‘It’s like we are a 125-year-old startup,” mused Mónica Ramírez-Montagut, the recently appointed executive director of the Parrish Art Museum. The third person at its helm in as many years, the veteran arts leader is charged with maintaining the institution as a longtime beacon of Long Island’s East End — and our nation’s — cultural landscape while navigating the unique topography of the present moment.
“It’s been a double whammy,” said Ramírez-Montagut, who was also recently tapped by President Joe Biden for the advisory board of the Institute of National Museum and Library Services.
Her Parrish appointment, she noted, has coincided with both a significant lack of resources brought about by the COVID-19 pandemic and critical changes in the museum’s senior staff and trustees. Four deputy directors have recently been appointed, along with seven new members to the board of trustees. All this while the institution is preparing to celebrate a milestone anniversary of its opening to the public in 1898 as a single exhibition hall in Southampton Village showcasing lawyer Samuel Longstreth Parrish’s rapidly expanding art collection.
Ramírez-Montagut’s arrival also coincides with the 10-year anniversary of the museum’s barn-style, light-filled structure, designed by Swiss architects Herzog & de Meuron and dramatically sited on 14 grassy acres in the hamlet of Water Mill. Over the years, the expansion of the Parrish’s permanent collection — notably with works by William Merritt Chase, Fairfield Porter and a host of American art stars from the past two centuries, particularly those working in the region — prompted the museum’s move from Southampton to the purpose-built facility.
The celebration of the Parrish’s state-of-the-art digs is a fitting welcome for its new director. Born in Mexico City, Ramírez-Montagut, 52, began her journey in the art world studying the practice and theory of architecture as an undergraduate at La Universidad Iberoamericana in her hometown and then earning her master’s and doctoral degrees in the discipline from the Universitat Politècnica de Catalunya, Barcelona.
In a family of engineers and physicians, Ramírez-Montagut’s decision to pursue the arts made her an outlier, though, she said, the exposure her parents provided her had been significant. “They were life learners, and I grew up going to Mexico City’s 140-plus museums. But when I told my father I wanted to study art history, he suggested I consider architecture as a profession so I could be creative and my own boss.”
Ramírez-Montagut’s training in the field has served her well. “It straddles two worlds — project management and understanding the social fabric of the community, the continuum of the history of art,” she explained. “How do we now activate the museum at this 125-year-anniversary juncture, while anchoring it in the past and ensuring its relevance in the future? It is the way an architect is trained, to see the big picture.”
Not unlike the Parrish itself, the trajectory of Ramírez-Montagut’s career has involved catering to both local and far-flung artists and audiences. The curator and museum director has held positions at Manhattan’s Solomon R. Guggenheim Museum and Connecticut’s Aldrich Contemporary Art Museum, as well as at, among others, California’s San Jose Museum of Art and, most recently, Michigan State University’s Broad Art Museum.
In many ways, Ramírez-Montagut has come full circle. Landing her first curatorial role at Price Tower Arts Center, in Bartlesville, Oklahoma, Frank Lloyd Wright’s only realized skyscraper, she finds herself once again a steward of an architecturally relevant building. “I’ve always been interested in why these envelopes need so much character to display art, in why they are so striking,” said the director, who co-curated the celebrated 2006 retrospective of Iraqi-British architect Zaha Hadid at the Guggenheim.
“You can’t miss the purposeful direction and accomplishments of Mónica’s career. Her CV doesn’t lie,” said Alexandra Stanton, co-chair of the Parrish’s board of trustees, where she has served since 2008.
‘Importance of diversity’
The organizer of a traveling exhibition inspired by the stories of incarcerated women in Louisiana and the creator of a bilingual coloring book about Frank Lloyd Wright, Ramírez-Montagut is committed to reaching and reflecting diverse populations. “I want to make sure the Parrish is not only relevant to seasonal residents, but equally to the surrounding yearlong communities.”
