Marlboro Music cancels 70th anniversary season, eyes 2021

The Marlboro Music Festival has taken place on the former Marlboro College campus since the festival's founding in 1951.

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MARLBORO — Marlboro Music is now the official owner of the place it has called home for 70 years.

On Tuesday, Christopher Serkin, the president and chairman of the board of Marlboro Music, announced it had closed on its purchase of the campus of the former Marlboro College after it reached an agreement with the previous owner, Democracy Builders Fund 1, and Type 1 Civilization, which also claimed an ownership interest in the property.

Earlier this year, Marlboro Music formed a subsidiary non-profit organization, Potash Hill, Inc., that will hold title to the campus.

According to documents submitted to the town of Marlboro, Potash Hill paid $2,740,000 to Democracy Builders Fund 1.

Serkin told the Reformer Tuesday that Marlboro Music had reached a “modest” financial agreement with Type 1 to relinquish its ownership claim and to drop any litigation related to its claim. Serkin declined to disclose the details of the agreement.

“The purchase ensures that this beautiful and historic property will remain intact, preserved, and the home campus for Marlboro Music for generations to come,” states a news release announcing the sale.

“While it will create some important challenges, the purchase brings a vital measure of stability to our organization, to the surrounding community, and to the many patrons and constituents who feel as protective as we do about this special place,” stated Serkin in the news release. “This purchase ensures that our program will continue supporting the development of musical leaders here for generations to come.”

Serkin told the Reformer that he is grateful to all parties for the chance to be able to continue the legacy that started in 1951, when his grandfather, pianist Rudolf Serkin, and grandfather, violinist Adolf Busch, and Herman Busch, along with Marcel, Blanche, and Louis Moyse established Marlboro Music as a collaborative gathering space for musicians from around the world.

Rudolf’s wife, Irene Busch Serkin, was also a musician and was the managing director of the Vermont Wantastiquet Chamber Players.

“It feels like a tremendous responsibility,” said Serkin, who is a professor of law at Vanderbilt University. “But it also provides a measure of security and permanence for Marlboro Music. I’m grateful we were able to accomplish this.”

Serkin grew up in Marlboro and graduated from Brattleboro Union High School. His father, John, graduated from Marlboro College, where his mother, Lucy Gratwick, also worked.

“I’m a local kid,” he said. “To have this property protected, which means so much to so many people, is really important to me.”

Serkin said Marlboro Music will continue to use the campus as it has traditionally used it for three months during the summer, and will establish a 15-member task force to oversee an in-depth feasibility and strategic planning process to help determine the future use of the property from September through May each year.

“We want to find a use that is, at worst, not inconsistent with our core mission and values,” he said. “Hopefully one that is consonant with and enhances and supports who we are and what we do.”

Serkin said over the past year, when it was announced Marlboro Music was in the process of purchasing the property, he and Marlboro Music have received “various suggestions” as to the use of the campus for nine months out of the year.

“At this point we have very deliberately not engaged in any of those conversations,” he said, adding the committee will establish a process to evaluate all proposals.

Serkin said the Music Festival has the financial wherewithal “in the short term” to foot the annual $1 million maintenance bill for the campus, but hopes to find a partner that can subsidize the cost.

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Marlboro College, which was founded in 1946, had struggled for many years to maintain its campus as enrollment dwindled and revenues dropped. In September 2019, Marlboro College backed out of an agreement with the University of Bridgeport that would have kept some classes on Potash Hill. Later in 2019, Marlboro College announced a merger with Emerson College that resulted in the closure of the campus and the establishment of the Marlboro Institute for Liberal Arts and Interdisciplinary Studies in Boston.

In July 2020, the Corporation of Marlboro College sold the campus to Democracy Builders Fund 1 for a total of $1,725,000 in cash and debt, a sum far below the property’s assessed value.

Democracy Builders swept into Marlboro with grand plans to open Degrees of Freedom, a hybrid charter school program for high school students who would visit the campus for two weeks, three times a year. Degrees of Freedom also hoped to start an associates degree program, aimed at “empowering students from disenfranchised groups and giving them the skills to be leaders in their community,” according to news releases.

Degrees of Freedom was set to open in the fall of 2021 but before that could happen, one of its founders, Seth Andrew, was arrested in April, accused of stealing $218,000 from Democracy Prep, the charter school network that he founded in 2005. Andrew left Democracy Prep in 2013 to take a job with the United States Department of Education and also served as a senior adviser in the Office of Educational Technology in the Obama White House. His case is still pending in federal court in New York.

Before his arrest, Andrew had reached a deal to sell the campus to Adrian Stein, of Type 1 Civilization Academy, with Degrees of Freedom as a tenant. Andrew later reneged on the deal, saying Stein had not kept his end of the agreement, which Stein disputed.

“We had a very amicable working relationship with Adrian,” Serkin told the Reformer. “We left the door open to discussions in the future.”

Stein confirmed the agreement with the Reformer, and said Type 1 is currently looking at other properties in New England where it can realize its vision to establish “an intellectual hub” in the Northeast.

Alice Jazel-Smith, chairwoman of the board of Democracy Builders, told the Reformer the campus is in good hands with the Marlboro Music Festival.

“I am happy to have been able to work with Chris Serkin this past summer,” she said. “The ultimate goal of preserving the Marlboro campus has been achieved.”

Serkin told the Reformer that despite COVID-19 restrictions, the 2021 Music Festival was a resounding success.

“It was really quite wonderful just having all the musicians back and making music together,” he said.

Some musicians were not able to attend due to travel restrictions, and public concerts had smaller attendance to allow for social distancing, said Serkin.

“We required all our musicians to be vaccinated and we had regular COVID testing,” he said. “As a result, we didn’t have a single COVID case.”

He also said the staff that has maintained the campus over the last couple of years will remain in place.

The Potash Hill campus consists of 59 buildings on 563 acres, extending from the southern part of Marlboro into Halifax, Vermont.

On Oct. 23, from 11 a.m. to 2 p.m., Marlboro Music will host an open house on campus for local residents. The open house will include a tour of the new Jerome and Celia Bertin Reich building, which contains three rehearsal studios, a library for Marlboro’s extensive collection of chamber music scores, administrative offices, and social spaces.

Bob Audette can be contacted at raudette@reformer.com.