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Making connections

LPCA development director recalls her road to the Adirondacks

Lake Placid Center for the Arts Development Director Erin Walkow stands in the gallery at LPCA on Tuesday, Jan. 12. The artwork in the background is featured in the LPCA’s new juried show “Scenes from a Book: The Mind’s Eye,” which opened Thursday, Jan. 14. (News photo — Elizabeth Izzo)

LAKE PLACID — The separation between land conservation work and the arts may seem quite broad. But for Erin Walkow, who left the Adirondack Chapter of The Nature Conservancy for a job at the Lake Placid Center for the Arts, the move between sectors was organic.

Pennsylvania native Walkow, 43, packed up her world into a new Honda Civic and moved to the Adirondacks 21 years ago. She now lives in Saranac Lake.

That move was something she’d dreamed of since she was in middle school, when she visited the area on vacation with her family and fell in love with the area.

Walkow originally wanted to attend Paul Smith’s College after graduating high school, but ultimately went to Pennsylvania State University, where she studied wildlife science and forestry. When she graduated, she finally found her ticket to the Adirondacks in the form of a job with the Nature Conservancy in 2000.

She stayed with The Nature Conservancy for 19 years in a number of roles as part of the development team that worked directly with the organizations’ many donors. She spent her last two years there as the associate director of philanthropy.

Walkow described her time there, from 2000 to 2019, as a “golden age” for land conservation. While she was at the Adirondack Chapter, the organization purchased land from International Paper in late 2000, the former Finch, Pruyn land in 2007 and Follensby Pond in 2008. Those are just a few of the landmark land conservation deals during her tenure at The Nature Conservancy.

“It was an honor to be a part of that time for the conservancy,” she said.

When Walkow decided she needed a change, she knew she wanted to take a job with another organization whose mission she was just as passionate about.

The LPCA was that organization.

Transition to LPCA

When Walkow made her move to the Adirondacks in 2000 — alone, 22 years old, and knowing no one in the area — one of the first places she stopped was the LPCA to see if there were any volunteer opportunities.

“I’ve always been a huge fan of theater, music and musical theater,” Walkow said. “I grew up going to Carnegie museums.”

She got involved with the Community Theatre Players, a group of locals who put on plays each year. It was while performing “The Mouse Trap” in 2000 that Walkow met her husband, Andy.

Walkow’s family loves to get outdoors — they like to ski in the winter and spend a lot of time out at Lower Saranac Lake in the summer — but Walkow said the arts have made her family’s life “well-rounded.”

“Even while I was working at The Nature Conservancy, the LPCA was always the place I went to to connect and experience the arts, and get exposed to whatever was coming through,” she said.

“Now our daughters do shows there,” she added.

The LPCA has continued to bring world-class artists, dancers and performers to this region throughout the years, Walkow said.

“I knew that I wanted to be a part of it as more than a patron, member and an audience member,” she said.

Walkow contacted the LPCA’s executive director, James Lemons, to open a dialogue. She was hired in 2019 as the LPCA’s director of development.

The LPCA relies on ticket sales, but a large part of its operations are funded by memberships, grants and foundation support.

“My role is really to talk to people, listen to people about their experiences with the LPCA and what has spurred them to make a donation and get involved,” she said.

Keeping connections

Walkow was only on staff at the LPCA for about six months when the first case of COVID-19 was discovered in New York and Gov. Andrew Cuomo imposed mass-closures in an effort to curb the spread of the virus.

“I think like most everybody, we had no idea what was to come,” Walkow said. “We made a six-week emergency plan, and it was like, ‘I’m sure we’ll all be together again at the end of April.’ We didn’t really know what we were going to do, what services we could continue to offer the community.

“The LPCA exists to bring people together to share in the arts. We are here to bring people together, and all of a sudden, that was just not an option.”

Theater companies around the country have faced, and are facing, financial hardship because of restrictions on mass-gatherings imposed to curb the spread of the coronavirus. Financial challenges forced Saranac Lake’s Pendragon Theatre to furlough staff last month and temporarily halt operations.

Without live performances, many arts centers and theaters have also struggled to make the transition from live events to virtual ones.

Tiffany Rea-Fisher, the director of the Lake Placid School of Dance, was able to transition her classes online within “a week,” she said.

“I think through the experience … while we didn’t know what to expect, we were able to transition quickly,” she said.

The LPCA team, without live performances, was able to focus on other programs. For example, the LPCA has expanded its class offerings — and its audience — throughout the pandemic.

Before COVID, the LPCA’s paint classes would draw fewer than a dozen people each week. Now, the LPCA offers two virtual painting classes each week, and the number of attendees has increased significantly.

“We have three to four times that number of people participating,” Walkow said. Participants are coming from everywhere — different states, Canada, and other countries overseas.

“I think people are looking for those opportunities. You’re not limited to where you live anymore.”

Though the gallery is now open, as long as visitors socially distance, the LPCA has also been hosting virtual art shows. On Thursday, Jan. 7, a new themed juried show opened at the LPCA gallery featuring works from 34 artists. It’s called “Scenes from a Book: The Mind’s Eye,” and it highlights art inspired by literature. It will be available for viewing both in person and online at www.lakeplacidarts.org.

The virtual offerings have been plentiful, but life at the LPCA is not the same without performances.

“I miss sitting in the theater with 300 people and having a shared experience,” Walkow said. “I miss seeing the excitement before the show, and after the show. …

“While we miss the performance series, and we miss the theater, we are so much more than what happens on stage. We are a community resource.”