SoVT’s creative economy boom led by 20 years of Cotton Mill Open Studio

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SoVT’s creative economy boom led by 20 years of Cotton Mill Open Studio

Thu, 12/06/2018 - 5:40am -- tim

T Breeze Verdant (center left) welcomes visitors to his jewelry studio in 2017. Photo by Maia Segura

by Maia Segura, Vermont Business Magazine The Cotton Mill in Brattleboro isn’t just an incubator space for artists, artisans, and creative entrepreneurs. It has been at the center of the region’s thriving creative economy for decades. This year the historic mill celebrates the 20th Anniversary of the Cotton Mill Open Studio and Holiday Sale December 7-9, 2018. Festivities abound as business residents open their doors to offer a look behind the scenes, and host selected outside artists and artisan vendors who all help drive the creative economy in Windham County.

Showcasing the creative businesses housed in the mill, the event gives visitors a chance peek into jewelry, fine arts, furniture making, and photography studios; granola, gelato, and Chai production facilities; nerve centers for word game, apparel, and publishing companies; dance and music studios to name a few.

Curated Windham County artists and artisans working in areas from fine arts to functional crafts, join Cotton Mill tenants to share their wares as well. Handmade musical instruments, ceramics, ironwork, luxurious knit goods, and exquisite bath, body and organic cosmetic elixirs are among the products represented. The event highlights a sampling of local culinary artisans as well.

“Open studio is a great showcase of this wide variety of creative people, organizations, and businesses in the community,” said Will Alderfer, owner of WR Metal Arts housed in the mill. “I think it is this variety that creates such a positive work place as well as a great hub for the greater Southern VT community.” 

Cotton Mill anchors Will Alderfer, Franklin and Ingrid Chrisco, and Rosie  Schulick and Tula. Photo by Daimian Lix International Photography VT Studio

The event kicked-off, grassroots-style, twenty years ago when Randi Solin of Solin Glass opened her studio to interested high school students and sold seconds of her work. Marie Walker of Iron Arts and Natalie Blake joined in, opening their studios as well.

While Solin and Blake have moved on to more spacious digs on West River Road (in fact, in the former headquarters of Vermont Business Magazine), Iron Arts is still thriving in a Quonset hut on the Cotton Mill campus, and continues to participate in the open studio event.

Randi Solin, Marie Walker and George Bellesimo at work during the early days of Cotton Mill Open Studio. Photo courtesy of Randi Solin

Eventually, the sale was opened to other businesses at the Cotton Mill - perhaps most strategically to New England Center for Circus Arts (NECCA).

“With the working glass and pottery studios, and the circus school open for demonstrations and sign ups, the crowds began to swell,” according to Andy Burrows, Publisher and President of Pro Lingua Publishing, and a participant in Cotton Mill Open Studio for 18 of the 20 years.

The event started to take shape. Volunteers came on board and the event become a family affair - even for businesses at the Cotton Mill.

“I joined the planning committee and we opened our office, setting up a display of our ESL materials that we felt might be of general interest to the community, and a used book display,” said Burrows. “Our daughter Ingrid set up a display of her jewelry and health products right inside our door…When her son Kamil was born he was part of the show. Eventually our son Anders returned from Boston and began performing on his hand pan, and then performed with his band AuraShards.”

Good local food and participation from Vermont Jazz Center followed. The formula was a hit. “A great crowd of early holiday shoppers loved coming to the strange old mill and then shopping downtown. They shared the excitement, as did their kids,” said Burrows.

Several years later, when the event could sustain an event coordinator, organizers decided to open doors to artists and artisans from the local area who lined the hallways during the event. While the expansion brought some growing pains, organizers felt that it was well worth it. 

“We all live in the community and felt that our fest at the Cotton Mill was helping make Brattleboro remain one of the best regional towns for the holidays,” said Burrows.

Brattleboro is a natural home for an event on this scale as the town is ranked third in the state as host for creative enterprises, according to a study by Vermont Arts Council. Of these enterprises, visual arts and crafts and artisan food makers comprise nearly 35% of creative industries on average in VT, providing rich offerings for the Cotton Mill Open Studio event.

