Parrish Art Museum Moment: What’s In A Name?

Written By: Anthony Damian

Dan’s Papers Story (final draft 7/21/14) PARRISH ART MUSEUM MOMENT: WHAT’S IN A NAME? By: Anthony Damian After a 37 year career as a Probation Officer (so rudely interrupted by two years as a draftee in the Army during the Vietnam War) I retired to a much quieter and safer lifestyle. After a while I got bored and decided to look for a part-time job; one that would not involve danger, crime, rehabilitation, redemption or re-offending criminals. I needed a sabbatical from all that. At the urging of several of my law enforcement pals I obtained a security guard license with the promise of working the Hampton’s party circuit. This would involve providing personal security and protecting the property of the rich and famous at public and private events. The pay would be very good and there would be the added bonus of rubbing elbows with celebrities. Sounded great. Fun even! But I soon learned this was not a regular gig and that I was required to be “on call” and available to report with sometimes only several hours notice. I decided this wasn’t for me and sought other security positions. In the Fall of 2011 I received a call from a former colleague who was recently appointed Chief of Security at the Parrish Art Museum asking me if I would be interested in working there as a security guard. He explained that the museum was moving from Southampton to their new facility in Water Mill and I would be part of the new security team. Since as a museum lover I had been spending more time looking at art than looking for a job I said to him, probably a bit too enthusiastically “Of course I’ll take the job! “ Now I get to go to a museum and get paid for it? How cool is that! I soon started and found myself working with and becoming a part of the entire museum team. They are some of the most passionate and interesting people I have ever met and they were devoted to the museum and excited about the move. I felt truly blessed to be part of this migration to Water Mill. One day while I was guarding a door during the first transfer of art from Southampton to the new facility, Museum Director Terrie Sultan said to me, “do you realize how lucky you are?”. Assuming she was reminding me how fortunate I was to be working in her museum I replied that I was grateful for the job. She laughed and said that is not what she meant. She was referring to the fact that at that moment she and I were observing (after years of planning and construction) the first piece of art being moved into the new museum. One afternoon after the museum opened for the public, I was guarding gallery 1 when I observed a woman studying, too closely, a painting called Polish Landscape 2 by the artist Donald Sultan (brother of Terrie Sultan). I was, myself, mesmerized by this large, dark and soulful painting of the Auschwitz death camp. I noticed that she seemed upset and I was, from a distance across the gallery, somewhat concerned about her demeanor. Was she having an emotional response to the art? Too young to be a death camp survivor, does she have a connection to someone who had been imprisoned there? Or, was something bad going down here. While this work was too large to steal, art also needs to be protected from vandalism by some crazy person with a wide tip Sharpie who they can improve on an artist’s work or intends on damaging what he or she considers a politically controversial work of art. With my finger on the “talk” button of my 2-way radio in case I needed to alert the security control room, I approached her and casually asked if everything was o.k. In a heavy European accent she said she was originally from Poland and was angry at the name of the painting because it reflected unfairly on the Polish people. Further, she said she wants the artist to change the name. I said that since Auschwitz is in Poland the title was accurate but that I thought I understood her complaint; was she upset that Auschwitz is often mischaracterized as a “Polish” death camp when, in fact, it was a German (Nazi) camp on Polish soil and that in addition to Jews, many non-Jewish Polish political prisoners suffered or were also murdered there? She said yes and seemed surprised that I would know that. Of course she had no way of knowing that I, although not Jewish, have many Jewish friends and that I had recently been on a tour of Israel led by a Rabbi friend. In fact, while at Yad Vashem, the holocaust museum in Jerusalem I learned about this Polish issue. Frustrated, but I think appreciative of my insight and knowledge, she left the gallery. Thirty minutes later a woman of about 25 years old entered the gallery and approached me. She too had a heavy European accent. She said she had recently arrived in the United States on a grant to study art at a studio in Bridgehampton and asked if I would introduce her to the museum director. I explained to her that I was “just a guard” and had no authority to summon the director who, you can imagine, has a busy schedule. As an aside, Terrie Sultan is often in the galleries and is very approachable and interested in both guests and employees. If she were around that day I certainly would have pointed her out to the young artist. Instead, I suggested she pick up a brochure at the visitor’s desk for information on Ms. Sultan’s email and phone number and contact her for an appointment. We talked for a while and I asked her where she was from and she said she was from Poland. Poland? I just couldn’t resist and asked her to take a look at Polish Landscape 2 and tell what she thought of it. She was very moved by the intensity and meaning of the painting. I then asked her if she had a problem with the title. She said no and wondered why I asked. I explained the issue the other Polish visitor had and the young artist asked me how old she was. I said middle aged, maybe 50. She replied that she understood why the woman was upset but suggested it was a generational thing and that younger Poles are not as sensitive to those issues. She then asked me if the other woman was still in the museum. I didn’t know but took a quick look down the hall, saw her and pointed her out. One hour later the young artist returns to my gallery. She is very emotional and tearful as she approaches me. She tells me she spent the last hour with the older Polish woman and that they are now friends and will be getting together again soon. She said not knowing anyone in America she was lonely and now, because of me, she has a new friend that she can speak to in Polish. She continued to express her gratitude to me when finally I said to her that while I was pleased to be a part of this introduction, she really should be thanking the artist for calling his work Polish Landscape 2; had he named it anything else none of this would have happened today! .