Last year 40,000 people visited Guild Hall, which produced 270 diverse programs revolving around art, movies, theater, and education. “I am proudest of the influx of the audience from all of our communities,” says Guild Hall executive director Ruth Appelhof, whose winter programming includes Project Hero, an antibullying educational campaign run in conjunction with the Hamptons International Film Festival at area schools, and Fiesta Day, which celebrates the area’s Latin American community. “Our audiences are bigger and bigger; we have more people coming for more nights and more people coming during the day to see our exhibitions.”

During her 13-year tenure at Guild Hall, Appelhof has overseen a four-stage renovation of the entire facility and the institution’s 80th birthday. Recent exhibitions by Eric Fischl, Barbara Kruger, and Richard Prince have put the East Hampton museum on the map. “We are doing cutting edge art: the new, the risky, the avant-garde,” said Appelhof. “I love telling the story of what great art is and hope to inspire other people and transform their lives as it has mine.”

Appelhof first came to East Hampton 38 years ago as an art history student from Syracuse University to interview artist Lee Krasner for her master’s thesis, “The Swing of the Pendulum.” “Every morning she would let me interview her, and she would say these amazing things. Then I’d type it up all night, bring it back the next morning, and she’d take a black magic marker and cross it all out,” remembers Appelhof, who stayed in Krasner’s studio-slash-guest-bedroom. “She was very, very concerned that her story be told exactly as she wanted it.”

The daughter of a classical pianist, Appelhof was an artist and gallerist herself before embarking on a more academic career path. “I loved my art history courses as an undergraduate,” says Appelhof, who is actively researching for a publication on Krasner. “I went to school for a couple of years, painted my heart out, loved it, got married at the end of my sophomore year, and ended up having a couple of kids. I continued painting, had many exhibitions during that time, and then opened my own gallery.”

After a distinguished career as a curator and university professor, Appelhof’s next step was director at multiple museums throughout the country and a fellow position at Manhattan’s Whitney Museum of American Art. Often she was recruited at a time when an institution was struggling. “I have had an opportunity to work in a number of different institutions and in each place, there’s been some opening that I could work to improve,” she says. “In Birmingham, Alabama, the museum had an encyclopedic collection beyond any in the Deep South, but I realized they didn’t have contemporary art; they didn’t have photography. I began to encourage the trustees and the director to build a strong collection, and by the time I left, they had the best photography collection in the South and a contemporary collection that is just glorious. I’m so proud that institution moved themselves from the 14th century to the 20th century.”

In 1999 Appelhof returned to the East End to accept the challenge of making Guild Hall a beacon for the arts and a meeting place for the community. “The bottom line with Guild Hall is that we actually give people experiences,” says the executive director. “I think that as we see this place grow and develop, more and more we are going to be able to provide the experiences that you would want, which are going to be very different from someone else’s interests and needs. This variety has turned out to be an inspiration; it’s a real asset.”

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