Tom Dunn: Southampton Arts Center Remains Nimble in a Changing World

New SAC Executive Director Tom Dunn
New SAC Executive Director Tom Dunn, Photo: Courtesy Southampton Arts Center

The COVID-19 pandemic may have physically separated the East End, but a community can remain bonded, even when apart. With this in mind, Southampton Arts Center (SAC) Executive Director Tom Dunn and his team spent the last two months devising innovative ways to continue their mission in the new paradigm.

“This is a challenging time for all small businesses, including nonprofit cultural. I think that we successfully pivoted to digital and to online programming like most of our peers during the quarantine,” Dunn says, describing their efforts to keep SAC active and relevant while everyone in the region was forced to stay home.

Immediately after the shelter-in-place order, SAC Artistic Director Amy Kirwin curated and led a Community Art Share, offering area residents a creative outlet and a platform to display their work. SAC presented the exhibition in a series of YouTube videos, updated and published as more submissions were added. The final exhibition collects images of 160 works in a wide range of media from artists of all ages and status—from brand-new to well-established. But Dunn says they’ve done much more than simply show art.

Southampton Arts Center
Southampton Arts Center, Photo: David Taylor

“During this time we’ve really made a concerted effort to support and shine a light on those in our community who are in need of help, and that includes the artists,” Dunn adds. “We’ve provided pro-bono council and services to artists who are navigating emergency relief grants. We’ve listed resources for a variety of artists. We also try to use our platform to promote other small businesses that remained open, so we’ve done a lot of promoting of our neighboring businesses, because we’re all in this together.”

Dunn says SAC is eager to reopen now that summer is underway and the Hamptons is returning to something closer to normal life. And he says they will do so as soon as the government allows it. Still, they remain focused on presenting more germane subject matter at SAC, rather than ignoring the elephant in the room. “We’re eager to [reopen] in a very safe and very measured manner,” Dunn continues, noting that they’ve put their pre-COVID-19 summer shows on hold and planned a new exhibition to better reflect this unique moment in history. “We wanted to be a little more responsive to the world we’re living in right now,” Dunn explains. “I don’t mean to be cagey—we haven’t announced it yet—but we’ve got a presenting partner that we’re working with. So together we just sort of pivoted in a more timely direction. It happened very naturally, and thankfully we and our partner were nimble enough to change course so we can be as relevant and impactful as possible.”

First, to celebrate Memorial Day weekend, SAC just announced that they will host a drive-in movie screening of Steven Spielberg’s 1981 classic Raiders of the Lost Ark at Coopers Beach in Southampton on Saturday, May 23 at 8:30 p.m. “We’re really excited about that as a first step in reopening and bringing our community back together,” Dunn says, noting that the idea was born shortly after Governor Cuomo endorsed the notion of drive-ins as a safe way to bring communities back together. “SAC Board leadership reached out swiftly to Mayor Warren and we quickly put a plan together,” he says of the screening.

Clearly, SAC is adapting to the changing circumstances and doing what they can to serve the community and offer valuable programming, whether people are out and about or staying at home.

Southampton Arts Center
Southampton Arts Center, Photo: Victoria Silva

“What we’ve learned during this quarantine, if God forbid it were to happen again, is it positions us strongly to continue to make strides with virtual and online programs,” Dunn points out. “At SAC we’re dedicated and committed to community building through the arts. And whether that’s in an online setting or whether that’s in our preferable setting at 25 Jobs Lane, our mission remains the same. We’re in service of this great community and an economic driver for our downtown—all while creating really thoughtful, curated artistic experiences.”

If you’d like to support Southampton Arts Center, and you’re able, Dunn invites the community to become members through their Friends Circle, which includes free gallery admission, access to exclusive programs and private events, and other benefits.

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