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Helen Klisser During is a curator
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Helen Klisser During is a curator
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Helen Klisser During is a curator
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"A smile does get you a long way."
1 January 2011

Helen Klisser During is a curator

Interview by Kate Bezar
Photography by Helen Klisser During

Kate Bezar on Helen Klisser During

Helen Klisser During is one of those rare people who can light up a room with her energy and have the people in it immediately wanting to be part of whatever she’s up to. Born into a family in New Zealand who had worked from nothing to make a highly successful bakery business (making Vogels Breads), circumstances took her to America. There she worked the corporate life, being groomed for an eventual role in the family business. But, when pregnant with her second child, her family in NZ sold their business. The art world beckoned instead and she’s never looked back.

For years now she has introduced artists to collectors and new audiences. Despite being frantically busy with the mayhem that is Fall in New York, Helen made time to chat to us between gallery openings, VIP dinners, baking for her Arts centre, and her passion for taking photos.

This story originally ran in issue #26 of Dumbo Feather

Discussed in this Story

KATE BEZAR: How was dinner?

HELEN DURING: It was a very intimate little dinner. I was very honoured. He (Secretary-General of the United Nations, Ban Ki-moon) is such a modest, down to earth man. It was just dinner with my boyfriend, who happens to be mayor of the town of Westport, and his friends, so there were only six of us. I felt a wee bit brash … I was in Haiti in April and I took over 50 disposable cameras and gave them to children at the Carma Foundation Orphanage. I gave a book of their photos to the Secretary General, which was great. He loved it. We’re going to have a fundraiser here in New York for the kids, selling their pictures, and also a concert, but it’s great to have that dialogue with someone that is doing a lot of things and has a little clout. Anyway, tonight was a great treat – not an everyday thing [laughs]!

How did you happen to go to Haiti in April?

A friend of mine who’s a photographer and lives in London, New York and sometimes Moscow, asked me three weeks before we went, if I would like to go to Haiti, because her friend Melky Jean, who’s [musican] Wyclef Jean’s sister, had invited her. Melky is very involved with the Carma Orphanage. Like everyone else you feel so helpless and wonder what can you do. I said, “Sure.” We thought we’d be camping, but in fact we stayed at Wyclef’s house. He bought a house straight after the earthquake that was right across from one of these massive, satellite-tent cities housing about 4000 families. It wasn’t that plush – we were sleeping on the floor and there were two toilets and I discovered that one didn’t work (laughs). We had great access to Port-au-Prince itself and obviously to the orphanage and then to the hospitals … It was a big eye-opener, a very big eye-opener. Did you see some of my pictures on my website [www.helenduring.com]?

I did. I did. They’re fabulous.

I sent them to pretty much everyone I knew and I had very warm feedback. They were used … I think Helen Clark [Administrator of the United Nations Development Programme] wanted to use them on the UNDP website. It was just I think being a little bit doe-eyed … It’s one thing to take pictures in the art world, it’s a very different thing to take them of people in dire need. You know the infrastructure is non-existent in Haiti. Certainly the little kids with cameras in this project … At one point I wondered, “Is this too soon?” but in fact the kids enjoyed it. It was a great way to connect with them. There are many programmes, kids with cameras. You probably know the one called ‘Born into Brothels’ that was done about eight years ago. I think using that as model where the kids take pictures, you find an exhibition space and then have a fundraiser, is very direct. I think a lot of people are very frustrated if their money goes to a bigger organisation because you don’t know where it’s going.

Having traumatised children take photos is a variation on the theme of art-as-therapy, isn’t it?

I think art is probably therapy for everyone. Art’s taking a moment to look in your busy hectic day.

It’s very much like listening to music; if there’s no pause, there’s no melody. Art for me is sort of a therapy in a way, because it does force you to sit still for a minute, or stand still, look and reflect. With the children in Haiti, I was interested in their being able to start a new history by taking photographs to record things. Of course in the earthquake, they lost everything. They’re living in two tents, 50 kids in two giant tents, and they have no possessions. I’m making books of their photographs and they get to keep one. I should send you one. It’s a little idea, but I think photographs are so important.

