TELLURIDE – She’s just two weeks into her new job, with a new office, a new staff and a large new building to manage. But since returning as executive director of Telluride’s Ah Haa School for the Arts after a six-year hiatus, in many ways Judy Kohin feels right at home.
“I never thought I’d do this, but I feel very honored that the board approached me about coming back,” says Kohin.
Ah Haa Board President Richard Cornelius is equally honored that Kohin agreed to return. “Judy is an amazing artist, a great leader, a longtime Telluride community member and an excellent educator. I am excited that she’s decided to rejoin Ah Haa as our executive director as we move into the next chapter of our journey.”
Many in the community would call Kohin an icon of the Ah Haa. Hired by founder Daniel Tucker when she was just 28, Kohin says she didn’t know much about nonprofit management or art schools at the time. But as the school’s director for 15 years, from just after the school’s inception in 1991 until her departure in 2006, Kohin created a respected community institution for exploring the arts, providing weekly classes and weekend workshops for kids and adults in everything from painting, ceramics and photography to foreign language, writing and bookbinding. She also established a venue for local artists to display and sell their work through regular gallery exhibits, and guided the American Academy of Bookbinding to become what is now an internationally recognized diploma program. Moreover, she nurtured an enthusiastic board of trustees, who set the wheels in motion for the eventual purchase of the Telluride’s historic Depot building.
Perhaps Kohin’s passion and sense of humor shined most during the annual Ah Haa Art Auction, which grew into a widely anticipated theatrical event, complete with entertaining onstage antics (remember the tableaux vivants, where people stood in as characters in giant-size replications of famous paintings?), risqué costumes, and out of the ordinary auction items, from customized “art cars” to framed butt prints of noteworthy community members.
“I have affection for the Ah Haa School on so many different levels, from brainstorming and problem solving to interacting with artists,” she says. “It was amazing being a part of something so unique; it was much bigger than we all were. My work felt valuable and important – I felt like I was making a difference in people’s lives.”
It was a health crisis that ultimately caused Kohin to leave the Ah Haa School in 2006. “I had been really struggling with Lyme disease,” she says. “I left abruptly and I was never fully able to train the new director. I have a little bit of sadness about that.”
After a year-and-a-half off, Kohin returned as program director of the AAB, where she remained until Sept. 2011. Since then Kohin has been working with Suzan Beraza at Reel Time Productions making documentary films, including the award-winning Bag It, and the upcoming Uranium Drive In.
Of her return to Ah Haa, Kohin says, “I don’t know how long I’m going to be here now, but I feel like I’ve been given the opportunity come back and evolve with the school...it’s a new adventure and a good time in my life to be here.”
One thing is for sure, the board of directors is thrilled to return Kohin to the director’s chair. “Judy, working with Daniel Tucker, was the key person who helped make Ah Haa such a foundational cultural organization in Telluride during its formative years,” says Cornelius. “Now, she's exactly the right person to help take Ah Haa to the next level.”
“We’re very excited that Judy is back,” says boardmember Kathy Green. “I think her time away has given Judy additional skills, so I think she’s re-energized and has more diverse experience to bring back to the school.
“During the time she was AAB director, the program grew much stronger,” adds Green, noting that she is confident Kohin will grow the Ah Haa’s fledgling new Painting Academy into an equally successful program.
As Kohin approaches her 50th birthday, she realizes she is a different person now. “The thing that hasn’t diminished over the years is my deep affection for the place that is the Ah Haa School,” she says.
As she settles into her new (old) job, Kohin looks forward to working with artists and the community once again. “My door is always open,” she says, adding, “It would be great if supporters of the school would join me at the New Year’s Eve Gala and help ring in the start of a bright new year.”
The Ah Haa School’s New Year’s Eve Gala begins at 6:30 p.m. and features a champagne reception, four-course plated dinner with wine pairings, entertainment, and the artwork of Barbara Gilhooly. Tickets are $250 and seating is limited. For more information, visit ahhaa.org or call 970/728-3886.