Opening Up Watermill Center to the World

“We don’t want the collection to stand alone as a static group of objects.”
Kelly Dennis, the Watermill Center’s public programs coordinator and residency administrator, demonstrated how the center’s library collection functions with its study collection of objects.

What’s clear from a visit to the Watermill Center and a conversation with its director, Elka Rifkin, is the unique and varied nature of its resources and an institutional commitment to making them available to a wider audience. 

To that end, the center’s library and collection are now open to the public every Tuesday afternoon on a drop-in basis, and the Library of Inspiration, or LOI, a new interactive digital tool, makes the center’s resources widely accessible. Ms. Rifkin’s goal is to expand the open hours.

“We don’t want the collection to stand alone as a static group of objects,” Ms. Rifkin said, referring to the 10,000 diverse objects from different cultures and historical periods. She emphasized that for Robert Wilson, the center’s founding artistic director, it was critical that the objects be used. “When people ask if we’re a museum, we say no. We’re lucky enough to house these incredible objects, so we use them.”

Similarly, the 8,000 titles in the center’s library span disciplines and cultures. Many of the books were purchased by Mr. Wilson for his work or because they engage in a dialogue with the center’s collection of objects. The volumes are arranged by category and include modern and contemporary art and architecture, decorative arts, design, fashion, furniture design, photography, music, theater, gardening, and fiction.

Much of the collection is housed in a large gallery that can be accessed directly from the library. “Many of the objects that we have were specifically picked by Bob because they influenced the work he has done,” said Ms. Rifkin. “And because he travels throughout the world, he also has collected books that show some of these objects where they were originally created.” Taken together, the books and objects are key ingredients of the center’s mission.

Even more recent than the opening of the library to the public is the launch of the Library of Inspiration, an initiative conceived by Mr. Wilson and implemented by the center’s former librarian, Deborah Verhoff, who developed it with a website design team from England. 

“The LOI is a research tool that gives our community access to images and information about Robert Wilson’s iconic works, Watermill Center artists, events, and programs, and the books and the objects in the center’s collection,” according to Kelly Dennis, the public programs coordinator and residency administrator. 

The home page is divided into categories, among them the library, Mr. Wilson’s productions, the center’s collection, resident artists’ works, and project books. While developing each new production at the center, Mr. Wilson collects everything from the libretto to the text to imagery that influences the work. All of it gets compiled into a project book, a hard copy he takes with him to wherever he’s producing the work. The website includes his project books for “Einstein on the Beach” and “the CIVIL wars,” among others. 

Users of the LOI can create their own project books, online folders into which they can pull material from throughout the site. And there is plenty to pull from. Searching “chair,” for example, will bring up chairs in the collection, books about chairs, and performance pieces for which Mr. Wilson created chairs. One example is Goro’s Tabouret, a chair Mr. Wilson made from stone, galvanized aluminum or brass, and hammered steel for his 1993 Paris Opera production of “Madame Butterfly.”

Mr. Wilson produced and appeared in two of Samuel Beckett’s plays, “Krapp’s Last Tape” and “Happy Days.” A search for Beckett brings up not only images from both productions but also the library’s holdings of works by and about Beckett, and where in the library to find them.

The LOI opens the Watermill Center to the world. “Now people in other places can have access to this information without having to come all the way to Water Mill to do the research,” said Ms. Rifkin. As an example, she searched for Paul Thek, an influential artist who died of AIDS in 1988 and was the subject of a highly praised retrospective at the Whitney Museum of American Art in 2010.

Because Mr. Wilson was the executor of Thek’s estate, the center has a large collection of his work. The search turned up 72 links to productions on which Mr. Wilson and Thek collaborated, objects in the center’s collection, books by and about Thek, even a Paul Thek project book.

Last year the center inaugurated the Hayground Residency, which brings students from the Hayground School in Bridgehampton to the center for three days a week during January. For this year’s program, students will study the collection, select objects they want to know more about, do research in the library and on the LOI, and eventually create monologues that will give life to the object and be performed at the center.

“One of the things I’ve tried to do since I got back here in April 2016 is have as many of our employees as possible be embedded in the community,” Ms. Rifkin said. “This place has had a reputation of being elitist on some level, but it really isn’t. It’s really a place that’s available to artists from all over the world.” 

Recent East End artists have included Jeremy Dennis, Mary Ellen Bartley, and Shane Weeks, and this year’s crop includes Saskia Friedrich and Bastienne Schmidt.

A sampling including chairs and artifacts from around the world and different time periods.
Elka Rifkin, top, the Watermill Center director, examined one of the objects in the collection. The library includes both the objects and books kept on site.