College celebrates 20 years of art center

MIDDLEBURY — New York has Carnegie Hall and Lincoln Center; Paris has the Louvre and the Place de la Bastille. Middlebury, Vt., has the Mahaney Center for the Arts at Middlebury College.
With thousands of events by internationally acclaimed artists under its belt, the Mahaney Center, which is marking its 20th anniversary this year, truly can boast that it has brought a taste of those storied cultural centers to the agricultural heartland of Vermont.
“People might think of Middlebury as a rural spot in a small state,” said Mahaney Center Director Liza Sacheli Lloyd. “But we’ve had the luxury of being able to bring in really first-class performers and make this a cultural destination. Little Middlebury, Vt., has a rich history of being, culturally, a very sophisticated place to be.”
This month, the MCA kicks off its 20th season with a calendar of events jam-packed with performances, exhibits and talks by guest artists and Middlebury College students alike.
Since the building opened in 1992, it has, like the artists it hosts, been innovative, irreverent, and filled with energy. It is the interaction of artist and the space in which their art is viewed that has made the Mahaney Center distinctive.
For instance, this fall’s celebrations will kick off on the weekend of Sept. 27 to 29, when the MCA will host the college’s annual Nicholas R. Clifford Symposium. This is held at the start of each academic year to foster campus and community discussion on a given topic. This year, in celebration of the MCA anniversary, the topic is “Creativity and Collaboration.” The public is invited.
More than 30 events are planned for the weekend. Highlights will include a keynote speech by acclaimed radio producer Julie Burstein, winner of the Peabody Award and author of “Spark: How Creativity Works”; a public talk about New York’s High Line Park by former New York City Parks Commissioner Adrian Benepe and High Line Vice President for Planning and Design Peter Mullan; an original, site-specific dance performance by acclaimed choreographers PearsonWidrig DanceTheater; and a capstone performance by the Emerson String Quartet. (For ongoing listings of arts events and show times see “Arts Beat” every Monday in the Addison Independent.)
The MCA has a tradition of celebrating its anniversaries with a huge blowout event. For its 15th anniversary celebration, it held a gala with performances in every space in the building, followed by a party where guests mingled throughout the center.
“It was great to watch our students and faculty and staff get into the spirit of it,” Sacheli Lloyd said with a laugh. “We had some costumed students who had really taken it to the next level, sort of like ‘Project Runway’ on steroids.”
She recalled one student in particular who had made a costume depicting Patrick Dougherty’s installation “So Inclined,” a cluster of cone-shaped sculptures made of dogwood and maple saplings installed outside the entrance of the MCA at the time.
“There was this great walking dome with sticks and different natural materials that a young lady wore,” Sacheli Lloyd remembered.
This year, the staff at MCA is trying something new. Sacheli Lloyd explained that rather than throw one big event — “I would hate for anyone to miss that!” — the MCA will hold 20 special audience-engagement events throughout the year. The events, which are still being developed, will include “anything and everything,” ranging from dinners before concerts and plays, to sticky-note comment cards where audiences can write their thoughts and reactions during performances — before posting them on a nearby wall after the show.
The end goal of the audience-engagement events, Sacheli Lloyd explained, is in keeping with the educational mission of the MCA. Any added feature that increased audience engagement would “extend the meaning-making experience of the arts,” she said, “so that it’s not just that hour or two when you’re sitting in your seat, a passive consumer of the art that’s being shared with you. You’re actually an active participant in the process.”
Indeed, the 100,000-square-foot MCA building was literally designed to transform bystanders into active participants. Not many people who see the structure walk away from it without forming an opinion. It is considered a “post-modern” structure, which, to put it in the most simplistic terms, means that different elements like shape and material are combined in non-traditional ways, creating structures that are not only functional but artistic expressions unto themselves.
“Its architects set out with purpose to make it surprising, unconventional, and irreverent — anything but easy to take for granted,” said Glenn Andres, professor in the History of Art and Architecture Department.
Completed in 1992, the building was designed by the New York-based architecture firm Hardy Holzman Pfeiffer Associates. The college had interviewed three other renowned architects for the job, including Charles Moore, who designed the Hood Museum at Dartmouth College, and Robert Venturi, who was at the time the campus architect for Princeton University.
“The deconstructive plan of the building,” Andres said, “with its collision of organizational systems, complex spaces, and individualized components was, and still is, daring and challenging.”
That was the purpose of the design, he said:
“(To) challenge people to question and respond, not to take the forms of our environment for granted.”
It is under the roof of this building — which, with its polygonal towers and pointed roof caps, stands in stark contrast to the slanted-roof, barn-inspired structures typical of the region — that artistic giants like famed theater director Anne Bogart and Grammy-winning kora player Mamadou Diabaté, among countless others, have appeared before audiences that mix both college students and local residents.
“The Seeler Theater and the surround concert hall are two of the finest performance spaces in the region,” Andres said. “Some of our visiting musicians consider the concert hall important on a national level.”
“It is certainly the hub of arts activity on campus,” Sacheli Lloyd added, “but it would be a mistake to say that this is the only place the arts happen.”
She pointed out that other arts and cultural centers in town — notably the Town Hall Theater, the Sheldon Museum and the Vermont Folklife Center — have all contributed to making Addison County a cultural destination.
“These are very accomplished cultural organizations that we feel very proud to share Middlebury’s main street with,” Sacheli Lloyd said.
Middlebury College houses some arts-related disciplines in other buildings, like the Axinn Center and Johnson Memorial Building. But the MCA is an anchor for the arts that is a venue for art exhibition and performance (including the first-class concert hall, a studio theater, and a dance performance space), as well as a home for academic programs in theater, music and dance. Last year a wing was added to house the History of Art and Architecture Department. Now complete, it has 12 faculty offices and four smart classrooms.
Originally called the center for the Arts but renamed in 2007 after 1984 Middlebury graduate Kevin P. Mahaney, the Center was originally designed to be built on Battell Beach (the wide grassy field that falls between the Chateau and Forest dormitory, Wright Memorial Theater and the Ross complex) in order to be close to Wright Theater and the Johnson Memorial Building, which houses the Studio Art Department. But it was eventually built on its current location on Porter Field because planners worried that the parking lots near Battell Beach would not have enough spaces to accommodate the high volume of traffic for the performing arts center.
Twenty years down the line, it seems fortunate that they had that foresight: The building now hosts over 300 events per season.
As Sacheli Lloyd puts it: “There’s a lot to celebrate.” 

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