By Michelle Trauring
It is clear Andrea Grover is young—but just how young, she will not say.
After all, age is nothing more than a number. It has no bearing on her ambition, her drive, her creativity, or her meticulous nature. It has not dimmed her fierce passion for the art world and, most importantly, for the artists themselves.
She believes they are seers. The key to the future. They are her inspiration. They have acted as a longtime—and often undervalued—glue in the community around her. And as the newest executive director of Guild Hall, she is bringing them to the forefront in a way the 85-year-old museum, theater and educational center has never seen.
On September 1, Ms. Grover officially stepped down from her position as curator of special projects at the Parrish Art Museum in Water Mill and into shoes previously filled by Ruth Appelhof, who led the storied East Hampton institution for the last 16 years.
“I knew I wanted to be in a leadership role. It’s who I am,” Ms. Grover said during a recent telephone interview from her office. “I started a non-profit when I was 27 and, wherever I’ve been, I’ve found myself organizing and creating community and agendas and strategies. This move wasn’t out of left field at all. It was work that I was doing—that I was made to do.”
Destined From The Start
To put it gently, Andrea Grover was a “hyperactive” child, she said. Never one to sit still, she was constantly on the move as a girl growing up in Freeport.
“My mother used to like to say that, because of my energy level, if I were her first, I would have been her last,” she said. “I was the last of five children. When you come from a big family, I think you tend to want to have a lot of people around all the time. There’s always a party, and you feed off of that energy.”
She thrived under the watchful eyes of her parents—her father a shipbuilder, her mother an artist—and often found herself splitting her time between clamming, foraging and sailing, and getting her hands dirty in her home’s art room.
“My parents were, themselves, very unusual. It was this marriage of my dad’s maritime sensibilities and survivalist attitude about being in the world, and my mom, whose creativity just spilled out of her in everything she did,” Ms. Grover explained. “We had crazy Halloween parties where she’d make haunted houses that had string cheese and grapes that you had to crawl through. And for Christmas, she made these gingerbread houses that were big enough for you to go inside of.
“There was this confluence of this love of sea and the great outdoors—testing your inner compass—coupled with this frenetic, creative energy that was my mom,” she continued. “This is always who I was.”
As such, when she arrived on the scene at Syracuse University as an English major, it quickly became apparent that it wasn’t the right fit, she said.
“I just knew immediately, when I saw the art students, that they were my people,” Ms. Grover said. “I changed majors my first month. I saw the artist community and said, ‘I don’t want to be anywhere else.’ I really feel like there’s so much substance when you’re among artists.”
A New Home
On any given morning, Guild Hall is downright buzzing with the personalities that make Ms. Grover tick. The sheer volume and variety of programming—and the flurry of activity that comes with it—has been a bit of an adjustment, she admitted.
But it’s nothing she, nor her strong female predecessors, couldn’t handle.
“Enez Whipple, who was a famous director of Guild Hall, was here for over 30 years,” Ms. Grover said. “So by my math, she must have started in her thirties. That’s pretty incredible.”
She also finds common ground with her mentor, Olga Viso, who made waves after working her way up to the helm of the Hirshhorn Museum and Sculpture Garden in Washington, before appointed director of the Walker Arts Center in Minneapolis at age 41—where Ms. Grover was a Center for Curatorial Leadership fellow.
Since then, Ms. Grover has accepted several fellowships, served as an advisor for arts foundations such as the Andy Warhol Foundation for Visual Arts and the Pew Center for Arts and Heritage, and founded Houston’s Aurora Picture Show, a non-profit cinema specializing in multi-disciplinary performances and screenings.
That sensibility was echoed in her time at the Parrish, where she spearheaded countless contemporary art initiatives—including the “Parrish Road Show” and “Platform” series, as well as PechaKucha Nights. Her exit from the Water Mill museum was on a high note with her tour de force “Radical Seafaring,” a confluence between art and environment that won her the Emily Hall Tremaine Exhibition Award.
“I was at the Parrish for five and a half years, and by millennial standards—not that I’m a millennial, but I think like one—that’s a long time,” she said. “[Director] Terri Sultan knew I had aspirations to be a director, so my resignation was very smooth.”
Looking forward to 2017, Ms. Grover said she will work to preserve Guild Hall’s legacy as a community hall, while infusing it with a fresh voice—though not necessarily her own.
“What I’m doing here, my values as an arts professional have not changed at all,” she said. “When I started Aurora Picture Show in Houston in 1998, and we would present artists that two or three years later became Guggenheim fellows or were in the Whitney Biennial or had other awards and accolades, all I’d done as a curator and artist professional is really listen to the artist, letting the artist lead the way as much as possible—loosening the institutional reins and letting them direct us because I truly believe in artists.
“I believe they are seers,” she continued. “They see things in the environment that aren’t apparent to the rest of us, and can therefore see what’s around the bend, culturally.”
That mandate is infused in all Guild Hall will do from this point forward, she said, particularly in its new initiatives to give artists more support; inject age, gender, ethnic and geographic diversity into all programming; and to make space for the next generation.
This will include bolstering the JDT Lab and Artists in Residence programming, and fostering a love of art in high school students by starting a Teen Arts Council—modeled after the Walker Arts Center’s pioneering concept, Ms. Grover said—while simultaneously battling youth flight on the East End.
“I feel like artists can change the world,” she said. “To not give them the opportunity and the agency to show us things is a real loss.”
A Close Eye On The Future
It is vital that Ms. Grover’s vision is not limited to just Guild Hall, she said. It needs to be a county-, if not island-wide, effort to work toward an established region for arts and culture.
“It’s hard to convey to people the density of creative talent out here,” she said. “The narrative about the Hamptons is so overshadowed by it being a wealthy resort community. Why don’t we have the reputation as an arts community, like the Berkshires? There’s no reason we shouldn’t, so we just need to do a better job of getting the word out.”
Earlier this month, representatives from a wide swath of East End institutions met for drinks during happy hour at Baron’s Cove in Sag Harbor—first to blow off some steam, and then to talk business. The clear catalyst was Donald Trump clinching the presidential win, she said, but this partnership was a long time coming.
“Terrie and I talked about it the day I resigned from the Parrish,” she said. “This was a new day for the relationship between Guild Hall and the Parrish. I’ve known Terrie, we’ve been friends for 15-plus years. It just made sense. We thought, ‘Wouldn’t it be powerful if we all got together for peer support and to think about ways that we can be better through some kind of union?’”
The first meeting saw familiar faces from the Hamptons International Film Festival, LongHouse Reserve, Watermill Center and the Shinnecock Museum to the Pollock-Krasner House & Study Center, Madoo Conservancy, Eastville Historical Society and the Westhampton Beach Performing Arts Center—among others, she said, with more to come.
The next meeting will be in January, Ms. Grover said, and until then, it’s business as usual at Guild Hall, where there are no typical days. The only constants in her life are her husband, Carlos Lama, and their two daughters, Gigi and Lola, when she comes home to Noyac.
And she likes it that way.
“I just feel like I fell into this incredible environment. I am doing really well,” she breathed out—her smile nearly palpable through the phone. “I am so happy.”