This story originally ran in issue #26 of Dumbo Feather

This story originally ran in issue #26 of Dumbo Feather

When people race out of the house because it’s on fire, what do they take? It’s often their pictures.

Anyway, that’s just something on the side. I’m so sorry it’s been so hectic and hard to catch me. On top of the Jewish holiday it’s also been the opening of the art world. Everything over this week is opening.

Is that because it’s the end of Summer?

Yes. It’s now the beginning of Fall – Autumn.

I didn’t realise it would be so seasonal?

Oh very much so. During the Summer a lot galleries close over the last two weeks of August, people are out of town, the collectors are out of town – they’re in The Hampton’s, or traveling. Now everyone’s back, the schools are back. It’s like in Australia and New Zealand when the place is dead December-January and now it’s very much like February when people go back to work in full earnestness. In the art world people are now going back with great vigour! Have you been to New York? You know what it’s like. It’s very festive, lots of openings and dinners. Yesterday I went on the High Line which is the wonderful new walk by the West Side Highway. It’s one of the old rail tracks that rises above … It’s fantastic. The Whitney [Museum of American Art] is going to build a new museum [adjacent to the southern terminus of the High Line] and there are some very subtle art installations along it. You can walk the High Line from the meatpacking district all way to Chelsea, to the galleries. It is packed with people. It’s very festive. All the plantings are – well it’s not quaffed, it’s quite wild, which is lovely. Then you go into the art world and all the galleries.

Which is quite quaffed I imagine.

[Laughs] It’s very, very quaffed! Or wild I mean.

Quaffed and wild.

We saw Pipilotti Rist’s exhibition and my friend was just appalled, “Oh it’s a chandelier made of underpants.” He kept mumbling about the Emperor’s new clothes, or lack thereof [laughs]. No, it’s an exciting time of year.

How did you get in to the art world? Were you an artist yourself?

No, but I always loved art. My family were fortunate that we would travel to Europe every year to visit my grandmother who lives in Holland. So as a little kid I’d go to the museums in Amsterdam: the Van Gogh Museum, Stedelijk Museum, Rijksmuseum.

Coming from New Zealand, that was a big deal for a ten, twelve, fourteen-year-old. I think that kindled my passion, so at university I studied Art History and English Literature. Then I was involved in my family’s bakery business. I did two out of three years of an MBA and became involved in the bakery business as a marketing manager there. When I came to the States I worked at Pepperidge Farm, another bakery, part of Campbell Soup Co. I was a brand manager there for five years, but when my parents sold their bakery business, I resigned very quickly, two weeks later in fact. I had a little two-year-old and was pregnant with my second son Zach. Being at work at 8am, traveling two days a week to Chicago and Florida, and coming home at 8pm was very tough, especially raising children [laughs]. Everyday. You know, I’m not a lazy person by any means, but I thought, unless I’m really in it for the long term then I don’t need to stay in corporate life.

So why was your family selling the bakery business, the catalyst for you leaving your job at Pepperidge?

Because I always thought I was going to go back into the family business and I always thought I’d go back to New Zealand. I have two passions – well many passions –

An understatement?

Yes, food and sex [laughs], no. Food, well bread. Growing up, I was very passionate about our family’s bakery business. But secondly, I love art. When I was in the States working at Pepperidge Farm and pregnant with my first son, I met Kim Tyler. We were both very pregnant and I was wearing a Laura Ashley dress I’d borrowed, which I would never have bought. She asked me, “When are you due?” and I thought she asked, “What do you do?” I said, “I’m a marketing manager at Pepperidge Farm, and what do you do?” She said she was a printer. I thought, well stationery or what, she said, “No, fine arts.” I asked her who and she looked at my dress and said I wouldn’t know them, but of course they were all these blue-chip artists like David Hockney, Robert Motherwell, Roy Lichtenstein, Frank Stella. They were all these major artists in America, or worldwide, and I thought, my God, how exciting. We became friends and then I started selling these artists’ works, these blue-chip prints, in Connecticut. As long as you’re passionate about your product and knowledgeable … that was sort of my very naïve reckoning [laughs]. It was a start. Then you need a lot of good luck. I was introduced to the publisher of Artforum, Knight Landesman, and he’d been to New Zealand and we liked each other. He invited me, pretty much every week, to meet different artists and curators in New York and, whenever he had people from Australia and New Zealand visiting New York, he would ask me to show them around. I met great guys like Steve Morrie and Tracey Moffatt. It was a real treat. I think you need somebody to give you a leg up if you’re going through the back-door, and that’s how I got in to the art world. From that I met some major collectors. I worked with Rob Menzies, who started Deutsche Menzies, a major auction house in Australia, as one of his international major advisors. I met him at an auction at Christies. I’ve also been working for a collector who has a sculpture park in New Zealand for a long time and introducing him to artists like Richard Serra.

