Beth Svenningsen was fresh out of graphic design school, searching for a job in New York City, when the pandemic hit.
She and her fiancé, Mitch Bluestein, had long dreamed of making the move north to Vermont to be closer to skiing and hiking trails like the ones they had explored in Addison County. When Bluestein’s podcast production job became remote, it seemed like the ideal time for a move from Brooklyn to Middlebury.
When Svenningsen, 30, and Bluestein settled in Middlebury in December 2020, she immediately began searching for places to buy supplies for her watercolor painting. She discovered that the closest stores were in Burlington and Montpelier, a 55-minute and 75-minute drive, respectively, from her new home.
“I know people in Vermont are OK with driving places, but it just seemed so far,” Svenningsen said.
Shortly after her move, Svenningsen joined the Brandon Artists’ Guild to meet other local artists and learn about the creative community. There she learned that many local artists bought supplies online because of the dearth of local stores. But that isn’t a great option, Svenningsen said, because shopping for art supplies is such a tactile experience. “If you are shopping online, you don’t have those chance discoveries,” she explained.
Svenningsen didn’t seriously consider opening an art supply store of her own, however, until she learned about the Kick Start Middlebury grant. Sponsored by the Town of Middlebury and the Better Middlebury Partnership, and funded by local organizations and the town business development fund, the grant offers $15,000 to $20,000 to six entrepreneurs to open or expand businesses in downtown Middlebury.
Svenningsen applied, and she received a Kick Start Middlebury grant in July 2021. In November, she signed a lease on a storefront, and on March 11 she opened Sparrow Art Supply.
The store is located downstairs at 52 Main Street beside Middlebury Mountaineer, with the Otter Creek Falls just outside. Its wooden-floored white interior is minimally decorated, drawing visitors’ eyes to its colorful contents. The main room holds paint, brushes, canvases, sketchbooks, colored pencils, pens, linoleum blocks, air-dry clay and other art supplies. The smaller room is a gallery featuring works by local artists.
The store’s only decoration of note is a light-up blue sparrow hung on the black-and-white-painted wall behind the cash register. When Svenningsen and Bluestein first moved to Vermont, they quickly realized that his remote work and her freelance art work, along with strict COVID-19 guidelines, would allow for little social interaction. The pair took up bird watching as a way to explore their new home and learn about the wildlife population of Addison County.
Svenningsen named the store for the American sparrow, the first bird she learned to identify and one that came to represent her love for the local arts community.
“It feels fitting to have a name so full of hope,” she said.
Svenningsen has an extensive arts background. After graduating from Skidmore College in Saratoga Springs, N.Y., with a degree in studio art, she worked in freelance set design for theater, dance, film and window displays in New York City. She then returned to school for a certificate in graphic design, which she completed right before the onset of the pandemic.
The relationships that Svenningsen forged in the Brandon Artists’ Guild helped inform the 40-page business plan with which she won the Kick Start Middlebury grant. She also researched existing stores in Middlebury, foot traffic to the downtown area and visitors’ shopping patterns. She spoke with the owners of art supply stores in similarly sized college towns across the country, who provided helpful advice on their business models.
“[The business plan] actually made a significant difference in me realizing that this could be possible,” Svenningsen said.
Karen Duguay, executive director of Experience Middlebury and coordinator of the grant program, said the selection committee liked Svenningsen’s vision of Sparrow as more than just a retail store, with a gallery space that could draw visitors downtown.
“We were so excited to see the application from [Svenningsen] come through, because we knew she had a lot of energy, and she wanted to be community-minded,” Duguay said.
The current exhibit in Sparrow’s gallery, “Sense of Relief,” features the relief prints of about 20 artists from across the state, including Halina Lyons of Middlebury, Janet Seaburg of Vergennes, Dawn Leone of Killington and Linda Blackerby of Essex Junction. The prints went on display on May 13 and will stay up through July 10.
Svenningsen said she wants the gallery to be accessible to artists of all experience levels, because it can be difficult for beginning artists to break into the exhibit scene. “It has created a draw for people who make art, and it gets people down here who wouldn’t necessarily go into an art supply store,” she said.
Sparrow’s first gallery show, “Nice to Meet You,” drew more than 40 submissions and stayed up from the March 11 grand opening through early May. Middlebury resident Sarah Schumacher was one of the artists whose work Svenningsen selected for the show.
“[Sparrow] is more accessible for artists like me and other people in the community,” Schumacher said. “It is a great resource for Middlebury artists trying to get their feet in the door in the art world.”
Visitors can purchase any of the artworks on display in the gallery. Though Sparrow retains a 40 percent commission on those sales, the exhibits are still a good way for local artists to increase their revenue, Svenningsen said.
In another effort to support artists, Svenningsen has held a few open studio sessions in the retail section of the store. Each 1.5-hour drawing session has featured either a still-life display set up by Svenningsen or figure drawing with a live nude model. Svenningsen said customers have expressed great interest in attending sessions on other mediums and classes taught by local artists, which she hopes to begin in the coming months.
Since opening the store, Svenningsen has used Instagram and a biweekly newsletter to reach the Addison County community. She recently posted an online customer survey to find out which kinds of new inventory they would like to see, when they’re most likely to shop and which types of workshops would interest them.
She keeps track of how many people visit the store each day and hopes to develop an online ordering system and curbside pick-up for customers who can’t come down the stairs to shop in person.
“The idea for this space [still] is very community oriented, whether it is the gallery or whether it is the workshops,” Svenningsen said.
In Duguay’s view, Svenningsen’s consistent efforts to connect with the local artists’ community and ask for feedback on social media will make her successful in the long run. “She’s got really good energy, and people recognize that,” Duguay said. “She is really good at tapping into what people are actually looking for.”
Correction on June 9, 2022: Svenningsen earned a certificate in graphic design, not a master’s degree.