Robert Stearns Blog

Robert Stearns: 1947–2014

By The Kitchen

Dec 10, 2014

The Kitchen is deeply saddened to share the news of the passing of its first director, Robert Stearns, who died last Wednesday at the age of 67.

Once recalling his arrival on the New York arts scene in 1970, Stearns described staying in the loft of a friend who was departing from his job at a local gallery. Stearns asked the simple question, “What do you do running an art gallery?”:

“Well, you answer the phone and you take care of the photographs and you talk with clients.”

I said, “I could do that.” He said, “Well, OK, I’ll call [the gallerist] tomorrow morning and tell her that I’m going to leave and then you call about an hour later and say that you’re looking for a job.” So that’s how I met Paula Cooper.*

Soon, Stearns was spending time with local artists Jennifer Bartlett, Trisha Brown, Philip Glass, Pauline Olivieros, Steve Reich, and perhaps most significantly, Rhys Chatham, who by 1972 had prompted Stearns to become directly involved with The Kitchen and its budding program.

In fact, Stearns would shepherd (with Jim Burton) the organization’s move the following year from the kitchen of the Broadway Central Hotel to its location on Broome Street. And he would help create its non-profit status and board, and, moreover, suggest its enigmatic incorporation under the name, Haleakala, Inc.—taken from a Hawaiian volcano where Stearn’s father had operated an optical tracking station. As Stearns said of the paradoxical nomenclature, “It means ‘house of the sun,’ and The Kitchen was anything but the house of the sun. Everything was at night, and in the dark.”

During the years that followed, Stearns would bring such diverse artists as Robert Mapplethorpe and Talking Heads to The Kitchen, giving early opportunities to other figures such as Eric Bogosian (whom he brought on board as an intern), and producing legendary concerts by the likes of John Cage while playing a pivotal role in the early development of such events as “New Music/New York” in 1979.

Of his youthful endeavors as part of what is often considered a golden age at The Kitchen, Stearns cited the influence of the ’60s in combination with the economic downturn of the ’70s, saying, “There was just a sense you really couldn’t fail at anything, and therefore there was a sense of you could try almost anything.”

And yet, he would add, crucial to The Kitchen’s success during his tenure was an attitude embracing such leaps of faith:

Many times we didn’t know what artists were going to do. I think that’s still very much an element in The Kitchen’s cornerstone. It just has more to do with timing, the sense of, “If you feel it, believe it. Don’t ignore it. If you sense it’s right, do it.”

Stearns would leave The Kitchen in 1977 to become director of the Contemporary Arts Center in Cincinnati, before joining the Walker Art Center in Minneapolis, and becoming the first director of the Wexner Center for the Arts in Columbus, Ohio. But the impact of his vision, and belief, remains lasting at The Kitchen.

* All quotes are from The Kitchen’s Oral History Project, with interviews conducted by The Narrative Trust.

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