Tom Dunn: Throwing the Doors Wide Open at the Arts Center

"So here I am."
Tom Dunn in front of the Southampton Arts Center, where Claude Lalanne’s sculpture of a cabbage with chicken feet welcomes visitors to the Peter Marino exhibition. Mark Segal

Just shy of six months into his tenure as executive director of the Southampton Arts Center, Tom Dunn led a visitor through its current exhibition of art from the collection of Peter Marino. Immediately upon entering the building, one encounters five of François-Xavier Lalanne’s bronze sheep positioned in front of an enormous photograph of Mr. Marino’s garden.

“The sheep are from Peter’s lawn, and they have been a fun way to involve the public,” said Mr. Dunn. “Kids jump on them and parents take their pictures.” The engaging installation is one of many ways the center actively invites the participation of the community. 

Its slate of free outdoor summer programs ranged from a season-opening concert by Winston Irie that drew almost 1,000 people, to a series of Steven Spielberg films presented with the Hamptons International Film Festival, to the Sunday afternoon Jazz on the Steps programs, to an avant-garde performance by the Dance Cartel. 

“The whole philosophy here is to throw the doors wide open,” said Mr. Dunn, whose previous experience prepared him well for a summer that included two major art exhibitions and more than 100 public programs, all produced by a team consisting of two full-time and three part-time employees.

“We have a very small, very professional staff,” he said, noting that soon after his arrival in April, Amy Kirwin was promoted from director of programs to artistic director. “I think that is one of the best decisions we’ve made here. Amy’s a real force, she’s doing great work.”

Born in Levittown, Mr. Dunn attended Fordham University in the Bronx, where he studied theater and English literature. “I was involved in theater for many years. After college, my friends and I came together in New York and realized pretty quickly that nobody was going to hire us as actors. Acting morphed into writing and directing.”

He and his friends would write eight or 10 sketches in the style of “Saturday Night Live” and put on shows in rented theaters and at comedy clubs. “Sketch in clubs is an interesting challenge, because you have people yelling out suggestions that are not necessarily welcomed.”

They formed a small company, the Empty Stage Theater, and achieved some success with “Who Killed Woody Allen?” — which Mr. Dunn directed and co-wrote. The play was a satire of celebrity culture, with Mr. Allen’s funeral staged as an awards show with a tuxedo-clad Billy Crystal, played by Christopher Wisner, as the host. 

The play ran for several years at the Triad Theater in Manhattan. Early during its run, Mr. Dunn was engaged as a temp in the Lincoln Center press office. “They had hired a new president, Reynold Levy, and they needed someone to answer his phone for a few days. I stayed with him for five years, and it was a fantastic experience. Ren became a real mentor and good friend.” 

After working as Mr. Levy’s assistant during the center’s $1.2 billion capital campaign, Mr. Dunn was named founding director of the David Rubenstein Atrium, a multipurpose performance space and visitors center that served all the resident organizations of Lincoln Center.

“We presented more than 100 performances every year, and everything we did was free. My time there really set me up for this experience in that I had my own board of directors and a $3 million operating budget. We were a midsize performing arts venue in one of the biggest performing arts centers in the world.”

After five years at the helm of the Atrium, he was named senior director of concert hall operations for all the venues and public spaces managed by Lincoln Center. He oversaw all the patron-facing groups: front of house, box offices, visitors services, food and beverage, even the garage, which he noted was an important source of revenue. “That experience was helpful in terms of the operational side of running a cultural nonprofit.”

After leaving Lincoln Center in 2017 he spent two months last fall in Saudi Arabia as a consultant for the launch of the King Abdulaziz Center for World Culture. When he returned to New York he began talking to several organizations about a new full-time assignment.

Mr. Dunn is no stranger to the East End. His in-laws live in Hampton Bays, and he and his wife, Blake, were married 18 years ago in East Quogue, held the reception in Westhampton Beach, and had post-reception drinks at the old Southampton Publick House. 

His children, Jack, 15, Finley, 13, and Grayson, 10, “grew up on Ponquogue Beach and in Agawam Park and at the children’s museum in Bridgehampton. We’ve been coming out here for years.” It was driving home after a visit to the Parrish Art Museum in January that he wondered why he wasn’t looking for a job on the East End. That same night he came across a listing for the position at the Southampton Arts Center.

He met with the center’s founding co-chairwomen, Simone Levinson and Whitney Stevens, then with other trustees and village officials, “and all of the conversations were more and more affirming that this was a great opportunity and the culmination of 20-plus years of creative, operational, and fund-raising work. So here I am.”

Mr. Dunn and his family live in Huntington. “My commute is shorter than it used to be going to the Upper West Side of Manhattan. I still have a fair amount of work to do on the center’s behalf in the city, and many of our trustees and programming partners are based there.”

While his professional plate is full with the position at the center, he still has the creative itch and is working with a writing partner on several projects. They recently created a series of short films for the Epix network that was an ode to film and family. “It was very autobiographical. We put our kids into the films, Judd Apatow-style.”

Looking ahead, he plans to use the off-season to codify and solidify the mission, vision, and values of the arts center. He also hopes to expand and diversify his board of directors. “Many on our board are founding directors, and they’re the most dedicated philanthropists and civic leaders you can imagine. But we can’t rely on those generous individuals in perpetuity.”

“What’s great about the cultural landscape here is that Guild Hall, the Parrish, Bay Street, and all of our peers are doing great things, and we’re not competing with one another. There’s so much to be experienced here, it’s a very culturally rich region.”