In October, Sophie Bréchu-West quietly made her debut in the Vermont art scene. Not as an artist, but as a curator. The 36-year-old is originally from Bennington and most recently lived in New York City. Over the past few months, she was the impetus behind multiple exhibitions of work by Brooklyn artist Sally Gil, whose work you can still see in the "Contemporary Voices From Vermont" show at the University of Vermont's Fleming Museum of Art in Burlington.
Bréchu-West is an independent curator and art consultant who operates a company called 571 Projects. She's currently prepping for a new show, a smaller affair featuring artist Dorothy Simpson Krause, which Bréchu-West will hang in her snug Stowe headquarters in December. Krause, an accomplished artist who founded the Computer Arts Center at the Massachusetts College of Art, has never shown her work in Vermont before.
While this is only her second exhibition in Vermont, Bréchu-West is by no means inexperienced. She launched 571 Projects in 2009 in New York City. In 2012, when the building was scheduled to be demolished and redeveloped, she uprooted herself and moved back home with her husband. Now Bréchu-West plans to continue her practice by bringing mid-career artists to Vermont.
The contemporary art she exhibits ranges from loose, painterly portraits by New York artist Melora Griffis to Krause's experimental environmental prints. But it wasn't always so. When Bréchu-West earned a degree in art history from the College of William & Mary in Williamsburg, Va., she had no real grounding in contemporary art. She started her career in the arts with an internship at the Boston branch of Christie's Auctions, which led to a job at the Judi Rotenberg Gallery in Cambridge.
"Abby Ross, Judi Rotenberg's daughter, had just taken over the gallery," Bréchu-West recalls, "and had sort of shifted the vision ... into a much more cutting-edge visual aesthetic. And I realized I didn't have the framework for any of it."
So she hopped across the pond to get her master's in contemporary art and connoisseurship from Christie's London.
From there, it was on to New York City. 571 Projects started, says Bréchu-West, "as a boutique gallery space." Her aim was to showcase emerging and mid-career artists with solo shows. "I wanted to highlight the strength of these artists in the context of their own work, which is frequently rolled into group shows and never allowed to stand and shine alone."
The curator staged 12 before losing her New York space. She also developed a portfolio of clients for the art-consulting side of her business, something she aims to re-create in Vermont.
"As a native Vermonter, coming back to the state was a natural choice," Bréchu-West says. "Stowe seemed like a good fit. My husband [Antoine Bréchu] is from the French Alps, and we're both avid skiers."
And she's here to stay. "I kind of got the city thing out of my system," she says. "I'm not asking myself why I'm here. I know why I'm here. I like the pace of life, I like having time for the outdoors, and I like this new environment for my artists - to try to get them going in different, interesting places."
"I don't have anything against artwork that reads as 'typically' Vermont, nice figurative landscapes that may or may not include foliage, barns, cows," the curator says. "It just happens that I am interested in artists who explore landscape ... in ways that challenge and stretch our preconceived notions of how we see and respond to our world."