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Parrish Director Terrie Sultan Links East Endís Art Tradition To Vibrant Future

Originally Posted: January 26, 2009

Colin M. Graham

The Parrish Art Museum Director Terrie Sultan took a break to talk about the recent goings on at The Parrish as well as her experience as a relatively new member of the community. Photo by Colin M. Graham

Southampton - Since coming to the Parrish Art Museum last April, Director Terrie Sultan has been hard at work familiarizing herself with the extensive artist communities here on the East End while planning new exhibits and programs, not to mention working with the Board of Trustees on fundraising efforts for the construction of a new museum space designed by Herzog & de Meuron.

Under her leadership, The Parrish has already experienced a jolt of electricity with the advent of new programs including the East End Stories series and the associated student art show, "East End Stories: Students Explore Our Creative Heritage," in addition to the line-up of great exhibits they have planned.

We were able to catch up with Terrie between meetings to talk about the recent goings on at The Parrish as well as her acclamation to the community.

There have been a lot of changes in the past year that you've been at the helm of The Parrish. What are some of the things that you've discovered about the community? Have there been any surprises?

Terrie Sultan: Well, although I was very familiar with the community, I've been coming out here on and off for 20 years, I was just so surprised by the depth and breadth of the art community out here. There is so much on so many different levels. There are visual artists, writers, poets, actors, musicians - it just seems like every time I turn around there's something going on. I didn't realize how rich the cultural tapestry of life was out here, although I should have known, I really was overwhelmed. There's Bay Street Theatre, the Piano Fest - Guild Hall I knew about - but there are just all these artists out here I didn't realize were tied to this place. For example I never knew that the Kabakovs lived on the North Fork. I never knew that Malcolm Morley was out here. I didn't realize how many artists are here in this community.

What things have you discovered about the community itself in terms of the responses to the different shows and programs The Parrish has done?

TS: Everybody has been incredibly welcoming and very positive about what we're doing and it's really nice to have such great support.

A rendering of the new Parrish Art Museum as seen from Montauk Highway by architects Herzog & de Meuron.

What is the current status of the construction of the new museum?

TS: When I came on board, we decided collectively, meaning the staff and the Board, that given what looked like was coming down the pike in terms of the economic recession, that we should not break ground on this building until we had 80 percent of our money. The fundraising is still going on and we are very aggressively raising money, not only for this project but also for our general operating budget to keep our great programs going. We're not going to take out a mortgage and we're not going to go into debt so we're going to keep raising money and we're going to break ground on the project when we've raised enough to make sure we can do it right.

How is the fundraising going? Are you nearing your goal slowly but surely?

TS: Well, of course, every step forward is a step forward -- but we have a lot of money to raise. So far we've raised almost half of what we need, which is $81 million to do the project. Right now the fundraising is a lot slower than it was nine months ago, but people are still working with us and we are still raising money. I can't tell you when we are going to hit that 80 percent mark because everything is just so uncertain. In the meantime we're really concentrating on our programs, which I have to say are going to be just fantastic this year and moving forward.

I mean we're making plans now for exhibitions all the way through 2013. So we know what we're doing and we know how we're moving going forward. We have a lot of goals for this institution that I'm really excited and proud of; not just our plans for the new building but also these exhibitions and educational outreach programs that we're doing that I think are just such an important service to the community.

How have you found the community's response to the construction project? What about the artists? Are they supportive of trying to make it happen sooner rather than later?

TS: I think everybody is very supportive of us. If there are people who aren't supportive, I certainly haven't heard about it. All I know is what I hear universally in the community and that is what a wonderful institution The Parrish is and how people would do anything they can to help us. We've received some wonderful end of the year gifts of works of art to help us to continue to build our collection, as well as money, which is always good. So I feel incredibly supported by this community I have to say it's been really heartwarming to me to find out how much this community cares about this institution.

Adjunct curators Klaus Ottmann and David Pagel will bring a new perspective to
the museum.

I read that you appointed two new adjunct curators, Klaus Ottmann and David Pagel.

TS: I've worked with David many times in the past and what he and Klaus both will be doing is developing projects and exhibitions for The Parrish while they're on staff here and will be representing The Parrish in their own communities as well. Neither one of them will be on-site permanently since they're both adjunct curators - meaning they will continue to live in their respective cities. David lives in Los Angeles and Klaus is in New York, but each of them will be doing their research and working on projects for us.

