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BRATTLEBORO — There are two parts to the question of how the Brattleboro Museum & Art Center got to display works by the late pop artist Keith Haring.

The first part of that question is: How did his works make it out of the subway?

Danny Lichtenfeld, museum director and curator of the exhibit in Brattleboro, answers this by starting at the beginning, around 1980. When ads on the walls of the subway would expire, authorities covered them with black paper before a new ad came in. Haring, noting these blank, black canvases, had a brainstorm. For about five years, whenever he had the opportunity to do so without getting caught, he quickly made a chalk drawing on the black paper. 

"He loved the idea of doing art in a way that was going to be seen by millions of people who are not just the small number of people who go to art galleries and art museums, but like, everyday people going about their everyday lives; he loved that about graffiti," Lichtenfeld said. 

Within a few days of creation, his drawings would be torn down by subway authorities, or covered with the next ad, and Haring was fine with this. He wasn't looking to sell his work, but get it out in front of people. He didn't even sign them.

But this didn't stop some people from taking notice, and sometimes cutting the chalk drawings off the walls to save them. He rose to fame around 1982, holding his first major gallery exhibition and selling his work, after which more people began cutting his work off the walls, sometimes to resell. Of Haring's estimated 5,000 subway drawings, it's believed that somewhere between 250 and 500 survive to this day. Some are in private collections. Others are in museum collections.

This is how Haring's subway drawings made it out of the subway.

As for the 18 now on display at the Brattleboro museum, they were cut from the walls by a young New York City handyman and mechanic who had met Haring in the subway.

"He became totally enamored with the project and with the artwork," Lichtenfeld said of the handyman. "He was exactly the kind of person that Keith wanted to reach with this project: the kind of person who doesn't go to art galleries, doesn't go to art museums, but who really responded to the work, and so Keith was very generous and friendly in talking with him about it for a while."

Chalk drawings now on display in Brattleboro include a figure with a clock for a head, holding cash with apparent flames coming out of them; a snowman-like figure with a computer monitor for a head, holding smaller, human-shaped figures in its many arms — and many other uncanny depictions of society.

Lichtenfeld said he chose the subway drawings that he thought captured a good variety of visuals and symbolism.

"I also thought a little bit about, you know, there were some social and political issues that he's addressed regularly in his artwork," he said. These included the nuclear arms race, nuclear disarmament, abuse of authority, and the prophetic concern of technology taking over our lives.

"And so in picking and choosing, I was thinking about those things, too, wanting to show a broad range of the social and political issues that were of interest to Keith, making sure that we included as much as we could," Lichtenfeld said.

Having grown up on Long Island, Lichtenfeld was aware of Haring in the 1980s.

"I don't actually recall being in the subway system and seeing his subway drawings when he was doing those in the early part of the '80s," he recalled, but he does remember some of Haring's large murals after he rose to fame. "I remember seeing some of his artwork around. One of the things that was unusual about him was how he just fully embraced the commercial side of the art world. Like, he wasn't at all precious about, like, 'oh, no, my artwork can't be on a T-shirt, or it couldn't be on a button or a bumper sticker.' He was all about that stuff."

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David Rohn, a painter in Putney who traveled in the same circles with Haring in the 1980s, speaks of an "essential good-heartedness" behind the late artist's work.

“There is quality not only in doing it, but there is a quality in the lack of aggression, a kind of a kindliness of the images,” Rohn said.

Stephen Hannock, a New York painter who now lives in the Williamstown and North Adams area of Massachusetts, also traveled in similar circles to Haring. At that time, the early 1980s, artists were getting "kicked out of your studio every four or five months; it was really kind of a drag," Hannock recalls.

"I knew Keith back in the day when we were all struggling trying to get recognized," he said. "It's not easy; living a life in the cultural arenas is not for the squeamish."

Hannock ended up signing a lease in the former space of Haring's first Pop Shop. The windows of that space were blocked out with hieroglyphic designs by Haring, who at that time had been diagnosed with AIDs, Hannock recalls. 

"There were people that would come up to my space and say, 'Hey, you know, he's sick; these things are really going to be valuable,' and it was really disgusting." To keep the works out of the hands of those disrespecting his health, Hannock painted over Haring's designs.

"By painting them out, it just seemed like a respectful (act) — I don't think Keith ever knew that I painted them out. I never told him. I just sort of left it alone," Hannock remembers. Haring died of AIDs in 1990 at the age of 31.

He calls Haring's work "the visual soundtrack to my entrance into the fine art wars of Lower Manhattan, if you will. Keith just didn't want to wait around for galleries to discover his stuff, so he found those amazing canceled advertising platforms and just went to them. It was spectacular art."

The exhibition “Keith Haring: Subway Drawings,” is on view at the Brattleboro Museum & Art Center through June 11.*

On Thursday at 7 p.m., Angelina Lippert, chief curator of Poster House in New York City and author of "The Art Deco Poster," gives an in-person talk titled “A Brief History of the Poster” at Next Stage Arts, 15 Kimball Hill, Putney. The talk will cover the birth of posters in the mid-1800s, major stylistic movements and important moments in printing history. Admission to the talk is free. Registration is optional. Walk-ins are welcome.

On March 30 at 7 p.m., Lichtenfeld leads an in-person tour of the exhibition. The tour will not be livestreamed, but a recording will be made available afterward. Admission to this event is free. Registration is optional. Walk-ins are welcome.

And on April 14 at 8 p.m., there will be a Radiant Baby Dance Party, sponsored by Vermont Hempicurean, Vermont Bud Barn and Vermont Grow Barn. DJ Matt Krefting will serve up '80s dance hits, and Whetstone Beer Co. will provide a cash bar. Creative '80s attire is encouraged. Tickets are $25 ($20 for BMAC members) in advance at, $30 at the door.

The museum is open Wednesday through Sunday, 10 a.m. to 4 p.m. Admission is on a “pay-as-you-wish” basis. The museum, in historic Union Station in downtown Brattleboro at the intersection of Main Street and routes 119 and 142, is wheelchair accessible. For more information, call 802-257-0124 or visit

*This story has been updated to reflect that the Keith Haring exhibit at Brattleboro Museum & Art Center has been extended to June 11.