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Syracuse University, College of Arts and Sciences

Renaissance Woman

Ruth Appelhof '65, G'74, G'80, G'89 uses liberal arts training to chart success for Guild Hall in East Hampton

Jan. 25, 2012, by Rob Enslin

Ruth Appelhof, Alec Baldwin, and Martha Stewart at Guild Hall's 2011 Summer Gala. (Photo by Barry G.)
Ruth Appelhof, Alec Baldwin, and Martha Stewart at Guild Hall's 2011 Summer Gala. (Photo by Barry G.)
In the summer of 1974, Ruth Appelhof—a graduate student in Syracuse University’s College of Arts and Sciences—made the six-hour drive from Central New York to Long Island’s East End. Her destination was the modest home of artist Lee Krasner, located on a tuft of land in The Springs, a scenic hamlet near the Village of East Hampton.

In those days, Krasner was known by some as “Mrs. Jackson Pollock.” To others, she was an influential painter in her own right. Krasner’s property, which included her husband’s famous barn studio, was the epicenter of the Abstract Expressionist movement. It’s also where Appelhof, a budding art curator, made history of her own.

“I lived in a guest room, which originally was Lee’s studio,” recalls Appelhof, speaking by phone from her office in the Guild Hall arts complex in East Hampton. “I met so many people there—Harold Rosenberg, Clement Greenberg [’30], Willem de Kooning, Victoria Barr, and Hans Namuth—whom I had previously known only from textbooks. It was an incredible introduction to the art world.”

Krasner had agreed to be interviewed for Appelhof’s master’s thesis project, “The Swing of the Pendulum.” Days turned into weeks as the two forged a close relationship, with Appelhof gaining entrée to the artist’s private life. Little did they know that Krasner was entering the final phase of her career. Fresh from a successful solo show at New York’s Whitney Museum of American Art, Krasner was finally emerging from the shadow of Pollock, who had died in 1956, and was creating large-scale collages that reverberated throughout the art world. Within a decade, she would also be dead.

It’s been said that Appelhof’s interviews with Krasner provided a rare glimpse of the artist and the person, while shedding light on common misconceptions about her relationship with Pollock. In what is regarded as a major coup in the art world, Appelhof is donating recordings of these conversations to SU Library’s Belfer Audio Archive. “I believe they will contribute to a major chapter in the history of American art,” she says of the recordings.

Appelhof didn’t know it at the time, but her meeting with Krasner set into motion her return to Long Island 25 years later. In 1999, Appelhof was appointed executive director of Guild Hall, long regarded as the leading cultural center of the Hamptons. She has since breathed life back into the venerable institution, restoring the museum’s three art galleries, constructing new offices and an education wing, and renovating the John Drew Theater. “We never closed once in our four and a half years of renovation,” she beams.

The Hamptons native has also remarried. Appelhof and her husband—business executive Gary Adamek—live barely two miles from the Pollock-Krasner House, now a National Historic Landmark. Her home is also not far from Louse Point Beach, where she and Krasner used to walk and collect shells.   

These days, professional artists, writers, and musicians make up as much of the East End community as retirees, farmers, and fisherman. Many residents, says Appelhof, dwell in the village year-round, and are more diverse—racially, ethnically, and economically—than ever. “We’ve had to create a new vision for Guild Hall, reinventing ourselves around the people we serve,” she says. “It hasn’t been easy, but I wouldn’t have been able to do it, were it not for my Syracuse University training."

Born in Washington, D.C., Appelhof grew up in nearby Kensington, Maryland, where she developed a love for art as a child. “From the very beginning, everyone was always trying to keep me busy. They would say, ‘Draw this, paint that,” she says with a chuckle. “I’m sure I had talent, but probably not as much as they thought I had.”

Following in the footsteps of her high school art teacher, Appelhof studied painting in SU’s College of Visual and Performing Arts. By all accounts, the experience was good—the students were talented and the teachers were kind, she recalls—but Appelhof soon realized that she was not artist material. Her brief marriage to Dave Appelhof ‘60, a starter on SU’s national championship football team and later a coach at nearby Skaneateles High School, delayed her graduation until 1965.

Newly single with two children, Appelhof found herself living in Skaneateles with few professional prospects. That her father was a U.S. veteran who died shortly after World War II enabled her to take advantage of the G.I. Bill. “I couldn’t do a residency anywhere because of the kids, so I looked into studying art history,” she says. “At the time, all I could afford was one course a semester.”

