Perspectives

Watermill Center Founder Robert Wilson on Creating "A Place Where We Ask Questions"

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Watermill Center Founder Robert Wilson on Creating "A Place Where We Ask Questions"
Watermill Center founder Robert Wilson

This year marks the 20th anniversary of the Watermill Annual Summer Benefit, celebrating the Southampton center that artist and theater impresario Robert Wilson founded as a place to bring artists of all stripes together in a spirit of creative exchange. Here, Wilson—a highly accomplished collector himself, with historic holdings of work by Paul Thek and other artists—discusses the inspiration behind the Watermill Center. Click here to bid on works at the benefit auction.

In 1992, I established the Watermill Center on Long Island as a laboratory for the arts and humanities to support the work of young and emerging artists. In the ‘60s, I had a loft on Spring Street where I brought together people from various cultural, social, and economic backgrounds to create new work. Already, I had the idea of buying a place in nature where I could live and work with others. 

I spent time in the ‘60s and ‘70s out in Water Mill and have always been attracted to the landscape and the light. When I saw the old Western Union building that is now the Watermill Center—and which had been vacant since 1965, and was in terrible condition—I knew immediately that this was the right place. The building reminded me of my Spring Street loft, a factory-like space.     

Today, I feel that I am inviting artists to my home and sharing the space with them. I maintain the building and the grounds and allow artists to interface with the center, change it, and develop their own work in an aesthetic that can be completely different from my own. 

This year we are celebrating the 20th Anniversary of our Watermill Center Summer Benefit: "DEVIL’S HEAVEN" on July 27. We will showcase the works of international emerging artists alongside exhibitions of the work of Dieter Meier and Clementine Hunter. In terms of what we do at Watermill, I am proudest when we showcase work that has never been seen in the United States, like Jonathan Meese in 2008 and Mike Kelley last summer. We show this work together with the work of young artists. It is inspirational.      

We are in the process of a large-scale expansion of Watermill. We are creating a Library of Inspiration, or a Living Library, that will link bound volumes with artworks in the collection. Inspiration cannot be taught, but we hope to nurture it at Watermill. We will also create a new residency space to house artists who are working at the center. 

When I was a student, I was assigned to design a city in three minutes. I handed in a drawing of an apple with a crystal cube in the center. When asked, I explained that it was my idea for a city—that our communities need centers like the crystal cube that can reflect the universe, the same way the cathedral was the center in a medieval village. It was the tallest building, the place where people congregated to exchange ideas; where artists showed their work; and where people came for contemplation and spiritual growth. 

Watermill is such a center: a place where we ask questions. We must always ask, "What is it?" But we must not say what it is—for if we know what we are doing, there is no reason to do it.

I share Watermill with artists who are doing what no one else is doing. They continue to inspire me year after year.      

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