Life through the Artist's Eye
Andrea Grover draws on lessons from Houston art experiments to reimagine Sag Harbor future
Driving at a leisurely pace, the winding 20-minute jaunt from Andrea Grover's beachside Sag Harbor village home to the Parrish Art Museum in Southhampton, where she's curator of programs, is a far cry from her concrete jungle commute scuttling past Houston taquerias, stop signs and billboards during her 10-year tenure as Aurora Picture Show's "high priestess."
"These days, I feel like I'm in a German high-performance car commercial dodging wildlife on winding country roads," she quips.
Just as she was interested in Houston's past, Grover is taking this opportunity to absorb the region's history and participate in this rural community's lifeways.
The Long Island meandering landscape is freckled with rolling berms, historic farms, vintage barns, wild turkeys, deer and pheasants. With the refraction off saline waters spurred by the confluence of the Atlantic Ocean, the Peconic Bays, Shinnecock Bay, Mecox Bay, Gardiners Bay and other fluvial bodies, the color and intensity of daylight is transcendent.
The sun's reflection off these waterways has served as a muse for artists like Willem de Kooning, Jackson Pollock and Fairfield Porter since the middle of the 20th century, and today that same light attracts best-selling authors, artists, top chefs and celebrities for a respite from frenzied big city life.
It's as if Grover is on vacation, but today this is home. And just as she was interested in Houston's past, Grover is taking this opportunity to absorb the region's history and participate in this rural community's lifeways.
"There is no better way to feel connected with the land than learning what was once under these paved roads," she says. "I was heavily invested in studying Houston's history. Now, I am immersed in learning about the culture, folklife and roots of the East End. The elements of each city may be polar opposites, but their grassroots origins aren't so wildly different."
Life in the Hamptons: The paradox of a tourist spot
Grover moved to the Hamptons two years ago to be closer to her mother, who had suffered a ruptured brain aneurysm. (She has recovered fully.) Parrish director Terrie Sultan knew Grover from their time together in Houston, and offered her a position at the museum.
"There is no better way to feel connected with the land than learning what was once under these paved roads."
Downsizing from a megalopolis of 5 million to a community of 2,000 has been an adjustment. The East End lacks many urban conveniences routinely taken for granted. Municipal trash service isn't available; you have to haul your own refuse or hire a private company to do so. There are no residential gas lines; energy for heat comes from propane or gas delivery to each household. Even the finest homes have septic systems; there are no wastewater treatment facilities in the area. The nearest big box store is about 50 miles away.
Hardly anyone locks their doors; crime is very low.
"But if you do break the law, everyone knows it," Grover laughs. "Every alleged theft and DUI is announced by name and town in the paper and on the radio."
In sickness and in health, everyone knows everyone. It didn't take long before she met a close knit group of artists, people who come together for one another in times of happiness and need.
"It's a much more bucolic existence, " she says. "And I have become a much more locally-conscious consumer. I shop at farms that have been operating for more than four generations, fish shops and village markets. And there are dozens of little unmanned farm stands that operate on the honor system."
"It's amazing what people are open to doing after a shot of tequila."
But as a transient resort town, the very charm that attracts others to visit the area is jeopardized by the influx of crowds and the need for infrastructure. As a precaution, there are more checks and balances than other parts of the country Grover has lived in, she says, as a concentrated effort to keep the land undeveloped, uncultivated and unchanged, as it has been for hundreds of years.
There are strict building codes so that most structures fit into the vernacular architecture of the region; preservation of historic sites is paramount. Still many locals would argue that the codes are not strong enough, but it's still quite pastoral to the untrained eye.
"There are farmers and fisherman who are descendants from early English settlers from 17th-century Kent and Dorchester, known colloquially as 'Bonackers,' and the home of the Shinnecock Indian Nation is here," she says. "The image of the Hamptons as a resort community overshadows its diversity.
