Cluny Madison was impressed by the Jansen Art Center when she first came across the executive director opening.
“Everything about it, from the beautifully restored building to the wide range of arts and crafts offered and the overall quality of the programming, stood out,” she said.
What really captured her, though, was her experience during the interview process.
“‘The J’ transcends being just an art space; it is a creative home for the people of Whatcom County,” she said. “It is a friendly and inviting place where people come to discover their hidden talents, make friends and create beautiful art.”
Madison, 59, who started as the new leader in late September, said she is honored that the board and staff have invited her to be a part of this vibrant community and “to lead the J forward, and to continue fostering a space where creativity thrives.”
Madison is originally from Sheffield, England, and has lived in Washington state since 2007. She graduated from the University of Central Florida with a degree in communicative disorders.
“My love of words and language pointed me to that degree and ultimately led me to work in communications,” she said. “I was influenced by my parents, who were both passionate about the spoken and written word.”
Cluny Madison admires some of the art on display in the Jansen Art Center's conference room. (Andrew Ford/Cascadia Daily News)
She’s worked for The Nature Conservancy (TNC) and the National Audubon Society — organizations dedicated to preserving land and water for people, nature and birds.
During her nearly six-year tenure as the executive director of the Environmental Coalition of South Seattle (ECOSS), Madison said she developed an appreciation and joy for small, community-based nonprofits.
She touted her two-decade stint at TNC, in both Florida and Washington state — first in philanthropy and later as a director of marketing and communications.
“The TNC nurtured my love of nature and invested in my interests in management and leadership,” she said.
One of her favorite memories is when she received a conservancy fellowship to go work in Australia for two months to help a small conservation group write its first communications plan.
“That amazing experience was the spark that inspired me to think about joining a smaller, local organization,” Madison said.
After working with an international non-governmental organization like TNC, becoming the executive director for the Seattle nonprofit ECOSS couldn’t have been more different, Madison said, with a staff of 20 in one location and everything on a smaller and more immediate scale.
ECOSS is a multicultural organization that works with immigrant and refugee communities to overcome barriers that limit access to information, resources and Washington state's natural areas.
She loved it.
“Working there opened my eyes and heart to learn from differences and appreciate how other cultures experience the joys and challenges of life and nature,” she said.
With a complex business model that relies heavily on earned income from fee-for-service programs, she said she learned a lot about how to run a successful nonprofit.
Cluny Madison plays the piano in Jansen Art Center's second-floor Chamber Hall — the site of both art exhibits and live music concerts. (Andrew Ford/Cascadia Daily News)
She was intrigued by Whatcom County after her son graduated from high school and began his studies at the University of British Columbia (UBC) during the pandemic in 2020.
He couldn’t get across the border to attend classes at UBC in Vancouver, she said, so they brainstormed about how to make his first year exciting even if he couldn’t get on campus. Bellingham was the obvious choice when it came to where to live.
That’s when Madison and her partner Brad Ruekgauer started visiting Whatcom County and thought they might like to live here, too.
Madison said her approach to her new position is to listen and learn.
Weeks before she started the job, a ceramics instructor was arrested at the center in front of employees and members for crimes allegedly committed in Montana.
Cascadia Daily News covered the incident and its aftermath in a recent story, which included the steps Jansen Art Center's board immediately took to remove the instructor from his job and the arts space.
“I was informed of the arrest before assuming my position,” Madison said. “I have complete confidence in the board's handling of the matter. The board acted swiftly and responsibly to address the situation. They expressed deep concern and a commitment to ensuring the ongoing safety and well-being of our community.”
Madison said in her role as executive director, she understands the gravity of the situation, and wants people to know she and the board are “using the event as an opportunity for a deep dive review of our hiring and screening practices.”
She said she is committed to understanding the Jansen Art Center from all perspectives — the board of directors, staff, studio leads, volunteers, donors and community members — and is looking forward to learning from other arts leaders in Whatcom County.
Madison said she is excited to explore Whatcom County’s forests and mountains with Ruekgauer and their dog, Maisay.
“Our passion for travel has taken us to Iceland, Portugal and Ireland in recent years, and we are always daydreaming about the next adventure,” Madison said.
The Jansen Art Center is located at 321 Front St., Lynden. The space features multiple exhibitions, art studios, a store and performance areas. Entry is free. Info: jansenartcenter.org.