Tell me about the upcoming "Damaged Romanticism" exhibit opening at the Parrish on Feb. 7. Was there an intentional connection between the subject matter and the current state of affairs in this country? The theme of the exhibit seems to echo some of the hardships many people are experiencing and offers a message of hope.

TS: It's interesting because I started the project 10 years ago and it's amazing that it's coming out now, because it seems even more relevant than it did when I started. I guess you could say it was a happy coincidence. It's something that I'd been thinking about for a long time as a kind of a world view that is shared by a number of artists. But again, who knew that the entire universe would be feeling this way in 2009? That a project like this could take on such timely relevance even though it was started so long ago just goes to show that some ideas just have staying power.

Why has it taken so long to get the project off the ground?

TS: Well it's actually a long and involved story. In 1998, I read an essay in Critical Inquiry called "Resignation." It was an essay philosophically exploring how certain people are able to suffer disappointment, become resigned to a new world view based on whatever that disappointment was and then out of that develop a new, more positive world view. That's really the premise of the exhibit, it was originally called "Disappointment and Resignation," but I learned quite quickly that that title was just a little bit too bleak for people. I was working away on the project but after 9/11 I really had to put it away because I just could not spend the time that I needed to on a project like that that had such a dark undertone during that period, so I put it to bed thinking that someday I would bring it back to life.

From the upcoming "Damaged Romanticism" exhibit, "Untitled #12" by Richard
Billingham, 2003.

Around 2005, I invited one of our new adjunct curators, David Pagel, to do a show for the Blaffer Gallery at the University of Houston where I was the Director at the time and he developed a painting show called "Populence," which was the intersection between opulence and pop and it was the most cheerful, optimistic exhibit I've ever seen. We were talking about optimism and the conversation circled back around to disappointment and resignation and he said, "I think it's time for you to bring that project back. I would like to work with you on it and I think that you have to focus more on what happens after the damaging event, you know, where does it get you." So we pitched in together and came up with the title "Damaged Romanticism" and we brought it back full bore in 2005. Then it was just a question of getting the artists together, writing the book, all those things that it takes to do a big group show like that. It opened in Houston in the Fall of 2008, and again if you want to talk about coincidences, the exhibit was scheduled to open the day of the big hurricane.

Talk about disappointment.

TS: Exactly! I was there installing the show while this hurricane was bearing down on Houston and my husband told me I had to leave but I couldn't in the middle of the installation and I didn't want to miss the opening. He convinced me of the seriousness of the situation so I got on a plane and went home about four hours before the storm hit and closed down the city for almost two weeks. So this show has even more 'leg' in terms of its contemporary importance than I ever even imagined. I had originally planned for the exhibition to travel to the Grey Art Gallery at NYU, but then I took the job out here at The Parrish, so we made an agreement with the Grey and decided to divide the show.

It seems the theme of the show is closely paralleling the story behind its creation.

TS: Yes, it is, and it's certainly closely paralleling what's going on in the world right now because I do think that the country has gone through some very profound disappointments in the past several years. But what's going to come out of it is going to be brilliant and beautiful and better than what we had. That's how I feel about the artists in "Damaged Romanticism," they believe that and they've always believed that and their work comes from a kind of resurrection point of view.

In that it seems like this is probably the perfect time where a show like this is needed.

TS: Well I think so and I'd love to think that I'm such a genius that I figured this out long ago, but it was just an amazing coincidence.

From the upcoming "Mixed Greens" exhibition, "Beatle Test Pi" by Kevin Teare, 2006.

What are some of the other events you have planned for the coming year? Anything you're particularly excited about?

TS: After "Damaged Romanticism" we have this great project called "Mixed Greens: Artists Choose Artists On The East End." In the history of The Parrish, there has always been a juried show that the museum has done. A lot of times these juried shows are just a call for slides and then a juror sits in a darkened room picking things they think are interesting and then puts them up on the wall.

I just began to feel that in a community like this where there is just so much talent and so many artists that could be talking to each other, so instead of doing a normal juried show, we invited nine artists that have a strong relationship to the East End and we asked them to be the jurors for this project. We made it only for artists on the East End and the rule was people would apply and these nine artists would go through the applicants, we received more than 250 entries so it was a lot to ask of the jurors, and pick some artists to visit in their studios and from that to select an artist for the exhibition. There was an added value for the applicants to meet one of these nine artists and have a critique in their studio so even if they didn't actually make it into the show they would have at least had some real engagement with their peers, which is what ended up happening. Each of the nine artists selected one artist and we got a great group of artists to be in this show.

