Published: February 23, 2021
March 22 is first day on the job for Kelly Taxter, a curator at the Jewish Museum who was recently selected to lead the Parrish Art Museum in Water Mill, N.Y., as director. We sat down with Taxter to preview what’s in store for her and the institution.
Congratulations on your new role. You told The New York Times, “We’re at a crucial moment for change in the art world.” What do you mean by that?
There have been two big factors that are hard to ignore. We’ve had a global pandemic, which has instigated numerous responses and needs from museums and places where the public gathers, how museums depend on funding and so many other changes. There is also the reckoning with racial justice that was brought on by the death of George Floyd and so many others. As cultural leaders and as places where people come together, we have to be sensitive that what we define as an audience is true to the places where we are and to make sure that everyone is included.
How does your background as a gallerist and curator prepare you for this new role?
I received a master’s in curatorial studies from Bard College in the early 2000s, and in the wake of that I chose to open a gallery in Chelsea with a classmate rather than go into museum work right away. We were open for nine years. Running a small business requires a lot of risk-taking and entrepreneurial thinking, and I have that knowledge, experience and drive. When we closed the gallery, I took that opportunity to invest in institutional work for the first time. Institutional work is structured differently: it has different goals, a different pace and a broader reach, which are all appealing to me. The past seven years at the Jewish Museum have been incredibly rewarding. The directorship at the Parrish is a combination of these two life experiences. As a director, you’re running a business, and that business happens to be a museum.
What is your plan to make the museum relevant year-round, on both a local and global level.
The Parrish is already a year-round destination for visitors from near and far. I hope to expand and develop that profile, but the process of developing a specific plan will come from really delving into the museum and learning what it has done and what more it could do. It’s a deep engagement with the staff, our board and our stakeholders in the community, listening and learning and coming up with a set of strategies and goals that the museum can achieve in the next three to five years. It’s a robust infrastructure: we have a landmark building by Herzog & de Meuron sited on 14 acres, an outstanding piece of property that allows us to put work outdoors, and we’re in an incredible part of the world that is also a magnet for philanthropic people invested in arts and culture.
Give us a snapshot of the Parrish Art Museum’s collection.
It has more than 3,000 works of various media – paintings, sculpture, works on paper. It begins in the Nineteenth Century with American Impressionist landscapes and goes straight up to the present. The area has an incredible quality of light that has always drawn artists. A lot of the collection features artists who have lived, worked or visited there. The earliest works are by William Merritt Chase from the 1870s. Both the North and South Forks continue to be a draw for the creative community, and we try to represent that community in the collection. We have the New York School artists that are so famously part of that area – de Kooning, Lee Krasner, followed by Fairfield Porter, Larry Rivers, Roy Lichtenstein, Eric Fischl, Ross Bleckner, Dorothea Rockburne, Cindy Sherman, Rashid Johnson. It’s a substantial collection and I think its history and evolution reflects the evolution of the area and what it has meant for artists.
Describe some of the notable exhibitions you curated during your tenure at the Jewish Museum.
My project with Rachel Feinstein, “Maiden, Mother, Crone,” just recently closed. She and her family have a home on the North Fork – a nice parallel for the Parrish. It was a mid-career survey. She’s in her late 40s and has been making works since her very early 20s, a New Yorker the whole time. She works primarily in large-scale sculpture and often addresses issues around gender, femininity, her role as a mother, but also the history of how women have been represented in art.
Something very different that I did earlier in my tenure was the first survey of the fashion designer and entertainer Isaac Mizrahi, an East End resident. It told his story through the clothes and costumes he designed and the ideas that they touched on, which often included sharp social and political commentary.
Is there a timeline for reopening Parrish’s galleries that have been closed by the pandemic? What will be the opening show?
We open again on March 12 with our annual “Student Exhibition,” a 60-year tradition, showcasing work by hundreds of students in private, public and home school environments around the East End. And a few exhibitions that were on view before we closed remain open: “Material Witness: Simone Leigh’s Sentinel in Context” looks at Leigh’s monumental work, “Sentinel,” in relation to several key works from the Parrish collection and a few other collection-based shows, including “American Views,” landscape paintings from the 1880s to 1920 that shape our views of nature and the world around us. It’s a nice time to reopen, especially with the “Student Exhibition,” which reflects that connection to the community and support for the young artists who are living there.
Without the museum’s major fundraising Midsummer Party, what has made up the needed operating revenue?
The benefit situation for all institutions is complicated. We’re exploring a lot of options for that, potentially expanding it beyond a single event for this year. It remains to be seen, and you’ll find out when we make that public.
Your thoughts on being in the cohort of new, influential female museum leaders around the United States?
It’s an exciting moment. I’m coming from an institution with a woman in charge – Claudia Gould – who ushered in a moment of transition and change for the Jewish Museum, which has been transformative. I’ve learned so much from her. We’ve been seeing women enter museum leadership for a while. The shift happening now is the next generation. Particularly at this moment when, as we’ve discussed, so much change is coming to our institutions, my generation will be instrumental in making that change, in bringing different approaches to the field. I feel very privileged to be a part of that.
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