By Claire Walla
You’re probably familiar with the old philosophical conundrum: If a tree falls in a forest and there’s no one around to hear it, does it still make a sound?
Well, here’s another: Does art still exist in the community if nobody gets to see it?
Lately, members of the Pierson High School art department and the Sag Harbor Whaling Museum have wondered. For both organizations, one of the most difficult aspects of their art programs and exhibits has been getting the larger community to actually see them.
But, both organizations are hoping to change that this spring.
“We’re going to do something really cool and striking that’s a collaboration between the school (the Reutershan Trust) and the Sag Harbor Whaling Museum,” explained Pierson Middle/High School art teacher Peter Solow. Solow said the school will use Reutershan Trust monies to hire local artist Scott Sandell to work with Pierson students to create site-specific artwork that will be displayed on the front lawn of the museum.
“The kids have done magical work in the past, but nobody’s seen it,” Solow continued. “Because of the generosity from the museum, now we’re able to demonstrate that in a public way. I think that’s extremely important.”
While Solow admitted the idea for the installation hasn’t been fully realized, he did say that the inspiration for the project will dovetail with the museum’s overall mission; a mission that, according to museum director Zach Studenroth, is beginning to transform. The point, he clarified, is not to change the mission of the museum, but to broaden it to encompass more contemporary works of art.
He explained that there are many practicing artists using all different mediums who live and work in Sag Harbor. And he pointed out that while East Hampton has Guild Hall, Southampton has the Parrish Art Museum and even the hamlet of Water Mill has its own community center, there isn’t a community gathering space in Sag Harbor.
“It’s a void that needs to be filled in this community,” Studenroth said. “And — given the setting that we have, both structurally and with the grounds — we feel that we can.”
Both organizations are hoping that an eye-catching artistic display on Main Street will put the community in touch with what the students are doing, while breathing some life into that old, white, box-of-a-Masonic Temple at the top of Main Street.
“Most people living in Sag Harbor don’t think about the museum,” added Whaling Museum staff member Lynette Pintauro. “I think it needs to become useful for the community instead of being this building that just sits there slumbering.”
While the essence of the student art project is yet to be fully determined, Studenroth said it will be in line with the greater theme of the museum, which he added is not necessarily strictly limited to the village’s whaling history.
“It’s the whole maritime environment,” he said. “Not just hand-wrought harpoons.”
According to Solow, this collaboration allows for the kind of real-world art project the Reutershan Trust was created to foster. Already, he said he and artist Scott Sandell — who also helped students transform the courtyard at Pierson — have spoken with up to 40 students who are interested in working on the spring project. (Though Solow said he doesn’t expect that many to actually partake.)
Both Solow and Sandell have explained what site-specific art is by discussing works by Christo, who created a series of orange “gates” in Central Park in 2005, and British artist Andy Goldsworthy, whose artwork — Including large, rock cairns and leafy nautiluses — are famous for being constructed outdoors, by hand, with nature as the only medium.
“We’re talking about students elevating what they’re doing to be something serious, this really cool thing that can get a lot of buzz in town,” Solow continued. Not only will they learn about art, but Solow imagines giving students the opportunity to design posters, brochures and press releases for the show, allowing them to develop marketing and business skills to add to their artistic inclinations (a tactic Pintauro, an artist herself, said is “invaluable”).
“We’re all going to meet [in January] and try to develop the ideas that are still only theoretical now,” Solow added. “Even the way we present this, the way that it falls out to the community, that’s going to be part of the performance. We don’t want to give away the punch line too quickly.”