Managing the Flow at the Members' Show

Organizing an art exhibition is a juggling act
Christina Strassfield in the completed installation of the Guild Hall members’ show last year. Durell Godfrey and Jennifer Landes Photos

    When Guild Hall opens its doors on the first night of its annual artist members’ show, the 400-plus artists eager to find their place on the wall are not looking for anything but the familiar object that recently left their studios. They want to see where it hangs in the gallery and what, if any, award may have been granted it. Eventually, however, they step back and look to the paintings or objects around it and get an appreciation for how their work fits into a greater whole.

    It takes much effort to make each piece look its best by placing complementary artworks nearby. The responsibility to make, in the case of last year, 459 distinct works fit together falls to one woman, Christina Strassfield, Guild Hall’s chief curator and director of the museum.

    Organizing an art exhibition is a juggling act even when all the factors, such as number of objects, theme, time period, and space, are completely under the curator’s control. Each of Guild Hall’s three main galleries has displayed as little as one single object in past years but rarely over 50 — except when the members’ show is on view. Every year at this time, some 400 works come into the museum just days before the opening with no advance notice of what they will be or what they will look like, and every single one of them will end up on a wall or pedestal.

    Walking through the just-finished product last year, Ms. Strassfield looked a bit drained but happy. “It’s not an easy process, and even though I’ve been doing it for so long, it does take skill,” she said. When she was first hired to replace Rae Ferren, who was retiring as associate curator, Ms. Ferren had her watch the installation so she could do it the next year. “I kept thinking, ‘Oh my gosh, oh my gosh.’ I would see each thing coming in and it was so different from the last one.”

    But that was back in 1987, and she has since developed a system. “Each curator does it differently, but for me it works best to put the paintings on the floor by the wall with one in the up position and one down. Then, when I can see all of the different images, I begin to look for pairings and groupings.”

    Once she begins to build a relationship among a number of works, she takes a section of the wall and builds on it. Given all of the wall space and the nooks and crannies, this takes a lot of walking around the room and between the galleries to begin to feel a flow. She pointed to a painting that had a flower in it and then the one next to it with a slice of wood, which became a section related loosely to nature. Similarly, there might be certain colors or movements in the paintings, or even their backgrounds, that might work together in expected or unexpected ways.

    “It’s a lot of things pulling together. It has to have a relationship with everything around it,” Ms. Strassfield said. “Still, it can’t just all be the same color or genre, or even the same flow. You have to change the flow too.”

    She works on a certain section and when it stops working, goes to another wall, and then eventually comes back. “I’ll run around to all three galleries to see the flow and then go around again.” On these days she will wear running shoes.

    She moves through the rooms asking herself if things are working, checking each piece over again to make sure the rhythm is there. “You don’t want a work to stop the flow.” (This can also happen, she said, when a Sunday painter is placed next to a more accomplished artist. Regardless of similarities in theme or form, the difference in talent could interrupt the flow.)

    She needs to do her work alone, the curator said. “I get here early when there’s no one around. I need to see everything myself, and I have a lot of caffeine that morning.” The walls are completed first, then the sculpture.

    After she finds the flow, the last thing she must consider is how to mix things up. Each piece in the show is eligible for a prize or an honorable mention, which is determined by a new judge every year. The judges need “to look at every single piece, it’s important to focus attention on each one so it gets the respect it truly deserves.” Ms. Strassfield may recognize an artist’s style, but she makes it a policy never to look at names or labels when hanging.

    The judges are carefully chosen from outside the area, to discourage familiarity with the artists and their work. This year’s judge is Robert Storr, dean of the School of Art at Yale University and a former curator at the Museum of Modern Art. There are very few non-juried shows left anywhere in the country, but Guild Hall has sponsored one for 75 years. “We feel strongly about that commitment.”

    Ms. Strassfield became interested in museums as a young child when she would visit the Metropolitan Museum of Art regularly. As an undergrad at Queens College, she interned in the Met’s central catalog department where records and images of the collection are kept. She stayed on through graduate school and was offered a full-time job after she graduated. After five years, she wanted a change of pace and environment and found the position at Guild Hall. She became curator after Helen Harrison left to become director of the Pollock-Krasner House and Study Center in Springs.

    She remained the curator until 1996, when she gave birth to twin boys. With a 4-year-old daughter already at home, it was time to take a break. She returned in 2002 and was happy to find the scale of the museum and the breadth of talent in the community still exciting. “At a large museum, you’re doing one thing. With a small staff, there are a lot of different things, it’s a challenge at times.”

    This season’s Robert Motherwell show will have a major catalog published with it, the first the museum has undertaken on its own. The staff has had to pull together the essays, images, copyrights, and poetry that are all going into its production. “We keep being asked, ‘Don’t you have a department for this?’ But no, it’s just me and Michelle Klein,” the museum’s assistant curator and registrar. Phyllis Tuchman will be the guest curator of the Motherwell exhibition.

    Ms. Strassfield, a resident of Water Mill, serves on the Southampton School Board; her sons, now 17, are high school juniors. Her daughter is away at college in Boston. When she’s not keeping up with the busy summer schedule, she is planning for the future. The museum calendar, she said, is accounted for through 2017. It’s necessary to plan that far ahead in order to be certain an exhibition will be eligible for grants and the works to be borrowed will be available. She often finds herself working on a number of shows at once.

    The artist members’ exhibition will open on Saturday from 4 to 6 p.m. On May 17 at 11 a.m., Ms. Klein will lead a “Meet the Winners” panel.

This year’s participants, above, Matt and Margery Harnick, below, Gene Samuelson, and bottom, Lew Zacks, dropped off their works last week.