Helen Harrison Steps Down as Director of Pollock-Krasner House After 34 Years - 27 East

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Helen Harrison Steps Down as Director of Pollock-Krasner House After 34 Years

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Helen Harrison, in Pollack's studio at the Pollock-Krasner House and Study Center at Stony Brook University in Springs, is retiring after 34 years.     DANA SHAW

Helen Harrison, in Pollack's studio at the Pollock-Krasner House and Study Center at Stony Brook University in Springs, is retiring after 34 years. DANA SHAW

Helen Harrison, in Pollack's studio at the Pollock-Krasner House and Study Center at Stony Brook University in Springs, is retiring after 34 years.     DANA SHAW

Helen Harrison, in Pollack's studio at the Pollock-Krasner House and Study Center at Stony Brook University in Springs, is retiring after 34 years. DANA SHAW

Helen A. Harrison on the porch of Pollock-Krasner House and Study Center in Springs on March 1, 1990 — her very first day on the job as director. ROY NICHOLSON

Helen A. Harrison on the porch of Pollock-Krasner House and Study Center in Springs on March 1, 1990 — her very first day on the job as director. ROY NICHOLSON

Helen A. Harrison in her office on March 1, 1990 — her very first day on the job as director of Pollock-Krasner House and Study Center in Springs. ROY NICHOLSON

Helen A. Harrison in her office on March 1, 1990 — her very first day on the job as director of Pollock-Krasner House and Study Center in Springs. ROY NICHOLSON

authorAnnette Hinkle on Jan 29, 2024

The new year is traditionally a time for change and ushering in new beginnings — and when it comes to change, 2024 will certainly represent a time of transition for Helen A. Harrison.

“It’s a little strange,” admitted Harrison, who, on January 17, officially retired from her position as the longtime director of Pollock-Krasner House and Study Center in Springs after 34 years.

But she’s not out the door quite yet. For now, Harrison is staying on as a consultant so she can pay the bills and keep things running smoothly at the site. She’ll also stick around to train her yet-to-be-named successor at the Stony Brook University-owned and operated property.

As she segues into the next phase of her life, Harrison, who lives in Sag Harbor with her artist husband, Roy Nicholson, has a lot of successes to look back on from her time as the director of the organization. During her tenure, she not only shepherded the property through the process of attaining National Historic Landmark status, she also oversaw the development of the “Study Center” part of the organization’s name, which is based at Stony Brook Southampton and is a repository for modern American art.

The story of how the home and studio of the late artists Jackson Pollock and his wife Lee Krasner came to be a museum begins with Krasner, who, prior to her death 1984, made it known through her estate that she wanted the property to go to an organization that could take on the management and upkeep of the house and studio while also overseeing the running of a study center related to the artists of the area.

“They said any nonprofit that wanted to take it could, but no money went with it,” Harrison explained. “It was not endowed and there was no maintenance fund.”

That made the proposition a bit more difficult. At the time, Harrison was the curator at Guild Hall and for a time, there was a thought that that organization might take on the project.

“Guild Hall asked me to write a proposal, but with no money it was not practical,” said Harrison, adding that East Hampton Historical Society and East Hampton Town both entertained the idea as well. “But only Stony Brook University had the resources. Terence Netter, a friend of Lee’s, knew her from the 1960s and he knew what she wanted. Jack Marburger [president] at the university said, ‘Do it.’ So they did.”

“That was in 1987,” Harrison continued. “They hired Meg Perlman to be a part-time director to get it up and going. She was basically a private curator, she was the one who found the floor in the studio buried under a layer of Masonite.”

The paint-splattered floor that lay hidden under those tiles in Pollock’s studio is a piece of history and a valuable repository documenting the artist’s process during the most prolific period of his life. Today, it is the most famous feature of the site. It’s also how Harrison first became involved with the property.

“[Meg] contacted me, and said, ‘You might be interested in this,’ because I was writing for The New York Times at the time. I called my editor and he said, ‘Go cover it,’” Harrison said. “So I covered the uncovering.

“It was interesting,” she continued. “First the white tiles and then the paper was removed, and the more the tiles that were removed, the more the evidence on the floor indicated it would make an interesting exhibit.”

Perlman designed an exhibition around the studio floor and stayed on to serve as the director of Pollock-Krasner House for two years.

“In 1989, it was up and running and they wanted to make the job full time,” Harrison said. “Meg didn’t want to make it full time, she said, ‘Do you want it?’”

With her background in 20th century art and a scholarly specialty in artists of the New Deal, both Pollock and Krasner were totally in Harrison’s wheelhouse. She recalled that her mentor, Francis O’Connor, an expert on Pollock’s work, laughed when she first told him she got the job. He quoted a famous line from the film “Casablanca,” saying to Harrison “Of all the gin joints …”

“It was a natural move,” said Krasner who left Guild Hall for her new role at the Pollock-Krasner House and Study Center. “It was March 1, 1990. Just now, as I was cleaning out my desk, I found photos of that day from 34 years ago. Roy gave me lunch and there was a foot of snow on the ground.”

Of course, the job wasn’t just about managing the house. The parallel mission was the running of the Study Center, as stipulated in Krasner’s will. That took a bit of creative thinking.

“She called it a public museum and library. She wanted to make available material on 20th century artists with a focus on East End art community,” Harrison said. “We had the Pollock and Krasner catalogue raisonné, the Alfonso Ossorio Estate, Elaine de Kooning, and soon, the room we had for this stuff was overwhelming.

