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Big City Bright Light

State of the Arts


Published April 21, 2004 at 4:00 p.m.

"I saw the ad and thought, 'Burlington, Vermont -- wow," says Evelyn Hankins. She apparently wasn't the only one. According to Fleming Museum Director Janie Cohen, "an exceptionally strong candidate pool" responded to the university's search for a new curator of collections and exhibitions. Hankins, an assistant curator at the Whitney Museum of American Art, was Cohen's number-one choice.

Isn't it a bit of a coup to hire away a curator from one of the most famous cultural institutions in the world?

"Yeah," acknowledges Cohen somewhat abashedly. "I'm very pleased about it. But I'm most pleased because it's her."

Hankins graduated from the University of California at Santa Barbara in 1990 and got her advanced degrees --a Master's in '94 and a PhD in '99 --at Stanford. From there she went to the Whitney for four years, specializing in pre-World War II American art. She's also worked with contemporary artists -- she assisted on the 2002 Whitney Biennial -- and studied the larger question of how museum collections are formed.

The combination was appealing, says Cohen, "because we really cover the gamut -- historical to contemporary, group shows to one-person shows." Plus, Hankins is "very, very enthusiastic and high-energy. I have a sense of somebody who's going to feel at home in Vermont."

It certainly seems that way from her phone message, which announces: "This week's Vermont discovery -- you can charge your electric car at the local gas station!" Hankins' friends are accustomed to getting updates from her answering machine. In New York, her apartment had a view of the Empire State Building, so her message regularly reported on the skyscraper's -- and her bedroom's -- ever-changing neon glow: red and green for Christmas, blue and white for Pakistani independence, and so on.

But now that she's moved up here -- with boyfriend, architect David Hofmann -- her messages will convey her weekly discoveries about Vermont.

Have there been any other surprises in her first week?

"Everyone is so nice here it's almost shocking," she reports. But then, she's lived through a Whitney Biennial -- the art-world equivalent of duck-hunting season, during which critics regularly take shots at the curators.

Might there be a Fleming Biennial in our future?

"No, that hasn't occurred to me," she says. But she has been to the Flynndog and Firehouse galleries, and plans to continue scoping out the local art scene.

Don't be surprised if she collars you at the market, or the electric pump, and asks for your opinion of the Fleming. Before taking the job, Hankins did a straw poll of people she met here to see what they thought of the museum. Obviously, she got some positive answers.

She admits that leaving the Whitney was "the hardest decision I've ever made in my life." But she was looking for an opportunity to work in a museum in an academic setting, where she could get to know the clientele.

And, being outdoorsy at heart, the quality of life here was appealing. Another plus: "I get more objects to play with." The Fleming has 20,000-plus objects, she says -- about 7,000 more than the Whitney, and they cross all kinds of cultural boundaries.

The addition of Hankins as curator takes some pressure off Janie Cohen, who has been handling both jobs. After working as assistant director for 11 years, Cohen became the museum's combination director-curator in 2002. Two of the biggest shows in the Fleming's history -- last year's Warhol exhibition and this year's Rembrandt -- occurred while Cohen was doing double duty.


Talk the talk... In Angels in America, Pulitzer Prize-winning playwright Tony Kushner proved that conversations about sex, race, politics and culture could make for absolutely gripping drama. So it's no surprise that Kushner is a great talker himself: witty, wide-ranging and breathtakingly right-on about the state of this country. That means his appearance next Wednesday, April 28, at Middlebury's Dana Auditorium is a must-see. He'll read from works-in-progress, then take questions from the audience and playwright-director Dana Yeaton, whose version of Chris Bohjalian's Midwives will be staged at Middlebury at the end of the month.