SOUTH WILLIAMSTOWN --When the Little Red Schoolhouse closed in August 2012 due to a lack of enrollment, members of the South Williamstown Community Association, which has managed the property since 1982, were eager to find a way for the historic schoolhouse to continue serving the community.
Now, after some propitious encounters and a lot of hard work, the Little Red Schoolhouse will reopen on December 16 as a satellite location of IS183 Art School of the Berkshires, which is headquartered in Stockbridge. The school will offer classes and workshops taught by local artists throughout the year.
The courses being offered at the schoolhouse this winter include needle-felting, figure and landscape drawing, calligraphy, watercolor, creative writing and more, and will be staffed by seven local artists, including Thor Wickstrom, Julia Morgan-Leamon, Ann Kremers and Emily Banner (one of the founders of the former writer’s workshop Inkberry).
For now, the courses will mostly be for adults and toddlers, but future plans are in the works to introduce after-school programs at the Williamstown Youth Center and to supplement the art program at Mount Greylock Regional High School.
IS183 (originally called the Interlaken School, with 183 referring to Route 183 in Stockbridge) is a non-profit community art school that has been providing a wide range of art programs for children and adults since 1991.
With around 80 faculty artists, IS183 is the largest employer of artists in the region.
The school relies heavily on the support of local foundations, and was recently awarded a grant by the U.S. Department of Education - one of only three awarded in Western Massachusetts this year. Two thirds of the organization’s in-school Learning Through Arts Programs provide subsidized tuition, and of those programs, more than half are fully subsidized.
"What we’re trying to achieve is to make art programming available throughout this county," said Hope Sullivan, director of IS183. "The Little Red collaboration is a more extensive offering, just because of the scale of what the community is interested in, and the quantity of artists" participating.
"We’ve done a few programs in North County in the past, but nothing of this scale," she said.
"People are always looking for more options for art classes," said Cecilia Hirsch, a local artist and community organizer who is largely responsible for spearheading the project. "And there have been a few taught out of the Clark and then a few classes taught out of individual artists’ studios. But there really hasn’t been a kind of main location and a centralized place where people can depend on art classes being offered," at least not for the last several years, she said.
The IS183-SWCA collaboration is actually not the first time comprehensive public arts programming has been offered in North County. From 2004 to 2009, Northern Berkshire Creative Arts, a non-profit arts education center in North Adams, offered classes for children and adults throughout the northern Berkshires.
But when the center closed in 2009 due to financial hardship, many in the community, including Hirsch, felt a great loss.
"The minute it folded, I thought, we have to get this thing back on its feet. But it’s very, very hard to run a nonprofit, clearly, in this area with such a small population and with our financial issues," Hirsch said.
So for years she kept returning to the idea of a place where people could engage in creative activity for long enough to explore, make mistakes and develop their skills. Despite the many art resources in the area, she said, there were too few opportunities for people to actually participate in the creative process.
Over the last year, Hirsch had been looking at options for starting an entirely new center, "but creating something from scratch would be a massive hurdle financially, and then we’d have to take on an older building and then try to revamp the building and put it up to code and I didn’t have the resources for any of these things," she said.
As it happened, in the spring of 2012, Nova Rockwell, a Northern Berkshire artist who had been on the board of NBCA (and who will teach a children’s course at the schoolhouse this winter), received a phone call from Sullivan, who was interested in expanding the IS183 offerings to North County.
Rockwell, who knew about Hirsch’s endeavor, contacted her about the possibility of partnering with IS183. Soon afterward, Hirsch had a conversation with others in the community who said that the Little Red Schoolhouse would be closing and that they were eager to find something new to occupy the building.
"And I thought, my goodness. Those are beautiful classrooms and the light is incredible, the building is handicapped-accessible, the building is up to code, the building is wonderful. So it was to me a no-brainer that this was an incredible opportunity at a perfectly opportune time for both the South Williamstown Community Association and for IS183."
Although Hirsch is eager to see the programs at the schoolhouse expand, for now, she said, simplicity is the key. "What happened with Northern Berkshire Creative Arts in North Adams is that they really tried to service a lot of schools, a lot of different members of the community, and they were not able to survive. So the goal is to start extremely simple, very bare-bones and just meet people’s need for a creative outlet. And then build from there."
Part of the goal also is to preserve the historic character of the schoolhouse while still supporting the new programs. "At this point, we’re trying to not change the building, just accumulate materials that can be used for teaching and without costing Little Red or IS183 much upfront," Hirsch said. "So if anyone has a sewing machine that they don’t use, we’ll take it."
For the artists on staff, IS183 at the Little Red Schoolhouse is an opportunity both to broaden their experience as educators and to respond to the local demand for high-quality arts programming.
"Even though IS183 is going to be the umbrella organization," said Hirsch, "we’re really tapping into the artist and teacher pool from the Northern Berkshires and the Bennington and North Adams areas, so that all of our teachers are local. Even though IS183 will be our Stockbridge kind of mother ship, we’re going to support local artists and support local instructors. So for me, that’s a huge element."
The collaboration also reflects the deep roots the schoolhouse has in the community - as a place to learn and to gather - and will allow the spirit of the place to live on in a way better suited to today’s needs. Similar developments, of course, can be seen throughout the world, where art centers now inhabit factory buildings, churches and other historic sites.
"I think that when these big spaces empty - you know, when the churches empty and the mills empty and these old, beautiful schoolhouses empty, you want to keep that sense of a gathering place and you want to keep that sense of community alive," Hirsch said.
"I think there’s a great element of nostalgia for the school, which is really important," Hirsch said. "Because I think that we will have people who decide to come and quilt here, for instance, because it just feels like a place that has really good memories and has just a good vibe."
For more information about IS183 and to see a catalog of the offerings at the Little Red Schoolhouse this winter, go to www.is183.org. To make a donation, please call the South Williamstown Community Association at 413-458-8668.