined the gallery. Every three months new artists are welcomed in with an art opening, with the most recent one taking place Oct. 28. On a recent morning before that opening, Stewart came by to adjust some of her work.

“I like what they’re trying to do here, and to be a part of it,” she said. 

Rechtschaffen says she’s beginning to face a little bit a problem with how many other people want to be included in the gallery. Some of the artists who have work there have been with the space since it opened, she noted, and there hasn’t been any time limit on how long they can stay. But with a growing waiting list, she may have to consider swapping some artists out for new ones.

In a way, though, she sees that not as a problem but a sign the gallery is working the way she and Cinda Jones had hoped it would. Rechtschaffen’s official title at the Mill District is actually director of placemaking & special projects, and as such she manages the gallery but also plans and oversees events at the Mill District. She talks with potential commercial tenants and developers, too.

Placemaking, she says, is basically looking in a broad way at the arts, culture and history of an area, as well as the people living and working there, and making decisions on developments as to how they fit into that overall mosaic.

“You want to pay attention to how a specific place is developing and changing,” she said, “because most places are changing in some way. But whatever the changes, you want art and culture to be a part of that.”

Local Art Gallery has also added regular Sunday afternoon drop-in sessions, at which resident artists host artmaking classes, demonstrations, or talks. And at the end of the year, the gallery will be reconfigured, as some of the wall abutments and other parts of the gallery are moveable. “Our plan is to redesign everything,” Rechtschaffen says.

Want another inducement to stop by? Local Art gallery will have a holiday sale on Nov. 12 from 1 to 4 p.m.

Steve Pfarrer can be reached at spfarrer@gazettenet.com.