This is the fourth installment of our ongoing conversation with curators, artists, gallery directors and others about the issues involved in judging shows like those sponsored by the Greenwich Art Society. The society is deeply grateful to the individuals who provide this difficult and challenging service to us.
This month, we speak with Helen Klisser During, Gallery Director at the Silvermine Guild Arts Center in New Canaan, CT. (Silvermine Guild Arts Center, 1037 Silvermine Road, New Canaan, CT 06840. www.silvermineart.org). Helen will be judging our summer juried exhibition, “Hot Hot Hot!” at the Flinn Gallery in the Greenwich Public Library. As with previous conversations with judges of our shows, this one will be in two parts: this first before the judging and the second, after. The point of these conversations is to shed light on the process involved in judging art works for an exhibition and to promote understanding about the difficulties, joys and inherent problems experienced by the individuals doing the judging.
Helen Klisser During
standing in front of a Roz Chast
wall drawing at the Silvermine Gallery.
Shauna: Welcome, Helen! And thank you for taking the time to speak with us. I’d like to spend our time today getting to know a little about you. Although I know that many Greenwich Art Society members already know you, I have yet to have the pleasure of meeting you and, from what little I know about you, it’s clear you are a fascinating person. I do know that you are a Kiwi of Dutch ancestry; your father survived the Holocaust in Holland; you have a background in business as well as art and that you have judged and curated many, many exhibitions. I guess a good place to start is art in New Zealand.
Helen: New Zealand is a very isolated place. This has good and not-so-good aspects. The good part is that New Zealand has produced many excellent artists whose work is avidly collected by a great many New Zealanders. Everybody buys the art of local artists and you see a lot of original art on the walls wherever you look. This is something that I don’t see here in the United States. The not-so-good aspect is that New Zealand does not have a major museum with an extensive collection such as, say the Metropolitan Museum of Art or the Louvre.
Shauna: Although I have observed that the need for art in a young person springs unbidden from the soul, regardless of what is in the immediate environment, I know it is often difficult for a young person to find their way into it. How did it happen to you?
Helen: I was very lucky. Both of my parents were Dutch, living in New Zealand. At first, they had no money but through hard work, integrity and luck, their small bakery of whole grain, naturally fermented breads flourished and became, ultimately, a major chain. As soon as they could afford to, they took my siblings (4 brothers and sisters; I am the eldest) and me back to Europe to visit my grandmother. Every time we went we visited the major museums in Holland and saw all the Rembrandts and Vermeers and great masters. It was an amazing opening of my eyes and awakened a love affaire with art that has formed much of my life.
Shauna: So, then what happened?
Helen: Well, I went to college at Auckland University and majored in Art History and English Literature. I was hoping to do an MFA, maybe in film. But, I was also working at the bakery, as I had my whole life, now in marketing, which I really enjoyed. I decided to take a 4-month marketing program at Auckland University, which led me into working on an MBA.
Shauna: It sounds like the family business was central to your life.
Helen: Absolutely. It started as a home cookery and, as I said before, we made whole grain, naturally fermented breads. The style of bread was something new in New Zealand at the time. Europeans are used to, and demand, excellent bread in the artisan style. As with the United States, New Zealand didn’t know they wanted it until they tasted it.
Shauna: How did your family come to New Zealand?
Helen: During the Holocaust in Holland, my grandparents arranged for my father, then aged twelve, to be hidden with neighbors while they hid elsewhere. This was necessary, as too many hidden in one house would undoubtedly end in the deaths of all. My father was the only member of the family to survive. His parents and brother were discovered and sent to the gas chambers at Auschwitz. After the war, my father joined the Dutch army and went to Indonesia for three years and ultimately ended up in New Zealand. Obviously his education stopped when he went into hiding and he needed to find something to do to support himself. He began by delivering bread. He did innovative things like commission a sculptor to make a loaf of bread to put on the top of the delivery truck so it would be instantly recognizable. He met my mother who was visiting from Holland. They married and created the bakery.
My father became a well-known entrepreneur and ultimately, Klisser’s Farmhouse Bakeries captured 30% of the New Zealand market. It was very successful to say the least. The reason for its success lies with my parents. Everything they did was with an eye toward the highest possible quality. Their integrity was unassailable and they always delivered as much or more than they promised. My father was even recognized with a major award from the Queen. They were, and are, incredible role models for me. I grew up with the mantra: “If you think you can, you can. If you think you can’t, you’re right.”
Shauna: So, it sounds like you inherited this integrity and developed a passion for the family business that produced a finely made and aesthetically pleasing product. I am wondering what on earth was the bridge between then and now.