It starts off like a snowball. You just need something to stick.

And you need to be prepared to take chances yourself I’m sure.

You need to take a lot of risks, and a few chances. I think for me it’s also knowing good people, so where I’m not knowledgeable, I can always find that expertise. Make sure you do that very quickly! And that people can trust you. It’s very exciting and it’s been a treat running around to different places. I am in deep water all time. Like, I’ve been going to Dubai as an art advisor to Art Dubai and that’s been fascinating. The first year I was asked to take around Sheikh Mohammed Rashid, the great ruler of Dubai, and seeing that culture was an eye-opener.

Take him around where?

The [Dubai] art fair. Luckily, two years before I went to Dubai, so five years ago, I was in Hong Kong and a friend had invited me to a big bankers’ conference where there were satellite evening programmes. I met some great people from Kurachi, Pakistan, and Dubai who said whenever you’re in our neck of the woods, sing out. Well, when I was Dubai I sung out, they threw a big party for me and with that I had some nice roots and people that I could really count on, being in a place that I knew very little about.

It sounds to me like you connect with people very easily, or that you’re good at making those kind of connections. Is that just part of your personality?

I guess it’s kind of my saving grace. People say, shaking their heads, “How is it possible?” But everybody has a talent and I think to be open … I smile, I have no Botox [laughs]! A smile does get you a long way. It’s better to smile than not. My father says, “There are more flies in honey than vinegar.” I think to be open and generous …

I love it when people go out of their way and say, “I’d love you to meet Ariana Huffington” and make that step. It’s a precious gift. Because at the end of the day why not? Why not extend? I always treasure that. I make sure I make introductions, and I think people appreciate that. I very much appreciate it when people introduce me and it’s not done with a manipulative networking agenda. I find that very off-putting. If it’s genuine – you think out of the box, you think this person actually would enjoy that person, for whatever reasons, and it’s fresh … then they do. You bend over a little bit.

I have met some very interesting people. That’s why I stay in this part of the world, because you do get great access.

Not that you can’t anywhere else but it is exciting.

You’ve seem to have managed to maintain strong links back to New Zealand … your son goes to university here. Do you come back often yourself?

No. Not as often as I’d like to. Usually once a year. [My son] Max was here last week, and he was here in July, and he was at Thanksgiving too. I haven’t been back for almost two years so I’m extremely homesick for everyone, it’s just that with work it’s difficult. In January this year I took on the role as director of Visual Arts for a not-for-profit here [in Westport, Connecticut] and I’ve been very busy curating the exhibitions. When I am traveling I’m traveling for work, and then I take a Haiti trip … I am involved with a sculpture park that’s an hour north of Auckland. I displayed a work by Chinese artist Zhan Wang there and that was exciting. Life’s rich with traveling and it’s hard to justify a holiday vacation. I have a rich life, but it’s work-driven.

You almost sound ridiculously blessed, has everything always fallen in to your lap?

Oh you’re very kind. I am blessed, terribly blessed, with wonderful parents and family and children. It also wasn’t always so easy. I divorced when the boys were two and four and that was pretty rough, to say the least. That was certainly a very tough time and very much a fork in the road – should I go back to New Zealand or stay? Probably very foolishly, I was very stubborn and didn’t want to go back as a failure. That was tough. I also broke my back ski racing, although I believe I was blessed because I broke my back and could have become quadriplegic, but didn’t.

