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Fall 2001

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From the grounds up
Museum and its director rise together

by Barbara A. Melville

     Swing an imaginary arc—maybe forty miles as the crow flies—between Saratoga Springs and Manchester, Vt., and you’ve got a trajectory for the remarkable career of Christopher Madkour ’81.

     Madkour grew up in the pretty village of Manchester, and that’s where he returned in 1986 as executive director of the Southern Vermont Art Center. That made him, at twenty-nine, the state’s youngest museum director and head of its oldest cultural institution. Since then, Madkour has led SVAC’s transformation from a sleepy artistic backwater to a multifaceted arts center complete with a stunning new museum. Some trajectory.

     On the drive to Manchester, lush green landscapes unroll at every turn—no wonder artists summered there in droves before the turn of the last century. A handful of them incorporated as Southern Vermont Artists in 1933, and in 1950 acquired Yester House, the Georgian Revival mansion where today’s 1,700 members show and sell their artworks.

Christopher Madkour ’81 shows off the grand new museum at the Southern Vermont Arts Center.

     Since last July, artists are also exhibiting in the elegant new Elizabeth de C. Wilson Museum. Dazzling white against the dark green flank of Mount Equinox, the museum’s cascading roof lines and white clapboards hint of Vermont barns; inside, its two cool, spacious galleries soar to cathedral heights.

     “Isn’t it spectacular?” Madkour asks, gesturing across the green from his sunny office in Yester House, which features a 1917-era fireplace, oriental rugs, paintings, and bronzes. Madkour has felt at home at SVAC since his first high-school summer internship as a groundskeeper. Over the next four summers, he worked in the galleries, then with exhibitions, then with the director.

     “Arts were a natural part of my growing up,” says Madkour, whose parents roadtripped their seven kids to museums in New York City, Boston, and D.C. “I was never not interested in art.” As a transfer student at Skidmore, he pursued his childhood passion for things Egyptian with an art-history concentration in Middle Eastern architecture. He was a graduate student at American University in Cairo when the SVAC board tapped him for its top post. “I thought, ‘Why not? I know the institution, I know the members—I’ll take it!’”

Kenneth Nolan’s Ice Shine is among the contemporary art that Madkour is bringing to the Southern Vermont Arts Center.

     A quieter place in those days, the center had three paid staffers and “a great legacy,” says Madkour. “It just needed to go somewhere.”

     “It was hard for him at first—he was young,” recalls artist and SVAC trustee Judith Cummings Cotter ’55, one of a cluster of Skidmore graduates with SVAC ties. “But Christopher has a vision, and a true love of and knowledge of art.” And he worked zealously, wrestling a budget deficit back into balance and inaugurating an international travel program whose trips he still escorts to exotic destinations like Turkey, Kenya, and, of course, Egypt.

     Still, in the early 1990s, “the art center was treading water,” says Marion Morse Hoffman ’51, whose SVAC-trustee husband was to become a driving force behind the new center. With museum standards for climate control, fire safety, and security tightened in the 1990s, the center badly needed state-of-the-art storage and exhibition space for its permanent collection, nearly 700 works (some by Grandma Moses, James McNeil Whistler, George Inness, and Reginald Marsh) scattered around Manchester and in Yester House. “The center needed a shot in the arm,” says Hoffman crisply.

     And Madkour delivered it: Vermont’s first museum-quality Andy Warhol exhibition, augmented with a symposium and classes on silkscreen technique and pop art. The 1991 show was “an unqualified success,” according to Art and Soul, SVAC’s newly published history, and it set Manchester dreaming about a museum of its own. “Dream small, you get nothing,” reasoned Madkour. “Dream big, you get 50 percent of what you want.”

     They got much more. A funding campaign begun in 1996 brought in $7 million, every penny from individual donors. The campaign’s crown jewel was the 12,500-square-foot, $3.4 million Wilson Museum with its two grand galleries; the leftover millions refurbished the performing arts pavilion and Yester House, built a sculpture garden and two new studio classrooms, and funded a community outreach program.

     Designed by internationally recognized architect Hugh Newell Jacobsen, the museum won national and regional raves. “It had to be an aesthetic gem,” says Madkour, “because, like Skidmore’s new Tang Teaching Museum, it’s a piece of sculpture, a work of art.” Not surprisingly, Madkour has won raves of his own. “He has brought the museum to what it is today: a very important small art museum,” says Marion Hoffman. “Christopher is capable, charming, upbeat, and down to earth,” adds Cornelia Terry Ferguson ’73—“and hard-working.”

     Indeed, the hometown boy who once mowed the lawns not only directs fourteen employees and 300 volunteers, he also curates exhibitions, raises funds, and books the talent for so full a calendar of visual, performing, and studio events that the “art” in the center’s name was changed to “arts.” Jazz great Dave Brubeck, pianist Peter Serkin, culture critic Dominick Dunne, playwright Wendy Wasserstein, historian David McCullough, actress

     Claire Bloom, and many more have played SVAC. How to nab such celebrities? Madkour shyly admits writing to Vanity Fair magazine and asking, “‘Would you give this personal note to Dominick Dunne?’ And they did!” he says with delight.

     Elysian as Madkour’s beautiful workplace might be, it’s not a bed of roses. The art center works within Vermont’s short tourist season; Manchester’s population largely winters in Florida. And sometimes Vermonters prefer traditional New England landscapes to challenging exhibitions like Madkour’s recent retrospective of modern-art giant Kenneth Noland. “Some people even say our new museum is a little grand for the area,” admits one staunch supporter.

     Nothing daunted, Madkour and the SVAC board are once again dreaming big, planning a $5 million campaign for endowment. They hope to add a third gallery to the Wilson, build a Yaddo-like artists’ retreat on the upper meadow, and create a roadside sculpture gallery. Madkour is already envisioning in detail—“I want that goosebump effect, that ‘Oh, my lord!’ reaction,” he says eagerly. And it is unthinkable that he will stop until it all comes true.

     “Building a museum is only the start,” he says. “You have to be able to heat it, turn the lights on, and put great art works into it.” Speaking perhaps as both museum director and Manchester native, he adds, “People love to be able to see great art in their backyard. Our goal is to bring it to them.”

Staff writer Barbara Melville often covers arts events on campus, especially at the new Tang Museum.

 


© 2001 Skidmore College