Sara Cochran Named Executive Director of The Church in Sag Harbor

Sara Cochran, the new Executive Director and Chief Curator of The Church, photographed inside the Church on Thursday, January 16. Michael Heller photo

The Church — an incubator for the arts in the former Sag Harbor United Methodist Church building on Madison Street — now has an executive director and chief curator in Dr. Sara Cochran.

Dr. Cochran’s appointment was announced Friday morning by Church co-founders, the artists Eric Fischl and April Gornik, and the nonprofits board of directors. Dr. Corchran will lead the institution and work with Mr. Fischl and Ms. Gornik to open the space, expand its board of directors, build staff and build community relationships and support for The Church as it grows in its mission — a mission not only dedicated to the arts but to supporting the diverse communities found on the South Fork.

“Sara is an exceptional and professional curator and director who has had a transformative, enriching effect on all the institutions she’s led” said Mr. Fischl in the release, “and we are tremendously lucky to have her join us in Sag Harbor.”

Ms. Gornik added, “In her curatorial practice, she has also brought communities whose voices had not been heard to the fore. She is much more than a maker of exhibitions and understands our intent for The Church.”

“I am extremely excited about the opportunity to work with Eric, April and the Board to shape this ambitious organization at the crucial time of its founding,” Dr. Cochran said. “Since its beginning in the 18th century, Sag Harbor has had a unique global focus. It has had an extraordinary tradition of creativity and innovation, from whaling to watch making, as well as in the visual arts, writing and music. I look forward to defining The Church’s programs and building partnerships in the area and across the nation as we work to create a space for artists and community in this rich historic place and cultural environment.”

Conceived to house an artist residency, exhibition space and creativity center for the East End, The Church will be homes to a full slate of presentations, collaborations with other cultural institutions, educational programming and outreach events. Mr. Fischl and Ms. Gornik hope to pay homage to Sag Harbor’s history as a “maker” village, aiming to foster creativity but also champion new and traditional technologies in contemporary art and craft, according to a press release issued by the North Haven couple.

Dr. Cochran, who began in her new position January 1 and is living in Sag Harbor, was most recently the co-curator of artist Gregory Sale’s year-long project, “Future IDs” on Alcatraz Island in San Francisco Bay. The multi-year, social art project was aimed at “reframing the narrative of re-entry” through art/future planning workshops, exhibitions and public programing through California, according to Mr. Sale’s website, with a central idea of having citizens returning to society from incarceration create new identity cards for their future selves, outlining dreams rooting in career, family and community.

Prior to that, Dr. Cochran was the director and chief curator of the Scottsdale Museum of Contemporary Art where she previously served as interim director and associate director after five years as curator of the Phoenix Art Museum.

During her tenure at SMCA, she curated eight exhibitions, including major projects with Betye Saar (2016) and Postcommodity (2015). She also organized a diverse series of programs including discussions with Founding Guerrilla Girl Kathe Kollwitz, Robert Irwin, Tom Sachs, Henry Rollins, Megan Rapinoe, and Dan Savage among many others, as well as running innovative events such as national film premiers, stand-up comedy, a book club, maker events, an escape room and collaboration with the City of Scottsdale to celebrate diversity.

As Curator of Modern and Contemporary Art at the Phoenix Art Museum, Dr. Cochran organized 15 exhibitions including premiering and traveling Kehinde Wiley’s Memling Series in 2013. Under her leadership, the museum acquired over 200 works of art by artists such as Dan Graham, Sui Jianguo, Glenn Ligon, Maya Lin, Ruben Ochoa, Jennifer Steinkamp, Lawrence Weiner and Kehinde Wiley. Earlier in her career, she held curatorial positions at the Los Angeles County Museum of Art and Solomon R. Guggenheim Museum.

Dr. Cochran earned her Ph.D. in the History of Art from the Courtauld Institute of Art in London and has a Masters from Université de la Sorbonne, Paris IV. In 2015, she was participated in the Getty Leadership Institute at Claremont Graduate University.

While the concept of art as means towards social change or community expression may not have been what initially drew Dr. Cochran into the art world, it is work she found herself gravitating towards during her 10 years in Arizona, beginning with “Locals Only,” an exhibition of Chicano and Latino artists working in the metro-Phoenix area.

“When I arrived at the museum it was just about to turn 50 years old and in its history had done 100 exhibitions about Mexican art, but never a Chicano show, so that was the first show I put on,” she said in an interview on Tuesday. “I went out into the community with a relatively short time frame to do this — every community is very different and every community deserves the respect to be understood before one embarks on a major project like this — but it was very interesting to go out into that community that had not been seen. I felt like it was important to do that and I did a show that was a lot of fun and included three generations of Chicano artists.”

With a large military presence in Arizona — both Air Force and Army — in 2012 and 2013, spring-boarding off discussions about the Middle East and an ongoing war, Dr. Cochran and the Phoenix Art Museum collaborated with the Portland Museum of Art on “Ahmed Alsoudani: Redacted,” featuring the first museum exhibition of the Iraqi-born painter who fled Iraq in 1995 after defacing a mural of Saddam Hussein.

“I believe art and art institutions are places where community can think about big issues in different ways,” said Dr. Cochran. “What drew me to art, I think, was I think it is a wonderful optic to look at the world, at history and at geography.”

While, serendipitously, Dr. Cochran met Mr. Fischl and Ms. Gornik while working in a gallery in France as a young student — it was through Phoenix College, where Mr. Fischl is an alumnus and supports the Eric Fischl Gallery at Phoenix College, the Fischl Lecture Series and the Fischl Vanguard Awards, that Dr. Cochran was reintroduced to the artists.

“I was incredibly impressed by their desire to give back to their communities,” said Dr. Cochran. When the opportunity arose to work with Mr. Fischl and Ms. Gornik on The Church, Dr. Cochran said she was immediately interested.

“This is a remarkable community,” she said. “And it is a community in transition, which always makes for interesting art. This was an opportunity to come in on the ground floor, work with them and the community to build something together in an unbelievably beautiful space.”
Dr. Cochran has spent her first month meeting with different cultural institutions in the area and community leaders, and continues that work, hoping to also reach out to local government leaders, businesses and educational institutions to discover where collaboration makes sense.

“We want to look at how The Church can be an asset to the village and also to the region,” she said.

The building is currently under renovation under the direction of Lee Skolnick of Lee H. Skolnick Architecture + Design.