When you were quite young?

I was 17. I was on the New Zealand ski team. I spent three months in hospital. Then I was supposed to present a National Ski Cup four years later and ended up going in the race … and came runner-up. So, I sort of fall on my feet, but do stupid things. I can’t tell you how many bones I’ve broken – most of them, but I keep going somehow and I am blessed. Having parents that went through World War II … My father’s a Holocaust survivor. He lost his mother, father and brother through the war. Anything other than that we’re all blessed. Now, becoming older and seeing friends whose parents have Alzheimer’s or children who are autistic … I must be very bad at cards and I don’t know about love, so who knows [laughs]? I think we’re all blessed. I’m very grateful.

Did your father talk much about being a Holocaust survivor or was it just something you always knew but didn’t talk about?

He didn’t talk about it much. He was interviewed by Steven Spielberg’s Shoah Foundation and he was terrible. He just wasn’t interested. He pushed forward in life and he could do so because he had my mother, who was also, is also, from Holland. They’re a real team – when one inhales, the other exhales. My mother was an only child, her parents divorced when she was two. She was living on the outskirts of Rotterdam when it was bombed. Both my parents had nothing really, and finding each other in New Zealand was a fluke, but they really are an incredible model of how you’d like it to be. That’s what I’d hoped I could find in a partner.

Having seen it, doesn’t seem to make it any easier to find it, does it?

No, not at all! No, but you know it’s out there. I hope I will recognise it … no doubt when it hits me over the head. My parents say, for every pot there’s a lid. In the mean time, I think, to be surrounded by very good friends and to love what you’re doing. I love being in the art world and I think it’s important to have programmes that engage the community. Every Friday, at the Westport Community Centre, I make blueberry scones, or blueberry-peach scones, or date scones, or whatever, or muffins rather, and we review the New York Times, the Wall Street JournalThe Huffington PostArtsforum, whatever it is. I have a community there of 20 to 30 people every Friday – not just artists, they could be retired CEOs, or limo drivers … It’s a very relaxed group, but the idea is to engage them in a very sophisticated arts dialogue and get their feedback. It’s easy to be provincial, wherever you are, but it’s important to make sure you’re not and to be informed. I was thinking again tonight, listening to the Secretary General, how vital it is to be interested in what’s happening outside America, if you’re American, or outside Australia, or outside New Zealand. I think New Zealanders and Australians get it because we’re so isolated and when you’re somewhere else you know to access it. My living here is still very much on the premise that it could go tomorrow, I could be back in New Zealand, and it wouldn’t be so easy then to get to the Whitney, or the Guggenheim, or the Met. I go out of my way to see things, like a tourist. Tourists come here and see everything, but when you’re living in a place you become lazy. You say, “Oh I read about that but didn’t see it.” I try to keep that mentality of being fresh, being a tourist, because it might not be there tomorrow. Like, my boyfriend and I decided to go to Coney Island on the weekend, I’d never been there. He wanted to go to a Russian restaurant, so he Googled ‘Russian restaurant Coney Island’ but what he forgot to do was say a descriptor like ‘Best Russian restaurant Coney Island’ [laughs]! So we ended up at somewhere that was like $3 for a main course, which is great, but they didn’t like us and we didn’t like them so we had to go somewhere else! We went to some very crass Wedding/Bar Mitzvah place called Rasputin’s. It was great. But I do love it when I’m in New Zealand, because my friends who are artists or in the art world, are so abreast of what’s happening internationally. There’s a real sophistication that I don’t think was there 25-30 years ago.

It was that much harder before the internet wasn’t it?

Yes, what’s changed since I left 26 – I don’t know how many – 28 years ago, is that, and there’s also excellent coffee in New Zealand now [laughs] … Very good espresso machines. People are very fond of New Zealand here. If you say you’re from New Zealand it’s, “Oh, we always want to go to New Zealand!”