New England overall is fertile ground for creatives where there is a 20% higher prevalence of artists in its employment base compared to the U.S. as a whole, according to New England Foundation for the Arts (NEFA) Jobs in New England’s Creative Economy and Why They Matter (  

Across New England, the creative economy accounts for $17 billion in wages for employees. Bringing it down to Cotton Mill vendor levels, those working as artists and in the craft segments here tend to make slightly over $35k per year as a result of their efforts (Vermont State Occupational Employment and Wage Estimates, May 2017).

Supporting their work is critical for a healthy local economy. NEFA found a quarter of all creative workers and a third of artists are self-employed, with the number of independent businesses increasing strongly since 2008, even as creative “payroll jobs” have declined.

But a large segment of artists still earns half of their overall income from outside employment, consistent with what seems to be the Vermont “side hustle” way.

Events like Cotton Mill Open Studio have a tangible impact on the state economy. Direct economic activity from events like this in the state account for $44.1 in direct expenditures, and $2.5 million in revenue for state government. Out-of-state attendees attracted to these events outspend their Vermonter counterparts by nearly twice at $50 per person per event.

In the Brattleboro area, creative ventures are strong and growing. Several vendors participating in the event this year started their businesses at the Cotton Mill, and eventually outgrew the space. While their digs got bigger, these folks chose to stay local to continue to help boost the creative economy. Among returning superstars are Side Hill Farms, Big Picture Farm, and Saxtons River Distillery.

“We love being part of such a supportive community and are eager to come back year after year even though we no longer produce our product at the Mill,” said Louisa Conrad, owner of Big Picture Farm, maker of goat milk caramels and cheeses made from their herd of 40 adorable goats.

Although Big Picture started with just 8 stores when they moved into the Cotton Mill, the company now ships directly to over 800 stores across the country. Big Picture clearly doesn’t need the Cotton Mill Open Studio to meet sales goals, but Conrad says she enjoys the energy of the event.

“You get the sense that everyone shopping is dedicated to finding local gifts and supporting the thriving arts and food scene in Brattleboro.”

Alongside the five-star holiday shopping, the 20th anniversary Open Studio will feature live performances from the renowned Vermont Jazz Center, New England Center for Circus Arts (NECCA), Sandglass Theater, soul line dancing classes, live musicians performing folk, classical, and the Kora. There will be a children’s art studio and an activity sponsored by Brattleboro Museum & Art Center (BMAC). Tito’s Tacos and Vermont Crepes add sustenance to the event.

In addition, a new partnership this year with Downtown Brattleboro Alliance (DBA) hopes to take the event to a new level. The team-up will provide a free shuttle that will take event attendees from complimentary parking at Brattleboro Union High School and the Cotton Mill, to stops in downtown Brattleboro’s core shopping and dining district for a full day of finding something for everyone on the list.

Courtesy of DBA, a “Brattlebassador” will be on board the shuttle to point out areas of interest in Brattleboro and answer questions. “Downtown Brattleboro is excited to support the great work of Cotton Mill Arts during this holiday weekend,” said DBA Executive Director Stephanie Bonin. “Bravo for bringing thousands of people into the community for this event. We want to make it a no-brainer that they visit they great downtown shops and restaurants, too.”

The event is sponsored by Brattleboro Development, Credit Corporation (BDCC), Downtown Brattleboro Alliance, Vermont Public Radio, New England Center for Circus Arts (NECCA), Sandglass Theater, Brattleboro Museum & Art Center, codestar, True North Granola, WR Metal Arts, Storymatic Studios, and International Photography.

Cotton Mill Open Studio welcomes visitors Friday, December 7th from 4:00 pm to 8:00 pm, Saturday, December 8th from 10:00 am to 6:00 pm, and Sunday, December 9th from 10:00 am to 4:00 pm at 74 Cotton Mill Hill, Brattleboro, VT. More information is available at