The summer of 1975 was a bit of a "second coming" in New Harmony, no messiah, but perhaps another "Boatload of Knowledge" -definitely exciting times. Ralph Schwartz, president of Historic New Harmony, was implementing an ambitious plan to re-invigorate the historic interpretation of the landmark town. With the newly re-formed New Harmony Commission, the Red Geranium Enterprises with their new inn, the area's universities, the Owen family leadership, and the Lilly Endowment's support, new opportunities were possible unlike anything since the original Harmonist/ Owen communities. With these possibilities came new people, in many ways excited by the ideals of the first community. Some were returning New Harmonists, others writers, artists, designers, educators, one with the 20th century underpinnings and bi-centennial sense of place and spirit.
Deans and chancellors, department chairs, artists, humanities scholars, university board members, all had been invited to New Harmony during the previous year to brainstorm ideas and spread the word about the re-vitalization of this utopian community. Word had filtered to me through my mentor, Rudy Pozzatti, about a receptive attitude toward creative arts programming, and I arrived one summer afternoon with portfolio under arm to talk about the possibility of a print publishing workshop, in the manner of Tamarind, Lakeside, or Landfall Press in Chicago, where I had worked the proceeding six months.
After meeting first with Schwarz, and then Neil Pagano, vice-president of HNH, I pitched my ideas of artists-in-residence and new work commissioned to expand thought and ideas. Perhaps taken aback by the impractical enthusiasm of a recent grad, I was then toured around town and met the faculty teaching in the summer clay and fiber workshops offered by University of Evansville, Les Miley, and Julie Lindsey. Perhaps this was to temper my eagerness to engage in art-making in a place in many ways so similar to where I grew up and show me real world situations such as pottery wheels in log cabins. Yet the students, (art plus theatres for U of E's summer stock company which was also in full swing); the restoration activity that was going on throughout town, but particularly on the storefront facades of the business block, particularly the buildings housing HNH's offices, and the atypical sense of historical setting mixing Philip Johnson and David Dale Owen made the place alive with commotion and energy. Before long, I was hanging on the back of an antique auto with a roof of fringe, portfolio still under arm, making a U-turn on Main Street headed for someplace called the "Orchard House" with a lady in a very big hat.
We entered a wonderful parlor and I was instructed to take down the drawing hanging over the fireplace, and hold one of my prints, the abstract "cherries," in its place. It was a fit and it was decided it should stay in place of the Ellsworth Kelly previously there. I had already decided this was a place I wanted to be. A place unlike any other Southern Indiana town I knew, a place eccentric and visionary, a place with history that produced the future, where contemporary, new, inventive, innovative, creative, aesthetic, intellectual were not out of place, but where small-town, rural, agricultural, and family-oriented mixed easily.
There were places to eat, drink, and talk from Red G to Shadblow and the Yellow T, a "real" book store dealing in local history, of which there was one; public art before I knew to call it that, a maze, and more, plus lots of interesting people; like retired Spanish professors with a "dental office casita" with sleeping porches, ceramic fountains, and copper fireplace mantles that made a printmaker's eyes pop, all populating this tiny place.
While the idea of publishing artist's prints made perfect sense to me, given New Harmony's record of firsts, it wasn't on the list of priorities for the new non-profit historical entity that was trying to figure out how to tell the story of this unique town. But using the storefront spaces in some of the buildings it had acquired with the initial, primary interest of saving the facades was attractive, and Julia Lindsey was hired as a consultant to stay on in town after her fiber workshop ended and explore ideas for possible art programs before she returned to her regular academic position at Wright State in the fall. After visiting me in Bloomington a couple of weeks later, we proposed a gallery, (Soho cast iron fronts were not so different -other that several million people living nearby) and within a few weeks the barter economy of New Harmony had been re-vitalized along with the buildings under restoration. In exchange for a house, a studio for a print shop, since I came self-contained, and a very small stipend, there was space for a gallery, and the freedom to initiate the programming for a visual arts space.
The interpretive vision of Ralph Schwartz was that New Harmony was a place of ideas -tough ideas- communal ownership, evolution and science, abolition and women's rights, free daycare and pre-school, even no sex, so contemporary art did not seem a stretch. In fact, it seemed to echo and reinforce the revolutionary spirit of the place. New architecture and new art mixed and married to traditions and forms radical in their times seemed to be what was called for, even demanded. So by October 1975, the day the Amish raised a barn to be a anew theatre shop for the Opera House, and the day that four houses rolled down the streets of New Harmony, some to their original sites, others to be rejoined to parts split apart years before, houses both brick and timber; the New Harmony Gallery of Contemporary Art opened. new art, creative ideas by artists both near and far, joined the drugstore, the hardware store, and the doctor's office on Main Street, to be part of a living community, generating rumors and controversies, joy and beauty, life and livelihoods just like any other business, except in New Harmony, it can be the "art" business.
J.P. Begley, Director of New Harmony Gallery 1975-1983
Gallery Director & Adjunct Associate Professor
Critical and Curatorial Studies
Hite Art Institute
University of Louisville