Bente Torjusen, with drawings by Clifford West, her husband, in the background

Bente Torjusen To Say Goodbye To AVA Gallery

Submitted 2 years ago
Created by
Susan B. Apel

December 2, 2016 will mark 30 years to the day that Bente Torjusen has served as the director of the AVA Gallery and Art Center. It will also be her last day of work there. Bente--she is known by her first name throughout the Upper Valley--is retiring.

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When she began, AVA occupied part of the Dartmouth Bookstore space in Hanover NH. As the lease there was coming to an end because the bookstore needed to use the space for itself, Bente started to look elsewhere. In 1990, she found the old H. W. Carter Overall factory in the center of Lebanon NH and fell in love with the building's history and potential. She was beguiled by the large windows, high ceilings, the creaky stairs, and something else, indefinable, that she says "spoke to me."

Locating in Lebanon was not without controversy at the time. Some believed that Hanover, a town with an Ivy League college, was a more appropriate venue for the arts. Bente was confronted in those early days by a man who wandered into the Carter building to tell her that "Lebanon did not need an art gallery." During a recent conversation in her office, I asked her what she might say to that same man now. She replied by telling me a story about a Lebanon resident with whom she has had a passing acquaintance. He sought her out on the street one day to tell her a story about his life and the importance of having seen a painting, Whistler's Mother, when he was a young man. Despite the fact that "it happened decades ago," she said, "it is still very meaningful to him."

AVA's front door, Bank Street, Lebanon NH

After renting the Carter space for many years, in 2003 AVA acquired the property and a $4.5 million renovation began. The building required a significant amount of work to be "code compliant, energy efficient, and structurally sound." For Bente, at least two things were paramount. She stressed the importance of having a dedicated teaching space, and she wanted the building to be totally accessible and welcoming. She spoke often about the relationship of the building's form to its function. The giant-windowed galleries, for example, sit right on Bank Street, impossible to miss and inviting to passersby. The teaching space allowed for programming for serious artists and the general community; its presence helped to secure grants that make some of AVA's classes and workshops possible. 

Renamed the Carter-Kelsey Building, AVA now has four gallery spaces, seven teaching studios, a printmaking studio, a stone carving studio, a digital arts media lab, and Kira's Garden, an outdoor sculpture garden. The building is LEED Gold-certified for its energy efficiency, and has won several awards for design. In 2010, it was one of only 6 organizations in the United States to receive the highly-competitive "Innovative Space Award."  And the renovation isn't over. A sculptural arts center in a newly constructed building behind Carter-Kelsey, is almost completed.

AVA's new sculptural arts center, in progress.

This repurposed 140-year old factory, showered in awards, could alone stand as Bente Torjusen's legacy. It will, but there is much more. As well-acquainted as I thought I was with the AVA Gallery, I came away from my conversation with Bente with new things to know about it. AVA's fall schedule includes over 40 classes for adults in arts as diverse as calligraphy, bookmaking, portrait photography, basic drawing, and fundamentals of oil painting. There are 12 classes and many workshops for children, including a program for the home-schooled, and a Legos Robotic Club. Children sometimes find their way to the galleries to sketch. Working with social service agencies, AVA awarded 61 scholarships (45 to kids) this year. A day-long senior art class is held weekly at AVA, where 15 to 25 people meet to create and socialize for a fee of $5; the senior center caters lunch. Bente and I agreed that art is of major importance. More so are the people who view it, make it, and support and appreciate it, sharing the experience, telling and listening to their own and others' stories. 

Scabiosa cretica, hand-coloured micrograph of pin-cushion flower seed on aluminum, by Rob Kesseler, from a recent exhibition at AVA

Bente is still at hard at work and doesn't remotely resemble a person who is about to retire. "Change is necessary," she said. She has work to do to secure the artistic legacy of her late husband, Clifford West, after whom one of AVA's galleries is named. She wants to spend time with family. Not surprisingly, Bente looks forward to exploring the richness of artistic offerings in the Upper Valley beyond her own. 

Bente, still at work, in her office at AVA

Thank you, Bente, for all that you have given to every person who has come through AVA's doors, as well as to those who will come in future years. We hope to keep you among us in this Upper Valley that you have so beautifully enriched.


AVA Gallery and Art Center will host a good-bye party for Bente Torjusen on December 2 from 2:00 to 7:00 p.m. All are welcome. For further information, check the gallery's website.

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