“Then, Stony Brook University got the Southampton Campus and we moved the Study Center there,” she said. “We moved into the old library first — which is now Atlantic Hall — and then into the new library in 2009. We have a part time archivist who is there. To access the archives you make a reservation. It took a lot of pressure off us.”

As the director of the property, another hurdle for Harrison came from the fact that the homestead was an unrenovated farmhouse and barn studio near the water. Not the best place for storing artifacts or displaying artwork.

“Climate control, that was a problem, especially in the studio,” she admitted. “In ’02, a Save America’s Treasures grant paid for a fire suppression system and HVAC. It’s hidden, but these kinds of upgrades are crucial for public buildings. It’s a balancing act, and these things are important and that has helped with artistic loans and visitor safety.”

Of course, one of Harrison’s most important early successes came in 1994 with the naming of Pollock and Krasner’s homestead as a National Historic Landmark. That means there is no possibility for expansion on the 1.5 acre site, which contains five original buildings, including the outhouse.

“National Historic Landmark status is the highest level of recognition you can get,” Harrison explained, adding that while she originally set out to attain National Register status, the National Park Service urged her to go for the higher designation. “The guy said, ‘You should be a National Historic Landmark. You leap frog over the National Register, because you’re at the top of the heap.’

“I went to the hearing in Washington D.C. and we got it,” she added. “We’re up there with the Statue of Liberty and USS Arizona.”

In addition to its status as a National Historic Landmark, Pollock-Krasner House has also been recognized in the Historic Artists’ Homes and Studios program.

“This is the interesting thing — there are 55 members of Historic Artists’ Homes and Studios across the country and seven of them are right in this area,” Harrison said. “Eastern Long Island is kind of remarkable. People are just so hungry for the authentic environment. This is not the van Gogh experience, it’s not phony, it’s the real thing. I think that has a huge value, especially for an Abstract Expressionist artist. [Pollock and Krasner] were very affected by environment and when they moved here, their art changed dramatically.

“Though that’s not reflected directly in their art, now people see how important it was to them,” she continued. “The energy of nature and the environment is reflected in their work and they can make the connection in a visceral way.”

Another crucial achievement for the organization during Harrison’s tenure came in 2012 with the establishment of an endowment for the Pollock-Krasner House and Study Center tied to Pollock’s centenary.

“Stony Brook has an annual gala in New York City, and once it reaches its scholarship goal, everything beyond that goes to a pet project,” she explained. “That year it was us, and the Pollock Krasner Foundation in Manhattan matched it. Another endowment came from a longtime donor who was given an honorary degree and he endowed the directorship. So it was $1 million from the gala, $1 million from the Pollock Krasner Foundation and $1.5 million for the directorship [from the Thaw Charitable Trust].

“It changed everything and took a lot of fundraising pressure off,” she added. “We still pursue grants for projects, but a NYSCA grant doesn’t support salaries.”

What the grants do pay for is programming and projects, and among those that have been received is one grant that was used to create a virtual reality tour of the studio, which is important since Pollock-Krasner House and Study Center doesn’t actually own the artists’ works.

“We say, ‘Go the Museum of Modern Art or Whitney or Brooklyn Museum to see those,’” said Harrison. “We only own one early Pollock and prints by both of them, but no others. The virtual reality tour can return the works to where they were painted. We got the money for that in 2019 and premiered it in 2020 — 10 percent of visitors use it.”

With the death of Pollock in 1956, and Krasner in 1984, successive generations of artists and art lovers have gotten to know them, not only through their work, but by visiting the couple’s former home on Accabonac Harbor.

“We get visitors from around the world, and artists of all stripes — painters, sculptors, performance artists, art historians — people who are inspired by the location and some you wouldn’t think would be interested,” said Harrison. “Last year, we had 4,100 visitors and change, and another 7,000 or so virtual visitors, for a total of 11,000.”

Though she’s winding down her time at Pollock-Krasner House in the coming months, Harrison said she has no intention of retiring from the art world.

“I am going to Palm Beach for a week,” said Harrison, who on February 16, will give a lecture at the Society of the Four Arts, an organization that was co-founded in 1936 by Mary Woodhouse, who also founded Guild Hall in East Hampton in 1931.

“The Society of the Four Arts is taking the traveling show from Guild Hall’s collection and they asked me to come down and give a talk on it because I was the curator for eight years,” she said.

Locally speaking, Harrison is kept busy as a board member of arts organizations, including the Arts Center at Duck Creek in Springs, and the Larry Rivers Foundation.

In addition to her work as an art historian, in recent years, Harrison has turned to writing novels. Her Art of Murder Mystery Series offers intriguing fictional twists on tragic events involving famous artists and others connected to the New York art world. So far, she has published three — “An Exquisite Corpse,” “An Accidental Corpse” and “An Artful Corpse.” On Sunday, February 11, at 3 p.m., Harrison will be at The Leiber Collection in Springs to discusses “An Accidental Corpse,” the second book in the series which is all about the death (or was it murder?) of Jackson Pollock.

Fans can look forward to reading the fourth book of the series in the near future. When asked what the subject will be this time around, Harrison responded, “I’m killing my mentor, Francis O’Connor. It revolves around Pollock authentication.”

Of course it does.

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