Originally published in Business Digest, December 1998

A Ribbiting Story

by Craig C. Bailey

Bill Brooks Shoppers know the Frog Hollow Vermont State Craft Center in Middlebury, Burlington and Manchester for fine Vermont crafts, but executive director Bill Brooks (pictured) explains education is what really makes this frog a prince. (Photo: Jeff Clarke)

On the gallery floor of Frog Hollow in Middlebury, competition of sorts is going on between brooks and creeks. Executive director Bill Brooks speaks above the pleasant roar of the Otter Creek filtering through an open transom. He's offering biographies for a variety of artisans: the University of Vermont graduate who worked in the film industry in New York before moving back to Wells to make furniture; the high school art teacher in Middlebury who crafts pottery; and the ex-Peace Corps worker from Cambridge whose mammoth, welded fishing fly is at once imposing and amusing.

While the Frog Hollow Vermont State Craft Center is known for its high-quality crafts exclusively from Vermont artisans, Brooks reveals the true mission of the non-profit organization is in the studios and classroom space on the lower floor of this historic building. "Our galleries are so pre-eminent in the public eye that they don't see downstairs, and they're unaware that for 25 years we've been teaching craft," he explains. "The galleries fund that.

"This organization was built with the help of many volunteers," says Brooks, who's been on the job since July 1997. "That's why we've been successful: because of all these people who have come before me."

Foremost in Frog Hollow's history is Allen Johnson Jr., who moved from Miami, Fla., to the Middlebury area in 1963. He purchased the dilapidated 1870s mill several years later from Dick Wissler, who had been operating a pottery studio there. With Johnson handling the enterprise's financial duties and Wissler focused on the artistic side, the facility became the Frog Hollow Craft Center on June 28, 1971, as it underwent renovations following a long life as a paper mill, machine shop, woodworking company and retail space.

Envisioned as a community center where professional artisans would practice and teach their crafts, Frog Hollow was originally home to a resident potter, jeweler and metal worker. Classes were taught by volunteers who often traded their time and talent for studio space and materials. In late 1971 the center obtained non-profit status, which opened the door to outside funding to augment Johnson's support.

Not long after classes began at the center, its artisans began selling their wares. Frog Hollow had added commerce to its more idealistic mission of education and enlightenment, and began the long transition from a simple showcase to a viable storefront.

More than 25 years later, Frog Hollow has grown into a centerpiece of the quirky hollow district down Middlebury's Mill Street, and has branched out to include galleries on Burlington's Church Street Marketplace and at the Equinox Shops on Vermont 7A in Manchester, opened in 1991 and 1992, respectively.

Combined gross sales for the three galleries were approximately $1.8 million in 1997. For artisans whose work is displayed and sold at Frog Hollow -- 270 appear in the galleries and earn 55 to 60 percent on consignment sales of their work at the center -- the payoff can include artistic satisfaction as well as financial success.

The review process begins with a screening by Brooks and Middlebury gallery manager Joan White, followed by jurying by Brooks, White, the other gallery managers and two invited artisans. The jury meets every other month. Of the 50 or so applicants it reviews a year, about 15 make the grade and end up on one or more of Frog Hollow's gallery floors.

If they choose, applicants can receive feedback from the jury: comments on workmanship, aethetics, and marketability of their work. "It's a source of invaluable information for people, if they're open to receiving (it)," says Annie Perkins, manager of Frog Hollow on the Marketplace in Burlington, adding that the feedback alone might be worth the $15 application fee.

"It's a rigorous process; it's a thoughtful process; and it's a caring process," says Brooks. "Most artists who are accepted into Frog Hollow look upon it as quite an achievement."

Once juried in, artisans undergo annual review to ensure their work continues to meet Frog Hollow's standards and they can continue to meet demand for their work. Perkins says Frog Hollow can become a primary source of income for some craftspeople and often represents an important first step in budding artisans' careers. "Our best- selling artists do over $100,000 of business a year," Perkins says. "That's not typical, but it's possible."

Nonetheless, earning a living as a craftsperson in Vermont can be difficult. "They have to do the research and development; they have to manufacture the work and then they have to market it," according to Martha Fitch. "That's a lot of different skills to have to have all rolled into one individual."

Fitch is a silk artist and director of the Vermont Crafts Council, a 240-member corporation in Montpelier she helped found eight years ago to serve crafts organizations, artisans and the public with information about Vermont crafts. "Vermont's a good place to be a craftsperson, because there are a lot of other craftspeople in the state," she says. "The state is beginning to understand that the whole community of craftspeople represents a series of microbusinesses that, with the right kind of support, could grow into businesses that they want to see: socially responsible businesses that use the resources of the state to provide jobs and produce products."

Joan White, manager of the Middlebury gallery for nearly a year, says Frog Hollow's customer base alternates between residents and tourists, depending on the time of year. During the holiday season, locals generate most of the store's business. "Parents' weekends are very busy here," she adds, citing the significance of Middlebury College. "Whenever there's a major event up there we pay very strict attention." Six students are employed at the Middlebury gallery.

White, a Massachusetts native, moved to Vermont two years ago after living in Costa Rica for six years: The Zen center she was involved with there was run by the teacher of the center in Shelburne, which spurred her to move to the Green Mountains. Before joining Frog Hollow, she worked as a project manager at Shelburne Museum for a year.

"A hundred thousand people go through this shop a year," says Brooks. "It's a destination in Middlebury, which is a great benefit to the state."

