Elaina Richardson Talks About Her Past, Yaddo’s Future at SPAC Literary Event

  Her wisp of an accent gives people pause: Is she South African? Dutch? Elaina Richardson, president of Yaddo, told the crowd of 200 at SPAC’s 10th Annual Fall Lecture Luncheon that she is Scottish, indeed. Traci Jersen, president of the SPAC Action Council, welcomed Richardson to the Oct. 17 lecture at the Spa Little Theater, which was followed by lunch and boutique browsing at the Hall of Springs. Jean Lewis Maloy—event co-chair with JoAnn Duquette and Nancy Casna—praised the “wonderful collaboration” between the Saratoga Performing Arts Center and Yaddo, “two venerable institutions.” Richardson was editor-in-chief of Elle magazine before becoming Yaddo president in 2000, and she still writes for Travel & Leisure, More, and O: The Oprah Magazine, Maloy said. With a master’s degree in literature from Oxford University and another in art from the University of Edinburgh, Richardson has written and lectured on 18th century arts. Designated in July as a National Historic Landmark, Yaddo has hosted 6,000 artists including Leonard Bernstein, Saul Bellow, Aaron Copland, John Cheever, Truman Capote, Sylvia Plath and Langston Hughes since being incorporated in 1900. Preserving its legacy while ensuring its future is a challenging task, Richardson said. Her own roots are humble. Born in Glasgow, Scotland, at age five she moved to the 17th floor of an apartment tower that was built to replace tenements after the Labour Party won in the 1960s, she said. The construction boom went bust as the towers were soon in disrepair with soaked concrete not designed for Scotland’s damp climate. Her mother told her to look up at the Victorian designs on the historic buildings and bridges. To Victorians, culture was always uplifting—a belief the founders of Yaddo shared, she said. Glasgow then was “a soul-less place” and its residents seemed like “zombies.” Glasgow has turned around since 1990: The city’s core has been revitalized, preserving the past, focusing on the future—and the arts. Glasgow is now “a restored city, a magnet” for tourists— something she would never have imagined. Richardson’s path led to Edinburgh, Oxford, London, the Middle East, then to the U.S., where she wrote for newspapers and magazines. “Being a Capricorn, I was doggedly in ascent,” she said. When the opportunity to become Yaddo’s fifth president arrived, she was ready. As editor-inchief at Elle, “I didn’t directly edit; I assigned pieces, photo shoots. This supported the initial moment of creating; I’d connect with that again.” Katrina Trask was a writer. Spencer Trask, a financier and early supporter of Edison, would be called a venture capitalist today, she said. In establishing Yaddo in 1900, they believed that “creativity is an anecdote to the failures of modernity, is civilizing, redemptive.” Founders of the Metropolitan Museum of Art, in 1870, and MacDowell Colony, in 1907, from the same era shared that belief. The first artists arrived at Yaddo in 1926. Today’s residents include not only writers, sculptors and musicians but filmmakers, choreographers, performance, digital and installation artists. Future residents may be working in art forms that are yet to be imagined. A consultant hired to help Yaddo set priorities for the next decade said there were two choices: to be “zombies” or “thrivers.” Richardson chose the later. Yaddo has 26 buildings and 400 acres, with most residents coming in summer. Determining what was “sacred” was key. Yaddo, which rhymes with “shadow,” was named by the eldest of the Trasks’ four children, who all died in childhood. Pine trees cast long shadows, which block the light of studios. Artists need computers, which take bandwidth. The custom-made Green House studio with plenty of light was opened last year for choreographers and performance artists. As the community is important, the landscape was made more welcoming to visitors, Richardson said. Noise is another issue: “We couldn’t reroute the Northway,” but could move away from it. They’ve built five simple live-work studios on the ridge around Yaddo’s four ponds, three of which have been restored by the New York Racing Association, their neighbor. The capacity of the mansion is another concern. The next project is to close the mansion and restore it, while keeping the program vibrant. Yaddo was selected as a National Historic Landmark because it is a “vessel,” she said. What happened here is what is important, not just the building. “Yaddo is a national treasure,” said Richardson. The “thrivers of the new century” will persevere, and “leave any ghosts or zombies behind.” The audience included SPAC president Marcia White and Yaddo staff Candace Wait, Lynn Farnell and Lesley Leduc, who was retiring as public affairs coordinator that week. Stacie Arpey, a director of Yaddo, attended with her mother, Linda Haswell. Arpey was awarded the Yaddo Medal upon graduating from high school, as were her husband, father, son, uncle and brother-inlaw. Actor David Hyde Pierce and his three siblings all won medals, another Yaddo dynasty, said Leduc. Barbara Featherstonehaugh attended the lecture for the first time. Former Mayor A.C. Riley, Libby Smith-Holmes, Micheileen Treadwell, Mary Ann Cody, Sylvia Phillips, Lynn Meyer, Micki Massry, Missy Nigro, and Judy and Sara LeCain were among those browsing the boutiques at the Hall of Springs. Bumble Beads, Fly Boutique, Silverwood, Grace & Carolyn Design, Marigold’s, Patricia Becker, Ilyse’s Pieces, Lola Accessories, HatSational, Alpine Sport Shop and Whitney Cooper were among the 17 vendors. Sponsors were James H. Maloy, Inc., Saratoga Dermatology and Renaissance Floral Design, a vendor, too. Next year’s Literary Luncheon will be Oct. 22, 2015, with literary dramatist Barbara Rinella making a return appearance.
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