New Vermont Studio Center Director Looks to Build an Inclusive Community | Visual Art | Seven Days | Vermont's Independent Voice

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New Vermont Studio Center Director Looks to Build an Inclusive Community


Published July 29, 2020 at 10:00 a.m.

  • Courtesy Of Vermont Studio Center
  • Elyzabeth Joy Holford

According to her LinkedIn profile, Elyzabeth Joy Holford is an international strategy consultant. Those buzzy-sounding words hardly do service to the dizzying number of positions she has held, including trial attorney; tenured associate professor, assistant dean, director of equal opportunity and affirmative action, and other roles at Virginia Tech; director of that university's Center for European Studies and Architecture, located in Riva San Vitale, Switzerland; executive director of Equality Ohio; founding senior executive of Digital Living Research Commons in Aarhus, Denmark; and many more.

This month, Holford adds another line to her résumé: executive director of the Vermont Studio Center.

Following the yearlong interim leadership of Ellen McCulloch-Lovell, Holford comes to the arts center not only with extensive experience in management and organizational innovation but with other attributes equally pertinent to the venue: She's a musician — singer and guitarist — and "an arts enthusiast with a passion for poetry," she told Seven Days. "One of my happiest moments this week was when my 12-string arrived."

In a phone interview last week from her quarantine quarters on Vermont Studio Center's Johnson campus, Holford noted that she didn't see the job posting for the directorship until a friend sent it to her — twice. "She said, 'This sounds like what you do,'" Holford recalled. She applied.

Both Holford and the search committee are glad she did. Chairing that committee was Major Jackson, a VSC trustee and professor of English at the University of Vermont.

"Elyzabeth has the right skills for this moment. As an entrepreneur, former attorney, and noted advocate of LGBT rights, we were impressed with her incredibly competent leadership and commitment to social causes," Jackson wrote in an email. "She does not possess the typical profile of a nonprofit arts administrator. That is, frankly, what makes her an exciting choice ... Any person who can help change marriage-equality laws in Ohio is the person I want on my team to carry the message of supporting artists."

Trading work with international organizations for a nonprofit in small-town Vermont might seem like a dramatic shift. But that's part of what drew her, Holford explained. "[VSC] is absolutely rooted in Vermont but at the same time is open to the world," she said. Holford also applauded the center's "commitment to diversity and its understanding of how important the arts are, and protecting the spaces for artists to create."

Though its hometown claims a population of just 3,655, Vermont Studio Center is the largest fine arts and writing residency program in the country; last year the picturesque campus hosted 834 artists and writers from 45 states and U.S. territories and 32 countries, according to an annual report on VSC's website. Holford will oversee a staff of 20 full-time and seven part-time employees and an annual budget of about $3.3 million.

The report also notes that 239 of its 2019 residents received full scholarships, while 579 benefited from a combination of scholarships and financial aid. Dozens of visiting artists per year offer a full schedule of talks, studio visits, lectures and readings. For "Vermont Week" once a year, the center accepts exclusively Green Mountain artists and writers.

More than 16,000 residents have stayed at VSC since it was founded in 1984 by Jon Gregg, Louise von Weise and Frederick Osborne. This year, like every other organization and business in the world, the center faced unprecedented challenges due to the coronavirus pandemic. VSC quickly adapted, moving all of its spring programming online. An in-person residency this month eschewed the usual collegial gatherings and enforced health department guidelines.

"The organization is at an inflection point," Holford observed; "that's of interest to me."

Strategizing how to move forward in the time of COVID-19 is not her only mission at VSC. Holford said the center will be looking at "honoring the past but with a heightened awareness around racial and economic justice issues — every ounce, fiber and process [will be] aiming in that direction ... I'm here to be part of that process, and to lead.

"This is a noncompetitive space with harmonious ecological standards and a commitment to community building," she added. "To be able to do that every day is a beautiful thing."

Holford is already smitten with the Green Mountain State. Her quarantine ends this week, and she's eager to find a place to live. During a career that has led her around the country and across the Atlantic, she said, "Home is very flexible for me. Home is where I am."

The original print version of this article was headlined "Where the Art Is"

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