Last week, the Parrish Art Museum announced that Kelly Taxter would become its next director. Taxter assumes the mantle from Interim Director Chris Siefert, who’s been at the helm of the Water Mill museum since the previous director, Terrie Sultan, departed in June 2020.
Taxter comes to the Parrish from the Jewish Museum in New York City, where she’s been since 2013, and most recently, was named the Barnett and Annalee Newman Curator of Contemporary Art, the museum’s first endowed and named contemporary curator position.
Taxter, who has friends on the East End and has visited the Parrish several times in the past, will officially begin in her new job on March 22.
“It’s a fabulous opportunity,” Taxter said of her new position and the Parrish when reached recently by phone. “I love where it is and what it is, and thought it was a really interesting concept before I knew I’d be going there.”
Interestingly enough, Taxter confessed that she wasn’t actively looking to leave the Jewish Museum when the opportunity at the Parrish arose. But after colleagues recommended her to the search firm looking to fill the position at the Parrish, she became intrigued by the possibilities.
“I liked my job, I had a great position. I was named the first contemporary curator for the institution,” Taxter said. “But when I started talking to the people at the Parrish and thought about the potential there, it was very exciting. It marries my past experience in an interesting way.”
That past experience includes not only her curatorial position at the Jewish Museum, but also a successful stint running her own gallery for several years in New York City. Taxter explained that after studying art at the School of the Museum of Fine Arts in Boston and earning her B.A. from Tufts University, she realized that her interest in the field leaned more toward making art shows rather than making art itself. So in the early 2000s, she enrolled in the Center for Curatorial Studies master’s program at Bard College.
“At the time, it was one of two masters programs in the world. I got my M.A. there and it was an incredible school,” she said. “The network and support you get is tremendous. In 2003, when I graduated, we didn’t use the word curator like we do now. It was not a thing and there were no jobs.
“I could have taken a job in a smaller town or city, which is what many of my classmates did, but I really wanted to go back to the city and do it my own way.”
That desire led to the opening of Taxter & Spengemann, the Chelsea gallery she co-founded in 2003 with friend and classmate Pascal Spengemann.
“Because of the curatorial studies program at Bard, we were supported and successful and worked with artists we liked who were our friends, and it kept going,” she said. “We expanded and moved a couple times. The result was it was very successful on the outside, but it was also super exhausting.”
The financial crisis of 2008 added to the stress level of operating a gallery, leading Taxter to eventually seek out a new direction in her career. In 2011, the gallery was closed.
“I really craved the context of the slower, more deep engagement with art that you get when you’re in a museum,” said Taxter. “I was 25 when I graduated from school. The gallery was a huge adventure, it required a lot of risks and was an entrepreneurial thing to do. I made contacts and friends, but it was exhausting. So when it ended, I was lucky enough to be accepted on the nonprofit side.”
Taxter next teamed up with collectors and philanthropists Rebecca and Martin Eisenberg to edit a publication, drawn from their collection, about art and music. She also began working as a consulting curator at the Aldrich Contemporary Art Museum in Ridgefield, Connecticut, and there, organized major solo exhibitions featuring the work of Martin Creed, Harry Dodge and Robert Longo.
By 2013, Taxter had landed at the Jewish Museum, and she has been there ever since. Taxter remarked that she feels her range experience in the art world — from entrepreneurial gallery owner and non-profit creative partner to museum curator — has prepared her well for the potential and possibilities inherent at the Parrish Art Museum.
“The Parrish is a landmark. You can’t miss it. It’s an incredible site and building, and I’ve seen plenty of shows there,” Taxter said. “I absolutely knew the institution and the history. It’s such an attractive place — it’s built to attract you, even the grounds around it. I joke with people that I feel even the parking lot is beautiful there.”
When asked to offer her vision of what she sees in terms of possibilities in moving the Parrish forward as a cultural institution, Taxter responds: “I think part of the answer is the range of types of people that live in and around the community of the Parrish,” she said. “There are wealthy, summer people and the workforce and their children and families. I’m committed to not making it a strictly a white space, and the Hamptons reads that way from the outside.
“I’d like to understand who’s here and what their needs are,” she added. “I feel the museum’s walls should be represented by all those who come and see those walls and how they are reflected there. I feel like museums and art are gateways to know the possibilities in their lives and to understand each other. That’s a big part of why I do the work I do.”
While Taxter will soon be relocating to the East End, she will keep a foot in New York City as well, where her partner, artist Rob Davis, will continue to work full time.
“I like that back and forth and what a rural place can offer and why it’s something special,” said Taxter. “When you’re outside New York, you have a different opportunity and a different pace and level of engagement. That’s always exciting.”
Though taking on a new job in the midst of a global pandemic might strike some as odd, for Taxter, these unusual times have also led to new ways of creative thinking in her field.
“The weirdness is why it’s a good time,” she said “In the arts, like other sectors that require creative thinking, this is when you stop doing what didn’t work and do something different. All bets are off in many ways and that’s intriguing to me.”
She adds that she has learned to adapt to these times in her role at the Jewish Museum by creating platforms which allow artists to speak and share their insight through dynamic public programs that have a much larger reach than in the past, thanks to the availability of online outlets that attract far flung audiences.
“Because we’re not limited to auditoriums and there’s no travel fees or staying in hotels, we have access to behind-the-scenes information we never had before,” she said. “Ultimately, there’s been a lot of bad about the pandemic, but the silver lining is that some people have started to understand there are a lot of issues to address — and cultural spaces are a way to do that with care and be inspired.
“They’re recuperative places and more important than ever before.”