Arts Leader


Tom Dunn

Grab your coffee and hop in the Prius with Tom Dunn, Executive Director of the Southampton Arts Center! From the morning commute to evening ping pong matches with notable East End artists, join Tom for a day in the life of this Hamptons institution.

AIRED: February 16, 2021 | 0:08:17



[ Indistinct conversations ]






We're in my kitchen. We're in Huntington, New York,

and I am about to head out to Southampton

for the day for a typical day at work.


Got the Prius because we drive 60 miles

every day each way.

We're off. I did see the check engine light.

I'm sure it's nothing.

I was born in Levittown,

ended up an English major at Fordham University in the Bronx.

And then a real consequence for me professionally,

I got a temp job at Lincoln Center

for the Performing Arts in their press office.

I was at Lincoln Center for 16 years.

I was the founding director of the David Rubenstein Atrium.

And then finally, I was in

an operations role at Lincoln Center.

In early 2018, my wife and I

loaded the kids into the car

and we drove out east for a day.

There's a little traffic here. This is a total surprise.

And that very night, I saw the job listing

for the executive director post at Southampton Arts Center

and I, you know, instantly knew

that this was the right next move for me.



Good morning.

Amy, how are you? Oh, sorry, you're on the phone.

This is the office.

Best part of the office is that I have a view

down into the gallery below,

which just couldn't be more beautiful.

Man: What's in the attic?

Or do you not talk about what's in the attic?

I'm afraid I'm not at liberty to discuss what's in the attic.

So this is the entirety of our administrative staff here.

We've got Amy Kirwin, our artistic director,

got Godfrey Palaia,

our director of production and venue operations.

But as you can see, it's pretty small.

Alright, so why don't we do this meeting?

Kirwin: Okay.

So the meeting that we're about to have

is a calendar and operations meeting.

Saturday morning, we have a drum circle at 10:30,

which requires nothing of us.

I'll be here, but he brings drums

and they sit in a circle and it's really fun, actually.

Has anybody ever written to Jay Schneiderman,

the town supervisor? To tell him about them?

Because he's a drummer. He's a percussionist.

I will do so, 'cause I think it'd be a fun way to engage him.

I know he cares about that. Totally.

The physical location of Southampton Art Center

at 25 Jobs Lane

is literally at the crossroads at the center of this village.

In 2013, it was incorporated as the Southampton Arts Center.

Over the last four years, our programs and our audience,

our reach has quadrupled.

We're in the Hamptons,

which is world famous and utterly affluent,

but we're also a year-round residential community.

And a lot of our neighbors and members of our community

are underserved and underrepresented.

We endeavor to design a program and an experience

to make sure that everybody in this community knows

that this is an organization for them,

that they're welcome here.

Out on the west lawn, there's an open gate.

For many, many years, the fencing went straight across.

But when the founders organized, they felt it was important

to open up those gates symbolically,

to let everybody know that this was a place for everybody.

You know, this is my first ED role.

I knew this was the next place for me to go.

It brings together, you know, 20-plus years of work

as a creative and as an administrator

and as an operator at Lincoln Center.

You know, my time at the David Rubenstein Atrium

is directly influencing the good and important work

that we're doing here at SAC.

At the exhibition that we have

on view right now is called Takeover!

We've invited nine East End-based artists

to have pop-up studios

and to be in residence here at Southampton Arts Center.

The idea here is to sort of throw the doors wide open.

We're demystifying the process.

What goes into making works of art?

Part of the job of the executive director

is to represent the institution publicly.

And a lot of what I do is, you know,

getting out there and telling our story.

It's not enough to just send an e-mail

or to do an e-blast or to put a poster out.

We literally have to engage

and find people from the community

who care about the types and nature of shows

that we're presenting, literally pull them in by the hand.

So for the duration of Takeover!,

every Thursday night, we extend our hours

and we have what we're calling hangouts, right?

Which is in effect just an open house.

We bring in some additional talent.

Tonight we've got a singer/songwriter.

There's nothing exclusive about what we're doing here.

There's little or no barriers for entry, right?

So, you know, the idea of these hangouts are just squarely

in the sweet spot of what we're hoping to accomplish.

As I mentioned, there's only a handful of us here.

So what's nice about an organization this small

is that I literally have my hands in everything.

What we've got here is a ping-pong emergency.

The net broke moments before the hangout,

and Amy and Godfrey are doing emergency surgery

to make sure they make sure that ping-pong can happen tonight.

Otherwise, there will be angry mobs.


[ Indistinct conversations ]

Do you know about this altar behind this temp wall here?

Kirwin: It's an altar behind a temp wall.

That is an altar behind a temp wall,

of course, that we hang art on.

I think that my job, more than anything else,

is to support and realize the work

of my artistic collaborators, to ask and answer questions.

Is this the right project for SAC right now?

Is it on mission? Are we serving our constituencies?

Are we being mindful of who we want to attract

and bring into the institution?

It's my job to sort of help focus everybody and prioritize

on how we're going to continue to,

you know, professionalize and concretize the operations here.

Another hangout in the books.

Nice turnout tonight.

I think that's enough for the day.

And I am going to go home.

So I guess you would call that a typical day in the life

of an executive director of a small arts center,

if there is such a thing as a typical day.

It was great to have all the artists,

all of everybody here to participate

and to, you know, interact with members of our community.

I think it was a pretty special day.





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