Chris Hadsel, Director
Mary Jo (MJ) Davis, Conservator
Curtains Without Borders is dedicated to documenting and preserving historic painted scenery. We focus on painted stage scenery found in town halls, grange halls, theaters and opera houses. The time frame is roughly 1890 and 1940, although on rare occasions, pieces painted after 1940 are also included in our inventory.
Curtains Without Borders began in 1996 as a project of the Vermont Museum & Gallery Alliance. Thanks to initial support from the National Trust for Historic Preservation, a statewide survey was undertaken to find and assess the condition of Vermont’s collection of historic painted scenery. We thought there might be 25 pieces, but the total number of historic painted curtains in Vermont eventually grew to 190. We believe we have now found them all.
Conservation work began in November, 1998, and as of 2018, every Vermont painted curtain has been cleaned, mended, and judiciously in-painted. Of the 190, about 25 have been put into “deep” storage because they are too fragile to be displayed or there is no place to install them. All the others have been installed for use or public appreciation in town halls, grange halls, community theaters, opera houses, or other community centers. As a statewide collection of public art, the curtains gained recognition from the National Trust for Historic Preservation as one of “America’s Treasures”. The many years of conservation have been supported by the National Endowment for the Arts, including a Save America’s Treasures grant. The Vermont Legislature, foundations, individuals and businesses matched the federal money and thousands of volunteer hours made the work possible.
Vermont was the first state to pay attention to these reminders of a time when even the smallest village halls held local variety shows or school performances, and many towns were visited by traveling players, opera companies, vaudeville singers, and itinerant musicians. Painted scenery (primarily roll drops, with a few “fly” scenes) was especially popular in northern New England. Unfortunately, many were discarded as they became worn and dirty, as tastes changed and as many theaters became movie houses. However, in Vermont, curtains were often bundled up with baling twine, stashed in ceiling crawl spaces or shoved under the stage. By bringing the scenery back into public view and giving it new life with stabilization of the fabric, paint and support systems, we hope to encourage the continued use of our cultural, social and political centers.
Westminster Town Hall, VT
In 2008/2009, Curtains Without Borders and the New Hampshire Preservation Alliance collaborated on a survey to locate and document New Hampshire's collection of historic scenery. Over 150 pieces have now been documented. Although many of the scenic studios were the same as in Vermont, we discovered a very different group of individual artists who made at least part of their living providing everything from grand drapes to advertising curtains. Thanks to funding from the New Hampshire Charitable Foundation, we were able to research these artists, find their descendants, and produce a booklet about them.
Hillsboro, NH Grand Drape
In Maine, a collaborative project with Maine Preservation identified another 150 historic painted theater curtains in 2010/2011. Again, many of the same small scenic studios turned up with similar but individualized pieces. There was a noticeable difference in the proportion of curtains in Maine grange halls: in Vermont there are 12 curtains in active granges, in New Hampshire there are 22, but in Maine there are 81 (more than half the total count). It isn’t just that there are more granges in Maine – it seems that more social life took place in grange halls than in town halls, many of which were built more along the lines of meeting houses without stages. The quality of some of the Maine grange hall curtains rivals those in small opera houses in Vermont or New Hampshire.
Androscoggin Grange #8, Greene, ME
In 2015, after more surveys of upstate New York and the New England states to our south, we expanded our range to include the entire country. The big difference is that we can't just hop in the car and go see them, so we have to rely on networks such as state historical societies and the National Grange. We also decided it was time to train conservators in other parts of the country to share what we've learned over the past 20 years. We started in Denver and have plans to work with conservators in Texas in 2020. There are, indeed, hundreds if not thousands of curtains that still exist, but we also get increasingly frequent calls about those that have disappeared or are on the brink.
A plea: if you know of a curtain that does not appear on the National Map on this web site, please contact us. We track down even the thinnest of leads!