"People don't realize how many working families live here. The way of life was part of what appealed to so many artists who moved out here in the mid 20th century."
Lessons from Aurora Picture Show
Reimagining the local community's engagement with a 114-year-old cultural institution is part of Grover's responsibilities. She brings to this charge a longtime interest in participatory art and experimental approaches to public engagement.
Beyond interest, much of what she gleaned from growing Aurora's audience matured into socio-artistic experiments of how different people interact with art, how communities explore unknown experiences and what creates synergistic dialogue in aesthetic endeavors.
"The lawlessness, ingenuity, spontaneity and friendliness of Houston is what made Aurora into a safe zone for audiences to have new experiences."
"It's amazing what people are open to doing after a shot of tequila," Grover laughs recalling a program years prior where the audience was offered a collective shot of the spirit to help launch the experience.
That Aurora started in a domestic space was part of the rationale for its success, Grover thinks. As an unconventional, artist-driven and sometimes demanding film program, Aurora provided a welcoming and hospitable environment for curious guests to try on avant garde art on for size. There weren't lofty business goals at the onset, but rather the simple intention to bring the community together through movies.
"All the lessons I learned on how audiences respond to new experiences came naturally, organically," she says. "The lawlessness, ingenuity, spontaneity and friendliness of Houston is what made Aurora into a safe zone for audiences to have new experiences.
"We weren't being didactic about what we presented, and we were very non-institutional."
Grover treated Aurora like a living room. She wanted to stimulate her guests, change their viewpoint and challenge their sensibilities — and allow artists to lead the way.
That's what Sultan wants from Grover: Her ability to shift paradigms, and to use that to morph a traditional white box gallery and concert hall with pedagogic roots into a setting that appeals to both visitors and the longtime inhabitants of the land. As Parrish considers how it will capitalize its new 615-foot-long concrete low-profile building in Water Mill (set to open Nov. 10), there are clues embedded in its design. Herzog & de Meuron's blueprint pays respects to the new and old ways of the island and its innate beauty.
Grover has turned to farmers, fishermen, craftspeople, puppeteers and performance poets, and phased in off-site programs, outdoor films, historical art bike tours and temporary, site-specific installations.
"I think artists see the future before the general public does. Ultimately they tell us where we are headed."
Grover's worlds come together in Aurora's "Boat Show"
That same tenor has inspired Grover's recent curatorial projects, fusing art, science, history and technology. As a recipient of an Andy Warhol Curatorial Fellowship, Grover's touring exhibition Intimate Science (initiated at Miller Gallery at Carnegie Mellon Univerity, was on view at Southern Exposure in San Francisco in June, opening Nov. 3 at Real Art Ways in Hartford, Conn.), amasses works by artists and collaboratives that aren't married to one particular discipline. Instead, they combine multiple branches of knowledge to seek answers to scientific inquiries.
There's Philip Ross "mycotecture" series, which tests whether reishi mushrooms could fashion sustainable building materials. Two works by London-based Markus Kayser harness sun power to transform Saharan sand into glass forms and cut through plywood.
Recently, Grover was in Houston to curate Aurora's "The Boat Show," a screening of short documentaries, fiction and art films aboard the 1958 Sam Houston tour boat, which departed from the Port of Houston.
Her father is a boat builder whose 26-foot outboard had crossed the North Atlantic when she was 15. Linking her artistic journey with a seafaring theme is a coming home for Grover, a home which surveyed the changing connection, love affair and dependence on the world's most valuable resource.
Videos by Todd Chandler with Swoon, Open_Sailing, Protei, Mary Mattingly and Waterpod Project, Shrimp Boat Projects, Marie Lorenz, Heidi Lunabba, and Jon Cohrs questioned the view of waterways as a separate environment, where with a little artistic vision, there could be potential for developing creative sustainable, self-sufficient habitats.
"I think artists see the future before the general public does," she says. "Ultimately they tell us where we are headed."