The craft community might benefit the state, but it gets it back with interest considering the value the Vermont name adds to work created in the Green Mountains. "It's a very successful marketing concept," says Fitch says of the Vermont moniker. "It means high quality, Yankee ingenuity, beauty, clarity -- you name it." And while Frog Hollow's designation as the Vermont State Craft Center is really an honorary title -- the center receives no state funding, but a governor's commission helps uphold standards and the governor appoints two of the center's 19 board members -- Fitch says the title is "worth its weight in gold."

As executive director, Brooks answers to the board of directors. It's a second career for the 56-year-old former banker.

Brooks grew up in Arlington, Va., where he developed an early appreciation for arts and crafts through the Smithsonian Institution in nearby Washington, D.C. "I was never an artist myself; I was more interested in going to museums," he says. His had his first pottery lesson last fall in the clay studio at Frog Hollow. The space, just above the sub-basement, which still contains the cogs and wheels left over from when the building was a working mill, is used for classes from pottery to photography, jewelry to drawing. Resident potter Rod Dugal works in the space. "I had a little trouble getting the pot to rotate properly on the wheel," Brooks chuckles. "I enjoyed it, but I felt like I was back in elementary school."

After earning a bachelor of arts in history in 1964 from Kenyon College in Gambier, Ohio, Brooks spent four years in the Air Force. Based in Washington, D.C.; Seoul, Korea; and Cincinnati, he performed personal background checks, counterintelligence work and the like for the office of special investigations. After leaving the Air Force he wound up in Washington and got into banking at Riggs National Bank as a "fluke."

By the time he was ready for a change, he had become the executive vice president and chief operating officer of Second National Federal Savings Bank, a $1.5 billion regional bank on Maryland's eastern shore, overseeing 500 employees in 44 branches across four states.

"I presume it was psychological," Brooks says of his career change. "My parents died in this period, and my brother changed careers: He went from being an investment counselor to being an Episcopal minister. My sister did the reverse: She went from being a teacher to being a real estate agent. And I went from being a banker to being a graduate student."

In 1995 he graduated from New York University with a master's in American folk art studies, and went to work as an assistant manager for the Virginia Lynch Gallery, a contemporary gallery in Tiverton, R.I., near Providence. He was hired by Frog Hollow after his niece living in Monkton pointed him toward a help wanted ad for the executive directorship, and moved to Cornwall.

The area was familiar to him: His mother, a math teacher, was born in Richmond and grew up in Middlebury. His father headed the National Grain Trade Council when Brooks was growing up. Brooks' grandfather owned property on Lake Champlain in Ferrisburgh. "So my family always came here all my life," he recalls. "That's when I was introduced to Frog Hollow -- in the '70s."

Brooks estimates at least half his time is devoted to the financial aspect of the center, which draws some of its funds through its 1,200 members. He credits his experience in fund raising for non-profit organizations and community involvement with helping him get his job, and continues his civic involvement. He is a board member of the Addison County Economic Development Corp. and an allocations committee member for the United Way.

Though time constraints have forced him to set aside many of the physical activities he enjoyed as an endurance athlete -- in 1986 he completed a cross-country bike trip in 20 days -- he still finds time to sing in the Middlebury Festival Chorus, a group that rehearses and performs at Middlebury College's Mead Chapel.

"When I came over and saw the Burlington gallery, I was psyched!" says Perkins of her introduction to the center several years ago. "I had no idea that it was so contemporary."

Perkins, educated in social work, owned The Soft Touch, a seasonal gallery in Jackson, N.H., where she sold her hand-crafted quilts for a decade. With a brother in Shelburne and old college friends in Winooski, she had been following the Burlington newspaper, hoping to find a career opportunity in the Queen City. When she saw the executive director position advertised she inquired about other openings at Frog Hollow. "It all happened very quickly," she calls. "It was meant to be, I'm quite sure!

"I'm always struggling between wanting to do something in business and something in social services," she offers, "so I think somehow this non-profit mission and the education mission of Frog Hollow definitely made me feel good about working here."

No longer a quilt maker, Perkins says she satisfies her creative drive through the half-dozen or so special exhibits each Frog Hollow gallery sponsors from May through October each year. "It's a really big, important part of my life," she says. "I'm not a business person at heart, really. I'm more of a creative person at heart, and a people person, so that's the part I really enjoy."

She says she likes to focus on artisans from the greater Burlington area, but space limitations can determine what work is shown. "We renovated our gallery two years ago, and we lost a lot of wall space. So we can't show as much 2D stuff as we used to," she says. "Each gallery really has the personality or stamp of its managers or its staff on it."

"Annie's done a terrific job," says Fitch. "The shows are great, and the way the work is displayed is wonderful."

For White, job satisfaction comes from the opportunity to collaborate with a wide variety of people -- from salespeople and bookkeepers to artists and educators. Managing a Frog Hollow gallery is more than just running a store, she says.

A major task for the Burlington locale is to get the education mission back on track by summer. With no class or studio space at the gallery, Frog Hollow offered classes in the basement of Miller's Landmark on Church Street until the end of this summer. "We didn't have a sink or bathroom," Brooks says. "It was limited in the types of classes we could teach." The board suspended activities there, and is looking at a 3,500-square-foot space in Memorial Auditorium that might become available in April to serve as a pottery studio and home to a resident potter.

"People are committed to seeing that the craft community is supported and craft education is going to survive," says Brooks, "and that's an exciting part of this job."