Down the Rabbit Hole

By Katie Sonnenborn


I can’t say exactly when or how Skowhegan secured itself in my mind as a principal force in the art world. Over many years studying art history and then working at Dia Art Foundation, I came to understand Skowhegan as a place where new art practices emerged, relationships were forged, and artists experienced something entirely unique and important that in turn had a profound impact on the trajectories of contemporary artmaking. I sensed that time spent at Skowhegan had an over-sized impact on those who attended, and—though I am not an artist—had an intuition that I wanted, and would find, a relationship to the School.

For those reasons and more, I was immediately intrigued when approached about the prospect of becoming one of Skowhegan’s Directors. Coming from Dia, a philosophically resonant and similarly mythic institution that works with a few artists in-depth, I was tantalized by the prospect of supporting the diversity of artists who are part of Skowhegan’s expansive community. Moreover, Skowhegan’s structural complexity—dual Directors, dual boards, a Maine program, a New York office—was clearly not a simple route, but from the outside suggested a fundamental commitment to structuring the organization in a way that would best ensure its continued success: a plurality of voices, experiences, and contexts would necessarily inform its future.

One suspects a job will be a good fit when ideas start flowing during preliminary discussions, and as Sarah and I began to quietly brainstorm, I found myself spiraling down the rabbit hole before I’d even begun. Little did I know the truly complex universe I was entering into. The last seven months have been inspiring, chaotic, challenging, and fun. I inherited a multi-year strategic and organizational plan that proved an invaluable opportunity for deep reflection and study of virtually every aspect of the institution, as well as an indispensable introduction to the abilities and ambitions of Skowhegan’s staff, boards, and alumni.

Several major archival initiatives are underway, and this summer I immersed myself in Skowhegan’s history. The physicality of the campus experience and the legacy of those who have spent time in Maine is everywhere in this organization, and yet each summer is new and each group redefines what Skowhegan “is.” Our Oral History project demonstrates that a dynamic tension of past-present-future has always been at play in Skowhegan; so too do the artworks that have accumulated over nearly seven decades that we are beginning to catalogue, study, and share. I am eager to see how these projects unfold, and how they help locate Skowhegan’s story within the larger history of post-war and contemporary art.

Time on campus secured my conviction that Skowhegan’s unique governance structure enables it to identify and support some of the great artists of our time— international,  intergenerational, innovative, enthusiastic. Time off-campus confirms my suspicion that Skowhegan’s tentacles reach much further than a nine-week program would suggest, and that the conversations, events, installations, and publications created between September and May serve a vital purpose in contemporary art and culture. I appreciate the generous and warm welcome that this community has given me, and look forward to continuing to work together.

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Oral History Project

“Skowhegan is a Xanadu, or Shangri-la in a way, in my consciousness.”
—Bill King

In 2010, Skowhegan began an oral history project that would document and shed light on key moments in our 66-year history, as well as complement the Lecture Archive that now features talks by over 600 faculty artists, dating to 1952. Through in-depth interviews with instrumental members of the community, oral historian Liza Zapol is capturing critical reminiscences and anecdotes ranging from Skowhegan’s genesis and nascent years, to its influence in, and relationships with, the broader art world. Beginning in summer 2013, Oral Histories will be accessible on campus alongside the Lecture Archive.

Initial support for this project has been generously provided by the H. King and Jean Cummings Charitable Trust of the Maine Community Foundation.

  1. Former Governor, Bill King, interviewed September 14, 2011, East Hampton, NY

  2. Artist Barbara Sussman, interviewed November 10, 2011, Hoosick Falls, NY

  3. Founding family member Muriel Palmer, interviewed November 11, 2011, North Bennington, VT

  4. Fresco Instructor Sidney Hurwitz, interviewed November 14, 2011, Boston, MA

  5. Artist Penelope Jencks, interviewed November 14, 2011, Newton, MA

  6. Former Governor Lois Dodd, interviewed December 1, 2011, New York City

  7. Former Trustee and Governor, Alex Katz, interviewed December 8, 2011, New York City

  8. Trustee Mildred Brinn, interviewed December 9, 2011, New York City

  9. Governor Daphne Cummings, interviewed January 23, 2012, New York City

  10. Former Trustee and Governor David Driskell, interviewed February 9, 2012, Hyattsville, MD

  11. Former Governor Brice Marden, interviewed April 17, 2012, New York City

  12. Former Director Barbara Lapcek, interviewed May 17, 2012, New York City

  13. Trustee Warren Cook, interviewed July 22, 2012, Skowhegan, ME

  14. Artist Abby Shahn, interviewed July 23, 2012, Solon, ME

  15. Artist Ashley Bryan, interviewed July 25, 2012, Little Cranberry Island, ME