Appelhof returned to SU and began chipping away at graduate degrees in art history and the humanities, while teaching at Cayuga Community College in nearby Auburn and running a small gallery in Skaneateles. Her big break came in 1980, when she landed a one-year fellowship at the Whitney Museum in New York City, followed by a three-year curatorship at SU’s Lowe Art Gallery.

“The Whitney experience was amazing because it led me toward the business side of things. I got to organize an exhibition titled ‘The American Landscape: Recent Developments,’ conduct research, and meet some fascinating people,” she says. “The fellowship was sort of like, ‘Choose your sandbox, and we’ll support your vision.’”

David Tatham, who advised Appelhof’s doctoral dissertation on Expressionism in contemporary American and Canadian painting, figures prominently from this period. “Not long after its completion, Ruth’s study formed the basis for a traveling exhibition [‘The Expressionist Landscape’] that included many of the paintings she had examined,” writes Tatham, professor of art history emeritus in SU’s College of Arts and Sciences. “Few newly minted art history dissertations move so quickly to new life in the museum world. The handsome, all-color exhibition catalog, with text by Ruth, remains a vital resource in its subject area.”

After her stint at the Lowe Art Gallery, Appelhof spent the next 15 years climbing the nonprofit ladder. She held various leadership positions, including curator of painting, sculpture, and graphic arts at the Birmingham Museum of Art (1984-89); executive director of the Art Museum of Western Virginia (1989-94); executive director of the Minnesota Museum of American Art (1994-97); executive director of the Hill-Stead Museum in Connecticut (1997-98); and guest curator of the National Museum for Women in the Arts (1998). In almost every instance, Appelhof took an otherwise small, regional institution and used contemporary American art to help transform it into a cultural and educational destination.

Appelhof attributes her reputation as a turnaround specialist to her time in Alabama. “It was exciting to work in Birmingham, whose museum was encyclopedic in scope,” she recalls. “Being a curator there really opened my eyes to the development side of the business--that the size and scope of your exhibitions are dictated by how much money you raise.” She is quick to point out, however, that museums and galleries are not just about making money. “In Birmingham, there was a lot of artistic control at the top. I realized that a good executive director knows how to find exhibition ideas and then properly nurture them,” she adds.

This rang true a decade later, when the National Museum for Women in the Arts in Washington, D.C., asked Appelhof to oversee an exhibition of contemporary women artists from Alabama. In addition to selecting artists and works, she oversaw the installation, organized a multi-city Southern tour, and wrote the catalog. “It was great going back to Alabama to see all my old friends and to make some new ones,” she says. “It made me realize that I wanted to do more contemporary exhibitions and programs—the very reasons I got into the field in the first place. And that’s when I got the call from Guild Hall.”

When Appelhof returned to East Hampton, Guild Hall was in need of a makeover. In addition to launching the complex’s first capital campaign in years, she reorganized the staff, hiring a new development director, as well as full-time education and marketing directors. She also developed a long-range strategic business plan.    

“Education eventually will be the umbrella or glue that holds it all together,” she told The New York Times, shortly after her arrival. “My idea is to build a vessel that holds this programming.” 

Prior to Appelhof, Guild Hall embodied the vision of another SU alumna, Enez Whipple ’32, who, during her 40-year reign as director, stressed that a “museum was a temple that you went to be educated in.” Appelhof has heartily embraced this aesthetic, while being sensitive to shifting demographics and tastes.

Melville “Mickey” Straus, chair of Guild Hall’s board of trustees, says the commitment to quality year-round programming has been a deciding factor for many attendees. “At Guild Hall, there is no ‘off season,’” he explains. Straus alludes to an array of special events and educational programs that attract more than 40,000 visitors a year, many of whom are local K-12 students.

“To be honest with you, I think the whole organization has thrived under Ruth,” he continues. “What she does best is engage Guild Hall with the community. She goes out of her way to make us viable to a good many people.”

Straus also credits Appelhof for ramping up the board of trustees, which includes actor Alec Baldwin. “He has given so much of his time and of his acting ability, but it’s Ruth who deserves the credit for securing Alec’s support,” admits Straus. Baldwin, whose career has been burnished by his work on the NBC sitcom “30 Rock,” recently starred in “Equus” at the John Drew Theater. The Hamptons resident also served as master of ceremonies at last year’s Summer Gala, which honored Martha Stewart and previewed a Richard Prince photography exhibition. “As nonprofit institutions work harder to meet their funding goals, especially in small communities like East Hampton, arts administrators play a crucial role,” explains Baldwin in an e-mail. “Ruth has taken this beloved, yet once quaint institution and turned it into the creative hub of our area.”

