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Hamptons Life

Nov 8, 2016 11:10 AMPublication: The East Hampton Press & The Southampton Press

Ruth Appelhof Looks Back On Time At Guild Hall

Ruth Appelhof. KYRIL BROMLEY
Nov 8, 2016 11:28 AM

Ruth Appelhof retired from Guild Hall more than two months ago, but she still looks like she’s ready to go to work.

The 76-year-old walks into John Papa’s Cafe on a cool Monday morning with a notebook in hand as if she was ready to plan out the next season of programming of Guild Hall as she did for the last 17 years. She sits down for a cup of coffee and still beams when she talks about her time at one of East Hampton’s premier outlets for art and culture. While sprucing up the facilities, bringing in new artists and expanding community outreach, Ms. Appelhof said it was always important to keep Guild Hall within one of its original forms.


“The history here is that we’re an artists’ colony,” she said. “I don’t want it to lose its artistic integrity.”

Born and raised in Washington, D.C., Ms. Appelhof’s passion for art came at a young age when she and her girlfriends would skip school to explore the local museums or see movies at the historic Loew’s Capitol Theatre.

“I remember walking in the National Gallery thinking, ‘Oh my gosh, this is heaven!’” she said. “The way people respected the art if you’re in the National Gallery is just something I’d never experienced before.”

Ms. Appelhof studied to be a painter at Syracuse University, eventually earning master’s degrees in art history and philosophy and a Ph.D. in humanities.

She arrived in the Hamptons in the summer of 1974 at the invitation of one of the area’s most renowned residents: artist Lee Krasner. Ms. Appelhof was taking a graduate course in library science at Syracuse when her professor assigned her to do a bibliography of her favorite artist. Ms. Appelhof wanted to choose a woman artist and noted that Ms. Krasner was not only interesting, but mostly forgotten in the art community. After doing thorough research for an entire semester, the bibliography impressed her professor enough to suggest sending it to Ms. Krasner herself, who responded favorably and agreed to meet Ms. Appelhof.

They met face to face in New York City, where Ms. Appelhof asked Ms. Krasner if she could do her master’s thesis on the famed artist and spouse of Jackson Pollock. Ms. Krasner one-upped the offer by inviting Ms. Appelhof to live with her in Springs for the summer, and Ms. Appelhof happily accepted.

Ms. Appelhof interviewed Ms. Krasner every morning that summer, and now she hopes to use her interview notes for a future memoir on her days living with Ms. Krasner. One of those days involved a trip to Guild Hall itself.

“She was very supportive of Guild Hall, she thought it was great,” Ms. Appelhof said. “Guild Hall was a big deal to her and other artists out here too. It was a lovely connection that I had with Guild Hall, but who would’ve ever guessed that they would invite me back? I love that it’s focused on the talent that we have here. I can’t imagine another local museum that has greater talent than we have here.”

After her time with Ms. Krasner, Ms. Appelhof further improved her stacked résumé: she taught art at the State University of New York at Auburn in the late 1970s, she was a Helena Rubinstein fellow at the Whitney Museum of American Art in New York City for two years starting in 1980, then went back to Syracuse to teach and write her Ph.D. dissertation. After changing jobs and moving to various states—including Alabama, Virginia and Minnesota—she was in Connecticut when she got the call about interviewing for the executive director job at Guild Hall.

“I thought, ‘My God, I know something about that community and those artists,’ and I knew enough to realize that there are a lot of jaw-dropping talents out here that you kind of have to keep your head about you and not get overly awed by all of these talents,” Ms. Appelhof said. “You have to manage it like a business—but it’s the most fun business in the world since you’re creating things all the time.”

Ms. Appelhof said the hardest part of the job coming in was the Guild Hall building itself, after she noticed mold in the basement and fires on stage from too much equipment plugged in at the same time.

“The whole facility was way behind in terms of being renovated and operated, and way behind for the 20th century,” she said. “It was a no-brainer that we had to get that building up and running if we were going to do anything serious with the programming.”

With this in mind, Ms. Appelhof and the board at Guild Hall wrote out a long-range plan detailing what Guild Hall would be in the coming years. She pointed out one key addition to the standard offerings of Guild Hall: “We added the word ‘entertainment’ to it, so it’s ‘education, the capacity to inspire and enrich people’s lives,’ but also ‘to entertain.’ To tell you the truth, I was very happy with that word because I thought that it gave another facet to what we were doing. I think the most exciting part of Guild Hall is its diversity. You can really bring in so many different community participants, that’s its overarching goal to me.”

In order to stay as in touch with the community as much as possible, Ms. Appelhof met with the Lions Club, Rotary Club, and the Ladies’ Village Improvement Society to talk about what they thought should be showcased at Guild Hall. She brought artists in for think tank sessions on what to present to the public. She credits the board and staff members, including Jennifer Brondo, Christina Strassfield, Josh Gladstone and Stephanie Miller, for helping pitch and inspire programs. She and the board have also raised $17 million for renovations and endowments for the institution over six to seven years. Though the vital renovations were completed in 2009, Ms. Appelhof said that she and the board continued updating the facilities.

“The transformation inside was just a miracle, and it continues to attract great talent. It all ended up being a happy ending,” she said.

Another thing Ms. Appelhof felt strongly about is supporting younger, experimental, and up-and-coming artists in the Hamptons. Not only is it difficult for a new artist to establish oneself in the area, but Ms. Appelhof pointed out that the high cost of living makes it even more of a challenge. With that in mind, Ms. Appelhof and the board started Guild Hall’s Artist-in-Residence program in the spring of this year, which had five young artists come out and live in a residence next to Guild Hall dubbed Guild House. These artists created their own works—from videos and paintings to poetry and novels—and experienced the Hamptons art community in order for them to have a stake in the area.

“We realized that one of the things that Guild Hall needed the most was housing for the people in the theater because when you’re doing 120 shows every year, you have a turnover of a day or two,” she said. “We really needed that house to ground the institution. Now we have the house that works for us for all summer long for housing people in the theater and for VIPs coming in for an exhibition and the Artist-in-Residence program.”

Even with the responsibilities of Guild Hall off of her plate, she still has fond memories of bringing in the Hamptons community year-round to the programs that Guild Hall had to offer. She’s in the midst of researching for her book on Ms. Krasner and even wants to take up a part-time job helping a local arts organization.

“I feel like I’ve got a new life. I’m not going to be home worried about what I have to do,” she said. “What’s ironic about it is that now I’m back at the Pollock-Krasner House writing this book, and I love the whole full circle thing about it. It really makes life worthwhile."

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