To that end, Ramírez-Montagut is scheduling one exhibition annually that will have a strong social justice component. “Once a year, we can all learn about each other,” she explained, “about issues that impact our area and how they are being, or not being, addressed.
“I think it is very important to leverage the power of the arts.”
Such initiatives, no doubt, are what prompted Ramírez-Montagut’s appointment to a federal arts agency. Crosby Kemper, director of the Institute of National Museum and Library Services, noted in a statement that its new board members “represent the importance of diversity in the humanities and demonstrate the valuable role of museums and libraries in American society.”
Knowing that social justice projects require considerable field research, Ramírez-Montagut has already scheduled them four years out, with a lineup of hot-button topics ranging from mass incarceration (a collaboration with the county prison in Riverhead) to food insecurity (despite eastern Long Island’s robust farming and fishing industries) to affordable housing and ableism.
This month, “Kahlo: An Expanded Body,” a show examining the impact of the body on the iconic Mexican artist Frida Kahlo’s art and art-making, will speak to the talents and challenges of people with disabilities. Comprising some 100 objects — including archival photographs, personal letters and medical records provided by the painter’s grandniece — the exhibition also features an interactive installation designed for the museum’s youngest visitors.
Kahlo, who had to stay in bed for months at age 6 because of polio and again at 18 after a bus accident, explored her periods of confinement in her 1940 canvas “The Dream (the Bed).” Next to a reproduction of the painting and a full-scale, real-life bed will be a table with postcards and art supplies available for kids to fill out and send to children in hospitals and care facilities. “When she shared this with the board, many of us teared up,” noted Stanton.
“When I did a similar Frida Kahlo show in Michigan, we spoke with HIVES collective [behives.org], which works at the intersection of disability, race and performance. They suggested we encourage visitors to understand that everyone can be creative and their full selves under any circumstance, including bedridden Frida who shaped the history of art of the 20th century while recovering from 32 surgeries,” explained Ramírez-Montagut. “We want to convey that self-expression and creativity can be found anywhere and share Frida’s particular way of creating her art and doing self-portraits by using a mirror on the awning of her bed.”
According to Ramírez-Montagut, the majority of the students in four of the five school districts that have partnerships with the Parrish are Hispanic. “We want to design exhibitions that target and serve our year-round communities, as we are doing with the Kahlo show for Latino youth this month, where they can see their own culture or something similar,” she said. “For many of them, visits to this museum may be their most relevant art experience.”
“It is fully bilingual,” Stanton said of the Kahlo exhibition. “We should have done this before, but I’m thrilled that we are doing it now.”
East End artists
For the museum’s 125th anniversary celebration, Ramírez-Montagut has trained her lens on another prominent population of Long Island’s East End. “Historically, artists have chosen to settle and have studios here,” she noted. “It is interesting that what is happening here today is the same as what was happening here 125 years ago.”
She has invited some 50 prominent artists with deep roots in the area to juxtapose their own work with those they select from the Parrish’s 3,500-piece permanent collection in a two-part exhibition that will take over the museum next summer and fall.
Working in different genres and being of different ethnicities and generations, participants range from Alice Aycock to Claude Lawrence, Sean Scully to Eddie Martinez. “It will be a grounded and meaningful dialogue with stakeholders in this region,” Ramírez-Montagut said. “They are the creative leaders in the field, the experts in finding fresh ways to see the works and activate their vibrancy.”
A well-timed event for one of the many institutions looking to its own collection for exhibition material as a cost-saving measure post-pandemic, the museum’s anniversary celebration is also an opportune moment for its new director.
“I am so lucky and privileged to have this chance to get to know our collection in-depth,” Ramírez-Montagut noted, “and, of course, to meet all of these artists.”
“It is always a balance,” she added. “Artists’ name recognition might get people in their cars to come here, but I also want to surprise the visitor with something new and unexpected.”
Visit the Parrish
The Parrish Art Museum is at 279 Montauk Hwy., Water Mill. Visit parrishart.org for details.