Like Baldwin, artist Elizabeth Peyton applauds Appelhof for making Guild Hall a reflection of the community it serves. “It’s surprising that Ruth has been at Guild Hall since only 1999 because she has become so seamlessly intertwined in all the worlds of the East End,” says Peyton, who is internationally renowned for her small-scale portraits. “Ruth has brought people together with a kind of understanding that one would expect from someone who has been there longer.”

Last March, Peyton—along with television talk-show host Dick Cavett, philanthropist Lewis B. Cullman, and screenwriter Marshall Brickman—was presented with Guild Hall’s Academy of the Arts Lifetime Achievement Award.

Robert A.M. Stern, who led Guild Hall’s massive restoration project, considers Appelhof a “force of nature.” “She has rekindled a sleepy regional arts center on Long Island, transforming it into a vibrant destination for the performing and visual arts that meets the expectations of first-rank artists and audiences whose benchmarks are the theaters, art galleries, and museums of New York City,” he says.

Appelhof takes the praise in stride, preferring to place the emphasis on Guild Hall’s staff and board of trustees. She rattles off several milestones of the past year, including the institution’s 80th birthday and the new Fourth of July Weekend Celebration, featuring a bluegrass performance by Steve Martin, an outdoor screening of the movie “Jaws,” and a patriotic program with cabaret stars Jennifer Sheehan and Eric Michael Gillett. (Mandy Patinkin and Patti LuPone are on tap for this year’s Independence Weekend.) Appelhof also references high-definition simulcasts of performances by the Metropolitan Opera, National Theater (United Kingdom), and Berlin Philharmonic, as well as various local art exhibitions and classes during the winter months. “Our community has always been acknowledged as an artists’ colony, and with Guild Hall at its center, this heritage continues,” she remarks. “The real challenge is integrating the museum, the theater, and the educational programs so they are not operating independently, but are responding to one another.”

Such synergy will be on display this August, with a mini-residency by Taylor 2. Named for dancer, choreographer, and longtime Hamptons resident Paul Taylor ’53, H’86, the troupe is part of the acclaimed Paul Taylor Dance Company, and specializes in teaching and public outreach. “Paul Taylor is a living icon—the last surviving member of the pantheon that created American modern dance,” states Appelhof. “I’m sure many alumni will be in the audience, given his close ties to Syracuse University.” Case in point: two recent Taylor masterworks, “Brief Encounters” (2009) and “Troilus and Cressida (reduced)” (2006), were commissioned by SU.

Taylor and others will have run of the newly refurbished 360-seat John Drew Theater, which presents more than 100 different programs a year. Much has been written about the theater’s 12,800-square-foot renovation—the most ambitious part of Guild Hall’s four-phase restoration plan—that included a complete overhaul of the lobby area and museum shop. In addition to restoring the period wallpaper, painted circus tent stripes on the ceiling, and famous balloon chandelier, Appelhof made sure the theater boasted a new HVAC system; a high-definition projector with state-of-the-art Surround Sound; a sprung floor for dance; and upgraded lighting and rigging mechanisms. She also tweaked the floor plan to accommodate cushy new seats with more leg room. “You can now be part of the action on stage in a much more direct and dynamic way,” she says. “A personalized experience and a commitment to quality explain why people from all over New York, New Jersey, Pennsylvania, and New England keep coming back here.”

Despite the sluggish economy and tepid real estate market, Guild Hall—and East Hampton, in general—continues to thrive. Edward Bleier ’51, former president of Guild Hall’s Academy of the Arts, says that while it’s easy to give in to expansion, he applauds Appelhof’s desire to keep it in check. “I hope we don’t get too big or too grandiose,” advises the legendary radio and television executive. “”I’d like to see us stay formal without being stuffy, with an active board and a strong commitment to the community.”

Robert B. Menschel ’51, H'91, an honorary life trustee of Guild Hall, agrees: “Ruth’s leadership has moved us to new levels of excellence in the theater and visual arts.”

Tatham attributes Appelhof’s success to being an “exceptional people person.” “She has won the trust and loyalty of not only her staff and patrons, but also donors and colleagues at other institutions,” he adds.

The professor recalls a recent weekend trip to Guild Hall, where he served as guest curator of a Winslow Homer exhibition. During his stay, Tatham was reminded of how Appelhof endeared herself to others. “She leaves people with the understanding that Guild Hall is their institution. People know this is the case because Ruth makes it so,” he says.

No doubt that Appelhof would blush at the compliment. “David Tatham was one of several professors who led me into the line of work I’m doing today,” she says. “Without his support and that of others, I might not have ever visited East Hampton in the ’70s, or worse yet, found my way back here many years later. I am grateful for SU taking a chance on me.”