They certainly love the accent. I’m fascinated to know what you see as some of the over-arching trends in the art world at the moment, or at least what’s exciting you about the art-world at the moment. I think what’s interesting is the need to have the public or the audience engaged with the work. We’re in an age of information so you can go around the Pace Gallery [in New York], which is celebrating its 50th anniversary, and you can have an app on your iPhone so you can listen to the artist speaking about the work, or curators speaking about the work.

There’s that real need for knowing. People are interested and engaged.

There’s a wonderful show at the new museum on The Bowery. It’s a Brazilian artist and it’s this great wishing wall, very much like Yoko Ono’s Wish Tree, but this is a massive wall full of ribbons, thousands of ribbons, and on each ribbon somebody’s wish is printed. What you do is write your wish on a little piece of paper and roll it up, like at the Wailing Wall in Jerusalem, and you put it in the wall. Then you take out somebody else’s wish. It’s an enchanting idea; it’s bright, it’s festive … It’s packed with people really reading these wishes, thinking about what wish they want to put in the wall. Some could be flippant, some are humorous, some are serious, but it’s the artist’s desire for the audience to participate with the work. I also think there are no hard lines between various art forms, they’ve all merged. Artists are really engaging in all media – they’re exploring not just sculpture and installation, but also painting. I think there’s no fine lines. I think what illustrates that point is the Museum of Art and Design. The former craft museum has changed it’s name from Craft Museum to the Museum of Art and Design. I think there’s a desire for authenticity, freshness, things we haven’t seen.

Again there are a lot of tea leaves that mightn’t sink to the bottom, there’s a lot of rubbish too. Not rubbish, don’t quote that, but there’s a lot that won’t stay. I think one just has to enjoy looking, and be open, and spend more than two seconds looking at the work, more than reading the label. It always amuses me, and I do the same thing … I probably spend more time sometimes reading about the work, than looking at it! It’s a great treasure we have here in New York, with all the museums and galleries, it is so rich with content. You don’t see just one trend … Although, looking at the news there is that sense of hyper-local and also international news. We flip-flop between the two. It’s probably the same with where you live; you’re very interested with what’s happening there, and at the same time very interested in what’s happening in New York.

And what will you try to do at the Westport Art Centre?

Aha, well I like the idea of looking at different media but telling a story. Much like going to a musical, it makes it much more pleasurable and memorable if you can hum the melody of one of the songs. So if somebody comes to see a show, an exhibition of mine, I want them to get it. The first exhibition of mine was called The Divine Comedy and it was all very cartoonish, illustration, is it high art? I had two cartoonists, R. Crumb and Roz Chast. R. Crumb happened to be on the cover of Art News last year and also had a big show at The Hammond Museum. I was able to secure some of his work. Roz Chast is a cartoonist for The New Yorker. Normally they would never be paired together, but Roz is a friend, and for her first job out of Rhode Island School of Design, she worked The New Yorker, much like R. Crumb. We had over 750 children spend over an hour in the space looking at those cartoonists, and to me that’s real. On the last day of the exhibition, our Director of Education was on her honeymoon so I had to take a group of five six-year-olds around. Roz Chast had made these fragile eggs, very beautiful, colourful eggs. One of them was Humpty Dumpty sitting on a wall and all you saw was him saying, “La di da di da di da.” When these kids came into the gallery, it was the first thing I showed them. Both R. Crumb and Roz Chast’s humour is not addressed to a five-year-old, it is a sophisticated humour … So with the little kids I asked, “What do you make of this?” and they said, “It’s Humpty Dumpty” and I asked, “Who knows the nursery rhyme?” Then I asked, “What’s happening?” and they say, “He has no idea he’s going to fall off that wall!” They got the joke. So finding works that meant something … Also, I had arranged for the back wall of the gallery to be painted in blackboard paint and Roz did this enormous 30 ft chalk mural of people standing on the street, waiting for the bus. Then there’s this small gallery, which I also had painted black, so that kids could draw whatever they wanted. Some little kids scribbled something that looked like a vehicle of some sort and I said, “What is this?” and they said, “It’s a bus, it’s stuck in the snow and that’s why the people are waiting in the other room.” They had really thought it through and decided to continue the theme of Roz Chast’s story. I thought that was great. Then, in the afternoon, this little kid came back with his mother – she was in surgical greens – to see precisely those things.

