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A Major Player in the City's Arts Scene Is Ready to Move On

By Michelle Boorstein
Sunday, March 27, 2005; Page C04

Dan Finnegan is "totally at peace" with leaving the downtown Fredericksburg block where he has made and sold pottery for much of the past 25 years. He's not depressed, or sad either, he told people who dribbled in on a rainy day last week to ask: How do you feel about your landlord's plan to turn this corner into a Marriott hotel?

"I don't really care," he said with a grin, glancing out a store window plastered with a poster that reads, in part: "WE ARE MOVING! WHY? BECAUSE A HUGE UGLY CHAIN HOTEL IS PLANNED FOR THIS SITE!"

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If Finnegan's sentiments seem complicated, it's because they are.

Finnegan, de facto president and chief personality of the city's arts scene, is being pushed out of his studio and shop -- as well as his apartment next door -- by a surge of interest in a downtown hotel. Finnegan's landlord, Tommy Mitchell, has a partnership with Marriott, and City Council members have stated their support for a hotel in the historic downtown, a magnet for tourists who must head to Interstate 95 for a place to sleep.

Eighteen months ago, Finnegan launched what is now a broad and vocal group to fight a hotel that members say is too large and inappropriately designed. But he realized something along the way: He sort of wanted to go.

It has been 25 years since he arrived from Poughkeepsie, N.Y., a 25-year-old wanderer with a cat, a dog and no money who answered an ad for a pottery shop manager. The Fredericksburg that Finnegan found was "a ghost town," emptied out by the new mall in Spotsylvania County. "Drunks were sleeping in the streets," he recalled.

In that quarter-century, a lot changed.

Finnegan built a successful business, and his shop at Hanover and Sophia streets became a landmark, with pottery framing the rooftop and a huge mural on the building's side. The price of Finnegan's mugs went from $5 to $35, and the European-trained potter sells vases for hundreds. He also became a player, mentoring a generation of young artists and, last year, opening a honeycomb of artists' studios on the edge of downtown called LibertyTown.

Downtown has added a dozen trendy galleries and craft shops. And rents for apartments above the storefronts have gone from the $125 Finnegan paid when he came to $1,200 today.

Finnegan sits on the boards of the local historic association and the retailers association, and his bushy-bearded, twinkling-eyed persona is so closely associated with the city that an oil portrait of him throwing a pot sold last year for $850. The artist said he could have sold many more, at a higher price.

"There were a lot of people who wanted it because a lot of people love Dan," painter Bill Harris said.

But as the city and the arts scene have changed, so has Finnegan. He recently decided that he no longer wanted to be "the community potter," churning out commemorative platters for local events. He wanted to stoke the creative hermit within, and the hotel provided a chance to tear himself loose.

So when his lease expires this week, Finnegan will move his studio "into the country" and explore making grander pots and sculpture. He is hoping that agents and big-city galleries might sell his work, though he will keep a table at LibertyTown and be there twice a week to run things.

Finnegan doesn't want people to know exactly where his new studio is because he is hoping to find some solitude. It may be hard, judging from the comments this week of passersby who found the once lively studio almost empty.

"It's the Dan Finnegans that made this place a place where you wanted to be, and now that Fredericksburg's a trendy, funky place. . . ." one angry visitor said, letting the sentence trail off.

But once they had gone, Finnegan had a different thought: "I think Tommy and I are the only ones who aren't sad about me leaving."

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