Helen: Well, it’s a complicated story. My former husband received a fellowship at Massachusetts Institute of Technology when we were newlyweds, so off we went to Boston. I approached Pepperidge Farm for a job but the only thing available in the Boston area (their corporate headquarters are in Connecticut) was a position in sales. Dick Shea (President of Pepperidge Farm) who was interviewing me remarked that he couldn’t see me in a position that would have me dropping by Stop and Shop stores at 5 A.M. every morning but I begged him for the job and he gave it to me. Six months later they needed a national brand manager at corporate headquarters, offered me the job and arranged a position at Yale for my husband. I jumped at the chance.
Life went on and I loved working at Pepperidge Farm. I was pregnant with my second child when my parents called to say that they had sold the bakery in New Zealand.
Shauna: This must have been a difficult time for you.
Helen: Yes, very. I didn’t want to continue on in middle management without the possibility of running the family business and knew I had to create a new life.
Shauna: Enter art, stage left.
Helen: Indeed. There I was, 9 months pregnant with my son, Max, sitting in the doctor’s office wearing a borrowed Laura Ashley maternity dress. You need to understand that Laura Ashley is definitively not my style and I was hoping not to be noticed by anyone! But, there was another woman there who was also waiting for the doctor who struck up a conversation. She asked me “what did I do” when she really meant, “when was I due”. One thing led to another and it came out that she worked in fine art printing, a family-owned business called Tyler Graphics, which her father had founded. Having much in common, we became great friends and I began brokering their prints. I especially loved that I could bring collectors in to meet the artists.
Shauna: It seems that you did something with every interesting contact that came your way.
Helen: Yes. And I am deeply indebted to Knight Landesman, publisher of ArtForum, who I met during this time. He had been to New Zealand and went out of his way to include me in many dinners in New York hosting New Zealand and Australian artists and curators when they came to the United States. This was my entrée into the art world in New York and Mr. Landesman was the catalyst.
Shauna: It sounds like an opportunity to meet a great many people.
Helen: Yes, and I discovered that what I am, the kind of person that I am, is a connector.
Shauna: I admire that quality as I, and most of my artistic friends are rather hermetic.
Helen: Ah, that is because you are a creator! My canvas is the connecting of the dots, which I am able to do because the worlds of artists, collectors, museums and galleries are all connected. My dual passions are entrepreneurialism and art. I enjoy shooting high and the contacts I have made through being a private art advisor has made it possible for me to show the work of many wonderful creators.
Shauna: Tell me about your “taste” in art.
Helen: That’s a hard question to answer, as there is little to nothing that I don’t enjoy viewing. Although my taste is toward the contemporary, it changes and develops, goes through phases and allows for experimentation. What I always look for is something that is fresh and original; where it is clear that the artist has pushed something to the limit. This full commitment of the artist catches my eye and speaks.
Shauna: You have judged a great many shows and so I assume you enjoy it. What do you like about it?
Helen: I like getting to know more artists. It is a treat and an act of discovery to be exposed to their work. I am forever astonished at the level of passion and commitment that artists on every level bring to what they do. I try to construct my own narrative about the art I see in an effort to understand it and interact with it. If there are other jurors, I especially enjoy indulging in this process together.
Shauna: I get the feeling that you are very collaborative.
Helen: Yes, very much so and I love the idea of site-specific work. I advise the owner of a private sculpture park in Auckland. All the sculptures are commissions for specific sites on the property. I was very involved with the Richard Serra Project: introduced the collector to Richard Serra and arranged for the studio visit, etc. It is Serra's largest work worldwide: two and a half football fields long and twenty feet high. It is stunning. I enjoy being a part of that creative process.
Shauna: Your position at Silvermine is tailor made for you!
Helen: Silvermine has been amazing in that they have allowed me to experiment, take risks and learn as I go. I enjoy pushing things to their limits and enjoy art that does the same. I try to highlight the great wealth of art that is right here in the area as well as to create a dialogue between this area and New York by inviting major name artists to exhibit at Silvermine. It’s good to look further than your own back yard. These major shows endorse the center and help collectors to discover Silvermine artists. I am a connector and I think it is vitally important that we create avenues through which we can all feel our deep connection.
Shauna: Amen! We look forward to having you judge our summer show and hearing how you approached that process. Just one question before we go. What did your parents do after they sold the bakery?
Helen: (laughs) They bought a sheep station! A 36,000-acre ranch, which had gone into receivership. It was one of the leading merino wool stations. Of course, they knew nothing about raising sheep so they flanked themselves with experts. (ALWAYS get an expert to help when you don’t know something!) They got the message out that they intended to only invest in the top livestock, which they did. They used their integrity, high standards of quality and business savvy to turn the farm around. Now, 15 years later, they have a great business going and recently received an environmental award for their efforts. My father just turned eighty and is still going strong.
Shauna: Happy Birthday, Mr. Klisser and congratulations on your many successes, including your most interesting daughter.