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It's hard to imagine that two decades ago, the Alexey von Schlippe (AvS) Gallery of Art, housed in a restored 20th-century granite Tudor mansion, rose from a ramshackle mess with crumbling ceilings.
Today, the AvS Gallery, situated on the University of Connecticut's Avery Point in Groton campus, is a renowned venue for artists and a destination for art lovers.
The one thing that hasn't changed in 20 years is that its founders-Julia Pavone and David Madacsi-continue to be the gallery's driving force, dedicated to offering exposure to artists across the spectrum of expression.
The gallery was named for von Schlippe, an internationally acclaimed artist (born in Russia in 1915) and the campus's first full-time professor of art. The gallery was conceived shortly after von Schlippe's death in 1988. Madacsi, a physics professor at Avery Point, thought the campus should have a gallery to honor the memory of his friend and colleague.
"I really admired Alexey. He was the most alive, robust person I knew," Madacsi says, "but whenever I'd bring up the idea of a gallery, everyone would say, 'great idea,' and nothing would happen."
Meanwhile, Pavone had been hired as an adjunct art professor and was informed that an old academic building was crammed full of boxes of von Schlippe's paintings. Pavone and Madacsi went to peruse the work and were astounded by what they found.
"We counted 500 paintings," Pavone says. "He was so prolific and painted on everything-boards, the backs of other paintings."
They brought the paintings over to the Branford House and stretched them out in the only two habitable rooms on the second floor. The mansion was scheduled for a major renovation, but the funds hadn't yet been released.
Madacsi traveled to Germany where von Schlippe had retired and asked his wife Xenia if they could keep a few dozen paintings.
"She said we could keep them all," Madacsi recalls. "She already had another 3,000 of his paintings hanging in the house in Germany!"
And so Madacsi and Pavone created the gallery from scratch, with no money to fund the venture.
"It was just the two of us, a raccoon that was living in the mansion, and a lot of fleas," Pavone recalls. "We cleaned the floors and hung sheets of Homasote that we could push tacks into to (display) the paintings-none of them had been stretched or framed. We got strips of lighting at Home Depot to shoot up at the paintings."
Within the first year, in addition to von Schlippe's paintings, the gallery gave space to regional artists.
"We got an enormous response very quickly," Pavone says. "No one else in the area was showing anything but landscapes or seascapes-very traditional art-except for the (now defunct) New London Art Gallery. I knew there was a wealth of this work, but artists had nowhere to show it."
Pavone, an abstract, nonrepresentational artist, and Madasci, an assemblage artist, decided the gallery would show all mediums of art.
"We both agreed not to exclude representational work but lean toward more contemporary, cutting-edge work," Pavone says.
Five years later, the university renovated the Branford House. The AvS Gallery was by then established with a strong following of regional artists and patrons in the community, so Pavone and Madacsi took the show on the road for two years while the renovation was underway, exhibiting in various locations including the Lyme Art Association, Noank Historical Society and Lyme Art Academy.
Pavone points out that the gallery now has "real" lighting and four separate but contiguous exhibition spaces in which the original paneled walls and moldings, carved by European craftsman, and detailed plaster ceilings have been preserved.
In addition to the permanent works on view by von Schlippe, the gallery holds six juried shows each year, featuring the work of three to four artists.
Six years ago the gallery began hosting the biennial "Latin Views" juried exhibition of works by Latin artists from around the world.
"The pool of artists has grown from regional to national to international," Pavone says.
After working for no salary for the gallery's first five years, then for a small stipend, 12 years ago Pavone's job as curator became a permanent, full-time paid position. Madacsi, now retired, continues to volunteer his time, and students mind the gallery on weekends. Funds are raised through memberships and additional donations.
"We've been very frugal," Pavone says. "We don't have to pay for (the cost to operate) the facility, and we have a nice cushion now.
"We take only 25 percent commission as a tax-deductible donation-the artist is paid and then donates the 25 percent back to the gallery," she explains. "We do all the publicity for the exhibitions. Work is for sale in the shows, and the exposure is great for the artists."
Openings now include live jazz, and the gallery hosts artist talks, film festivals and poetry readings.
"I've said numerous times, 'This is one of the strongest shows we've ever hung,' and then I say it again about the next one," Madacsi says. "The level of work keeps going up and up. There are so many artists to choose from."