When does it open?

TS: On April 26. We're really excited about it because not only are we going to have a great looking show with terrific work, but artists met each other, hopefully found people they could talk to and again I think that it's about us wanting to be the center for community engagement among artists.

That sounds like it's in line with the East End Stories Program you started this past December. Can you tell us a little about that program?

TS: Well the "Mixed Greens" project really came out of the East End Stories because essentially what we're trying to do is to continue to make people see and understand how the art scene out here is really regenerative. It's not just about the history of artists on the East End with people like William Merritt Chase and Fairfield Porter, but it goes all the way up through today, into tomorrow, and well into the future.

"The Bayberry Bush" by William Merritt Chase, 1895

There is not another website done by a museum like East End Stories anywhere else in the world as far as I know. We got a wonderful grant from the Federal Agency and the Institute of Museum and Library Services to develop this website, which is an enormous research tool that we hope eventually will be very comprehensive in giving information on all of the artists throughout history that have lived and worked on the East End.

So where we have works by a particular artist in our collection there is a link to that in the site, so if you're looking up Fairfield Porter and you want to see if The Parrish has any of his work that you can see you'll have a link right to it. We also have a link where if anyone who is reading the site has information on any of these artists that we might not know can contact us and tell us their stories. A lot of people have done that. We've received notices from people saying things like 'so and so was my uncle and that portrait of the little girl you have in your collection is of me.' So it's amazing how this is all happening. To us this is really a key element of what we hope to do.

I understand that The Parrish did a similar thing for your student art show in terms of relating a program to the history of the artist's community out here and the museums permanent collection.

TS: Yes, we changed that too. We selected works from the permanent collection that we put on view in the front of the building and we shared those objects with the teachers who then asked their students to make work that was in response to those works and it was an amazing event. First of all, it was a fantastic show. Some of these young students have real potential as artists. We had 23 schools that participated with students from grades kindergarten through 12. It was really incredible.

With the successes of these programs I assume you're planning on having similar events going forward?

TS: Essentially our goal is to make sure that everything we do is tied to what we call the core value of this museum, which is to reflect the incredibly diverse and global aspect of the creativity in this community.

Selections from the Student Art Show in December 2008.

While we're talking about art in the community, who are some of your favorite artists?

TS: I'm not going anywhere near that question (laughing). My brother is an artist who has a house out here, my husband is an artist, all my best friends are artists.

What about choosing an historic artist so you won't have to worry about slighting anyone?

TS: Well, obviously looking at William Merritt Chase and how important he was to the whole landscape tradition of American painting you can see that his work very much reflects everything about this community that has brought everybody else out here, but honestly, I don't have a favorite.

In many ways he's the "Godfather" of the artist community here in The Hamptons when with his painting en plein air movement at the turn of the century introduced European artists to the East End of Long Island.

TS: See, I think that's really important too. I wouldn't say he's necessarily one of my favorite artists, but I think he's one of the most important for what I think is the core value of this institution. I think people make a mistake when they think of The Parrish as a regional art museum. We have very strong local ties but also a strong global outlook and that is very much based on the ideas that Chase had when he opened his school and had people out here. He had artists from all over the world out here. It wasn't about a region at all or a regional identity. It was about a place that is so conducive to creativity that people from all over the world want to be here to work and we try to have our programs celebrate that. I want to see us grow as the community grows. We need to reflect this community because there really is no other community in the world like the one we have here. We have a lot of great artists out here who aren't getting the attention they deserve, so we're going to give it to them.

Anything else you'd like to add?

TS: I do want to mention our Summer Show opening on June 26 because I think it's going to be absolutely stellar. It is a project that I had worked on previously and I think I was quite lucky that there was room in the exhibition schedule for some projects that I care very deeply about that I'm able to share with the community. It's of a French photographer by the name of Jean Luc Mylayne who works outdoors taking pictures of birds, so from my point of view it's a different approach to the idea of plein air painting. I think people are going to respond very well to his work. He's not very well known in the United States at all and I'm thrilled that we're going to be able to present his work here. And next Fall we're organizing a show called "American Views: Masterpieces From The Permanent Collection of The Parrish," many of our great American landscape paintings, and that show will travel to additional institutions throughout the United States.

"I think people make a mistake when they think of The Parrish as a regional art museum. We have very strong local ties but also a strong global outlook," remarked Sultan. Photo by Colin M. Graham

 • The Parrish Art Museum is located at 25 Jobs Lane, Southampton and online at www.parrishart.org.

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