A History Beyond Walls at Guild Hall

A new database for the permanent collection
Charles Ly was part of the team helping Jess Frost and Gary Mamay photograph Guild Hall’s permanent collection, particularly the sculptures, some of which had no visual documentation prior to this project. Here, Mr. Ly sorted the individual elements of a Dale Chihuly glass sculpture. Gary Mamay

Guild Hall’s new public database of its permanent collection has been greeted by some with surprise. It is not the multiyear project that culminated in its going live in February that raises eyebrows so much, rather it is the notion that the museum has a collection at all.

The high-profile shows on loan that are a mainstay of the museum’s summer calendar reflect the breadth of influence artists living and working on the East End have on the art world at large. Given space constraints, however, there is rarely room for anything else — including work from the museum’s collection — to be shown during those months when so many pass through the galleries. 

Yet the origins of Guild Hall’s permanent collection are tied to its own beginning. When it opened in 1931, a portrait of Thomas Moran on view in the galleries had already been acquired by the museum. The 1922 work by Howard Russell Butler has been joined in the years since by some 2,400 other objects across many mediums.

Butler, who lived from 1886 to 1934, was a turn-of-the-century American polymath. He was primarily a realist painter, but the seemingly abstract solar eclipse paintings from later in his career demonstrate his interest in physics and perhaps a creeping influence of modernism. 

His background is easily discovered, because the listing for the painting in Guild Hall’s database includes a link to the artist’s biography. It’s an obvious choice, but one that easily could have been overlooked in its design. It is a sign of the care and educational emphasis that the museum is devoting to its collection. 

In addition to the database, the museum plans to show more of it in regularly planned exhibitions, including a fall Abstract Expressionism show organized by Joan Marter, a professor at Rutgers.

“It is truly a dream come true to finally be able to let the public know what a wonderful repository of East End art is in the Guild Hall Museum permanent collection,” Christina Strassfield, the director of the museum and its head curator, said. “We have already had other museums contact us about loans from the collection now that they are aware of what exists.”

Andrea Grover, Guild Hall’s executive director, acknowledged the “intense effort” in finishing the digitization project by all involved and the Robert David Lion Gardiner Foundation for supporting it with a one-year grant to photograph the collection and build the site. “I hope anyone reading this will go immediately to pc.guildhall.org to see the incredible work in the collection,” she said. The museum collected additional money from the Gerry Charitable Trust for the administrative aspects of the project.

At the helm of the database project and the shows that have already resulted from the undertaking is Jess Frost, the associate curator and registrar for the permanent collection. Her work began in 2015 with two spreadsheets of works, their images when available, a ton of paper records, and “a lot of scanned files that needed to be sorted and cleaned and then organized. It was a lot of digging and detective work to bring it all together,” she said recently.

After importing the spreadsheets into a database system, Ms. Frost began organizing all of the information. With a crew that included Gary Mamay, Charles Ly, Stephanie deTroy Miller, and Casey Dalene in various combinations over the years, she spent days in Guild Hall’s art storage space “putting our hands on as many works as we could” in a few hours, taking snapshots and notations of all relevant information. Last year, Mr. Mamay began taking a collection of professional photos of the works in five different formats, one for every possible use.

The storage facility became a place of discovery and wonder as they pulled out a seven-foot-high Frank Stella work, three generations of Ernst artwork (Eric, Jimmy, and Max), some 50 photographs by Bernard Gotfryd of leading cultural figures from the 1950s to the 1980s, 200 works by Abraham Rattner detailing a road trip through 1940s America with the author Henry Miller, a large cache of Ray Johnson mail art (which served as the basis of an exhibition of the artist’s work last year), handwritten notes about a donation from Fairfield Porter from the artist himself, and a trove of packed-away sculptures that had never been photographed.

As she proceeded, “I was struck by the relationships between artists and amongst the donors,” Ms. Frost recalled. In the case of Johnson, a painting his friend Ted Carey donated to the museum just before his death became the gateway to the bequest of Tito Spiga, who was his partner. Spiga left Guild Hall nine more Carey paintings, 10 works by Andy Warhol, and the entire Johnson collection.

Since going live, she has received some unexpected reactions from those who have examined the database and discovered familial and other local connections. “People’s interest in the permanent collection blossomed as soon as we had a more cohesive way of presenting it.”

Lincoln Palsgrove IV said he had been anticipating the digitization for some time. The museum’s portraits of his grandmother Marjorie Woodhouse Leidy and great-grandmother Mary Woodhouse, who both died before he was born, were long displayed in the building but are now in storage. Having access to the images again was important to him and his family. 

“Their resemblance is so profound,” he said. “My mom [Phyllis Leidy Palsgrove] is still alive, and when you line up those faces it’s so striking.”

The Woodhouse family, which came to East Hampton in 1894 and built an estate known as Greycroft on Hunting Lane, had already helped found the Maidstone Club and supported the library when Mary Kennedy married Lorenzo Woodhouse, the son of the patriarch and his namesake. They built The Fens near to his parents, where Mary made the grounds into a showplace and founded Guild Hall, among other pursuits.

In addition to a portrait of Woodhouse by Albert Herter and one of Leidy by William J. Whittemore, the collection has several of Leidy’s watercolors of plant life. Before the database, “I’d never seen them and didn’t know they had as many of her watercolors as they did,” Mr. Palsgrove said. “Seeing those is especially wonderful. It’s a connection to family members who are not around anymore.”

To Lucas Natale, his grandmother’s house on Cobb Isle Road was a family landmark. To Jane Wilson, it was a foil for the gathering mist in “Water Mill Fog” from 1966, when her paintings still had roots in naturalism. 

When Mr. Natale first told Ms. Frost of the family connection, she demanded proof from her friend, because the coincidence seemed too convenient and she thought he was joking. 

His grandmother was Marcella Free, an early female advertising copywriter and executive. “He had known about the painting but didn’t share the story with anyone at the museum until he saw the work online,” Ms. Frost said. “This is a history that is going beyond walls.” Previously if you missed a show, “you’re not going to know that granny’s house is in a painting.”

There were a few other permanent collection shows organized during this process, including one by Bryan Hunt. Having the collection better organized helped him make his choices, which boasted unusual and inspired inclusions of work by Berenice D’Vorzon and Claude Lawrence in and among the more well-known holdings. He “offered the public works they may not have noticed in another context,” Ms. Frost noted.

She said she is looking forward to Dr. Marter’s selections, which will be made more easily using the database as her source. “As a curator, the idea is to build the story about what you find,” she said. To her, the database functions and was designed to “feel like a research library. We have the basic facts and we can build on that.”

This Dale Chihuly sculpture, pictured on C1 and now fully assembled, is called “White and Oxblood Persians.” It was donated by Henry Geldzahler in 1993.
Berenice d’Vorzon, who died in 2014 and whose work is at far right, benefited from some renewed attention to her art in a Guild Hall permanent collection show organized by Bryan Hunt in 2018. Gary Mamay Photos