BY JUDY CARMACK BROSS
The fourth of our All In a Day’s Work series spotlights Alexandra Lee Small, Senior Advisor at the Graham Foundation. We welcome your suggestions of others who have turned their daydreams into their day jobs.
From a massive modernist museum in Maryland to Theaster Gates’s remarkably renovated bank building, now cultural center, on Stony Island, to the 1901 Gold Coast architectural gem that is the Graham Foundation, Alexandra Lee Small lives out her dreams in stunning surroundings.
While Joffrey Ballet dancers practiced around her in preparation for the Foundation’s next show, The Master and Form, Alexandra took us on a tour of her work world. The striking redhead, dressed in a russet fur vest, stood out amidst the dancers in black leotards going through iconic ballet positions while using objects designed for the show. Still, her regal stride created the same effect.
From ballroom to parlor to a spectacular stairway lined with original stained glass, the Prairie-style structure designed by Richard Schmidt and Hugh Gardner, formerly known as the Madlener House, is open to the public Wednesday through Saturday. The 9000-square-foot landmark was renovated by modernist architect Daniel Brenner for the Graham Foundation, itself created through a 1956 bequest from Ernest Graham, a Chicago architect and protégé of Daniel Burnham.
Sarah Herda serves as director of the Graham Foundation, which gives out $1 million yearly in project-based grants to individuals and organizations worldwide. As Senior Advisor, Alexandra’s work covers a variety of institution-building aspects including technology, website re-development, and other ways of presenting its collection, resources, and significance to the world.
The former student of Art History and English Literature at the University of Virginia, articulated the following advice to those interested in the field:
“I feel very fortunate about my journey. This can be a very challenging time to be on this path—even if you check all the boxes, follow all the rules, it is not necessarily true anymore that you will reach a certain destination. You have to keep your eyes and ears open and be willing to take risks and say yes to opportunities.
“I feel that creative thinking, attention to detail, and strong communication skills are essential traits for working in the arts. It is essential to center your work on a much more basic principle—the key to being nimble within your career is to always begin with respect and to believe that no responsibility is ever too big or too small.
“When working with the arts, collaborating is essential, and it is important to recognize differences in vision, communication, or approach and be able to acknowledge and continue to move projects forward.”
Surrounded by the architecture of Thomas Jefferson on the lawns of the University of Virginia, Alexandra embraced colonial architecture.
“It was a pleasure to study Art History and English Literature at UVA, a strong institution with a history that includes many challenges, both historic and contemporary. And, of course, I appreciated Jefferson’s Academical Village and serpentine walls across the grounds.
“Growing up on the east coast I have great fondness of Georgian, Federal, Greek and Gothic Revival buildings, but I will always remember stepping out of Penn Station in New York as a young child and being awed by the true scale of architecture. Subsequent trips to Frank Lloyd Wright’s Guggenheim Museum or the former Whitney Museum of American Art by Marcel Breuer introduced me to architectural modernism which naturally dovetailed with my growing interest in post-war and contemporary art.”
Her work as part of the curatorial team at Glenstone, outside Washington DC, stands in sharp contrast. Open in 2006, the magnificent modernist estate presents the extensive collection of the post-World War II art of collectors Mitchell and Emily Rales. When the couple opens an adjoining museum space this year, it will be the largest private museum in America.
“Theirs has been a long, intertwined journey combining their love of art and architecture. As in any field, you have to have diverse experiences and expose yourself to different voices while exploring. I was thrilled to come to Chicago, which I have always known was the birthplace of modern architecture.”
Installation artist and social activist Theaster Gates recruited Alexandra to Chicago to run to run his studio and assist with the completion and opening of the Stony Island Arts Bank, the classically-designed bank building, built in 1923, at Stony Island and 68th Street. Alexandra helped Theaster transform the bank, which had been abandoned in the 1980s, into a gallery, archive, library, and African American Cultural Center.
“Theaster’s Bank building is the most comprehensive output of his practice. He is a visionary, dynamic, and intentionally energizing—I was lucky to work with his collections as he was rallying the team for the final renovation efforts. Our deadline was Chicago’s 2015 Architecture Biennial.”
We asked Alexandra if there are women in the arts or other women leaders whom she most admires.
“There are too many to list, in fact. I have the utmost respect for Agnes Gund who has dedicated her life to supporting the arts, artist, education, cultural institutions, and equal rights for all. This past summer she sold a seminal painting from her collection by the artist Roy Lichtenstein and used the profits to establish the Art for Justice Fund. This initiative, a partnership with the Ford Foundation, intends to leverage the power of art to help reform the criminal justice system.”
Her work at the Foundation seems to Alexandra to be the perfect fit at the perfect place. Commissioned exhibits make use of its beautiful spaces and large-scale windows, including a ballroom found in many Chicago homes of that period. Architectural treasures from the old Chicago Stock Exchange and other landmarks lost to the wrecking ball welcome visitors to a quiet walled garden off the gift shop filled with books by grant winners.
For the recent exhibit titled in the forest, photographer David Hartt not only used photographs but tropical plants, ambient sound, and sculpture to tell his story.
The public is invited January 25 to the opening performance of The Master and Form by Brendan Fernandes, a Canadian artist of Goan descent now living in Chicago, who specializes in performance and sculpture. Working in collaboration with the firm Norman Kelley, Brendan made sculptures in proportion to dancers’ bodies, and guests will see dancers from the Joffrey Academy of Dance perform classic positions.
One could imagine small performances for Madlener family guests in the same parlors a century ago. Alexandra noted:
“Our mission is to foster the development and exchange of diverse and challenging ideas about architecture and its role in the arts, culture and society. Given Chicago’s role in architectural history, and the Graham Foundation’s support of work by individuals and institutions committed to contributing to the conversation surrounding architecture and its role in the arts, culture, and society, I feel fortunate to have the opportunity to continue to learn daily.”
For more information about the Graham Foundation and Master and Form, opening January 25, visit grahamfoundation.org.
Photo credit: Robin Wylly McCown