I thought, you know, if everybody did that, brought someone back to an exhibition that they loved, that’s all I want.

The next big show now for me is called Memory, and again I’m in the deep end. I’m petrified. It opens on the 24th of September and it was prompted by the Westport Playhouse, which Paul Newman and Joan Woodward were involved with. It’s presenting Anne Frank which is close to the bone. I can get hold of major artists like Christian Boltanski, Sophie Calle and Anselm Kiefer and some local artists, and also Mayer Kirshenblatt, who’s [New Zealand artist] Max Gimblett’s father-in-law. Mayer Kirshenblatt had a huge show at the Jewish Museum last year. He had not painted until he was 72, and when he did, it was because Barbara, his daughter, had bugged him all his life to, “Tell me about living in a shtet…l in Poland.” He couldn’t express it or articulate it, until finally when he was 72 she gave him paints and he started painting. I’ll have 10 of his paintings in the exhibition and also drawings from the Jewish Museum by an artist called Leo Kok who happened to be 19 when he was incarcerated in a camp in Holland called Westerbork and died when he was 22. He also happened to be my father’s cousin. These are drawings of life in the concentration camps. Then there’s also a local artist, a mother who has Alzheimer’s. She makes all these stackings – she stacks flowers and God knows what, pots and pans, books, and the daughter takes photographs of them. They’re quite whimsical. Again, looking at memory, personal memory, collective memory … it’s a very big subject. It’s an exciting topic and I’ll be able to have a lot of people engaging with it. We’re in this show for two months. The key is to make sure people are coming in and it’s fresh during that time. You can have a large themed exhibition, but hopefully it can touch people locally in their own back yard. My final exhibition for the year will be called Kid Culture and I’m excited about this. It’s iconic images of children by 20th century photographers like [Alfred] Stieglitz, Helen Levitt and Diane Arbus, but there’s also a call for children’s pictures of themselves, of children. Those pictures will be juried by the Howard Greenberg Gallery, a major gallery in New York. There’ll be 30 major photographers and 30 kids’ pictures of kids, just to juxtapose the two. So we’ll see if that works. There’s always a bit of a risk to everything but it’s a lot of excitement. It keeps me very busy – and nervous!

Is curating where you’d like to keep your focus?

It’s one of my focuses. I do love meeting artists at the forefront and matching them up with collectors. Also, having access to studios that would have seemed very distant to me when I was in New Zealand … and bringing collectors to artists’ studios to see what they are about, how they think, how they work … that is a highlight. I know that it is with great privilege that I have access to artists and art. I’d like to share that access by curating and also taking my own pictures of everything that either stands still or moves [laughs].

I wish it was simpler, I think it’d be easier if you’re just one thing, but I’m not!

I love curating – the Memory exhibition has been so rewarding – the process of curating and finding work, speaking with artists, curators, collectors and galleries in New York. There’s also the time spent walking the community through the exhibition, the emails coming in, newspaper reviews … I love engaging the community, exploring and discovering insights that so easily can get buried or simply lost. The other night it was the first of a film series at the Westport Arts Center, a pilot really. It’s called Meet the Film Maker and Al Brodax, the producer of The Yellow Submarine was there. We had a full house, I mean it only has 100 seats, and not the best projector … It was on my laptop – also on its last legs – but the highlight was that it became a sing-along! At one point the film stopped, a technical malfunction. Normally it would have been a mini disaster, but someone in the audience yelled out “the Blue Meanies are here!” Everyone laughed and the film continued … So if I could, I would love to continue curating and taking pictures. Just as much as we need both the sun and moon, my life would be rather dull without putting on a show or snapping a picture.

Naturally, it would be empty without my two wonderful sons, Max and Zach, and my most wonderful parents, my brother and sisters, supportive friends … and my fabulous boyfriend, but that’s a whole new story.

Kate Bezar

Kate Bezar started Dumbo Feather—and is a living legend, simple as that. Read all about her and the kernel of an idea that became a magazine.

Photography by Helen Klisser During

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