Curtains Without Borders is a conservation project dedicated to documenting and preserving historic painted scenery. The painted curtains are found in town halls, grange halls, theaters and opera houses. They were created between 1890 and 1940, although on rare occasions, pieces painted after 1940 are also included in our inventories.
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 185. We believe we have now found them all.
Conservation work began in November, 2002, and as of December, 2010, every curtain has been cleaned, mended, and judiciously in-painted. Of these, about 25 have been put into “deep” storage because they are too fragile to be displayed or there is no place to install them. There is one that is ready to go back on stage in a newly-restored town hall, and 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 were supported by the National Endowment for the Arts, including a Save America’s Treasures grant. Vermont 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 troupes of players, opera companies, vaudeville singers, and itinerant musicians. Between 1880 and 1940, painted scenery (primarily roll drops, with a few “fly” scenes) was especially popular in northern New England and the upper Midwest. 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.