Arthamptons Lifetime Achievement Award: Ruth Appelhof at the Maidstone

Just prior to the Arthamptons opening, I met with Ruth Appelhof, Executive Director of Guild Hall, who will receive the Arthamptons Lifetime Achievement Award on July 5. Over eggs Benedict at the Maidstone in East Hampton, we talked about her background in the arts, accomplishments at Guild Hall over her 16-year tenure, how things get done in the premiere arts institution out east, celebrities, and her interest in women artists.

Over the years, since you took the reins at Guild Hall, you have created a state of the art theater, exhibition space, and educational program. How do you explain your leadership strategy?

One of the keys to Guild Hall's success is that people come often. We have built a large audience of people coming to hear jazz one night, classical the next. The diversity comes from Mrs. Lorenzo E. Woodhouse, as people call her. I call her Mary. She lived in a big house on Huntting Lane, and built the playhouse next to that for her daughter. She built the library. When she built Guild Hall in 1931, people said, you should call it the Woodhouse Arts Center. 'No, I want it to be for all the arts,' she said. 'I want to call it Guild Hall.' When I learned that, I realized the gift she gave us to look at all the arts, in equal balance. It gives Guild Hall the opportunity to do whatever we want, red carpets out for theater, and art. This year is going to be a banner year. I say that every year. We have Alec Baldwin at one end of our season and Roy Lichtenstein at the other. To have those bookends really says something about what a great place Guild Hall is. We support the local talent and thankfully it's great.
How much are you involved in those decisions, such as the coming Roy Lichtenstein exhibition?

I like to say there is a round table discussion about once a month with all the programmers, fundraisers, marketing people, and support staff. Everything comes up in that forum. I like to think that many of those ideas came from me originally, but maybe not.

The Roy decision came about 15 years ago when I first got here. I thought, who was the absolute greatest artist that Guild Hall could ever exhibit from this area. It had to be somebody contemporary, who appealed to a wide audience, who made art considered above and beyond what you would consider of value. Roy's work is so amazing. I remember talking to our curator, Christina Strassfield about doing it, and at the time she had done a smaller show of his work before I got here. She loved the idea too, as did the museum's advisory committee and community board. The one critical piece to all this brainstorming was whether or not Dorothy, his widow, would let us do it. She was always generous to us, but we respected the fact that she was on the Parrish board. So I asked Mickey Straus if he would go with me to talk to Dorothy. He helped convince Dorothy that having the Lichtenstein show at Guild Hall would be important to his legacy. I remember going to this townhouse in Soho. She was so welcoming, and Mickey put forth this idea and Christina had some idea about how the show could be packaged, and Dorothy said yes. Since then working with the Lichtenstein foundation has been great. Most of what we are exhibiting is from the foundation, maybe 4 or 5 from private collections, but the foundation has works of art that have never been seen in public institutions before. We found a movie that he did, of the sea, and we have since discovered that he did a billboard in Hollywood that had been destroyed, and we are recreating that billboard thanks to his studio assistant. It will be an exciting and insightful exhibition; we all think we know his work so well from the cartoon series. This is way beyond that, and because it is "Between Sea and Sky," it relates to the Hamptons.

What would this interview have been like had we talked a year ago, about the Motherwell show? Or other stellar exhibitions at Guild Hall, such as Rauschenberg? Or Rivers?

I know my enthusiasm would have been the same. How about Barbara Kruger? That was a great show. I thought with Motherwell, Phyllis Tuchman did such a great job. I had not realized that Motherwell was outside the circle of artists here; he was sort of in and out. But she explained that he was out because he came from a wealthy family. He wasn't totally embraced by DeKooning and Pollock. He was more of an academic; that was fascinating. Then you see it in the work. He took a different tact.

But it was Lee Krasner who first brought you out east. Tell me about your relationship with her.

I love to tell my Krasner story. I was able to get to know Lee through a project I was doing in graduate school. I had children, was working full time, and single (divorced). I was going to Syracuse University, taking one course at a time over 20 years, getting degrees, paying through the GI Bill. (My father had served and died young.) I savored every course. In one, I had to do a bibliography on an artist of interest. I chose Lee Krasner. She was on her own but was making a reputation for herself. I sent her many pages of a long bibliography. It impressed her. 'Would you like to come out and live with me next summer?' she asked. 'I would be available for interviews every morning.' I couldn't miss that opportunity. So I picked her up end of June in my orange Pinto, the most hideous car you could ever drive, with a hatchback. I don't know why I chose that but that's another story. Off we went to the Hamptons. She did not know how to drive, did not know the way, so we got lost. I stayed in the bedroom upstairs where she had painted the little paintings. She used that as her studio when Jackson was alive, and she proceeded to bring me into her life. I was meeting people, going to parties; we had dinner parties at the house. Living out here was amazing. I met all the artists. I went shopping with Lee at Dreesen's. We were just like two pals. She was difficult so I had to be careful. I never knew what I would get into trouble with. And I did interviews with her. That was 1974 or '75. I worried for years whether the reel-to-reel tape would disintegrate. I had no time to do anything about them. Finally Syracuse, where I also used to teach, transcribed and typed them up. They are now available, archived at Syracuse, but weren't when Gail Levin wrote her excellent biography. I am hoping to get my interviews published and turned into a book, a memorabilia book.

As an art historian, would you say your passion is for women artists?

I am thinking of doing a book of interviews with women artists. Miriam Shapiro--she just died-- was a dear friend of mine. I have also interviewed Judy Chicago. I do have a literary side. My latest interview is with Carrie Mae Weems. [Appelhof shows me the most recent edition of Stone Canoe: A Journal of Arts, Literature and Social Commentary.] Carrie won the MacArthur "genius" grant, had a show at the Guggenheim. And she is coming to Guild Hall on July 26, for a free multimedia performance.

Lynda Benglis is another local artist. I hope we will do a show in a few years. I've known her for a few years from those early days when I was working at the Whitney. Her work has expanded and developed beyond anything I could have imagined. I have just visited her in Santa Fe. Her studio is filled with fascinating new work.

You also had that controversial show of art by women when you first arrived at Guild Hall.

That was the first or second year I was here. When I was at the Whitney in the '80's, I met many women artists; many were out here. That exhibit was a passion for me, the culmination of a lot of my dreams. Mimi Shapiro was in it. Audrey Flack. When I was at the Whitney as a fellow, I proposed that show. They didn't think that was what they were looking for, so I am happy I could do it here.

In your position you have also met many celebrities in the arts. Who has impressed you?

Celebrities out here have a big footprint in the community, and, I've learned, they are celebrities primarily because they are talented. I have to start with Alec Baldwin. His generosity never ceases: To take his talent and put it on the stage here! Before he did Equus, a few seasons ago, I kept saying, 'Let's do light fare.' He never lets me live that down. Alec is on our board, and heads our theater committee. He said, 'Maybe in two years, I will do All My Sons.' Then another board member said, 'I will produce it.' The board is incredibly helpful to Guild Hall. They may be running big institutions in the city, but when they come out here, they are genuinely interested in the Guild Hall character. No one ever says we should be more like the Metropolitan.

Alec and Hilaria had a baby last week. What happened with the performances of All My Sons?

He missed one night. There was no one of that stature to understudy. So we cancelled, and he agreed to add a matinee.

So what is this lifetime achievement award you are getting from Arthamptons?

Arthamptons is the art fair of choice. The award must be an acknowledgment of the institution, the great job that we are all doing at Guild Hall. When we awarded Cindy Sherman, I remember her saying, I can't understand why they would ask me, I'm so young.

A version of this post also appears on Gossip Central.