How Curator Helen Toomer Took Advantage of 2020 to Escape Brooklyn and Refocus on Art and Family in the Hudson Valley
The cofounder of Stoneleaf Retreat and the Art Mamas Alliance reflects on the year.
Like many of us, Helen Toomer did not have the 2020 she expected. At the beginning of the year, Toomer, her husband Eric Romano, and their toddler, Harry, were preparing to give up their Brooklyn apartment for the greener pastures of New York’s Hudson Valley.
The idea was to split their time between Miami and Stoneleaf Retreat in Eddyville, New York, the artist residency the couple founded in 2017. They also had long-running ties to Miami, where Romano’s company, Space Design and Production, stages the Untitled Art Fair each year.
So when Toomer accepted a position as executive director of Artists in Residence in Everglades (AIRIE) in March, the idea was to head south each year from October to May—a plan that quickly proved unfeasible. Instead, Toomer is transitioning into a board member role at the organization, having helped organize BIPOC-centered programming to be held in Everglades National Park in 2022.
“I’m so grateful that I got to work with AIRIE and steer them towards being a more inclusive organization,” Toomer told Artnet News.
But life in lockdown has a funny way of making you reevaluate your priorities.
“[We were] feeling a deeper connection to our home, our family, and wanting to further set down roots here in the Hudson Valley,” Toomer said. “My heart is here at Stoneleaf, directly supporting artists.”
Home to a gorgeous stone farmhouse and a wooden barn, Stoneleaf is tucked away on bucolic 20-acre property with wooded trails and a picturesque pond. It could be exhibit A as to why the Hudson Valley is such an appealing alternative for New York City denizens.
As an influx of creatives joined an already vibrant Hudson Valley arts community this spring, Toomer was inspired to make good on a long-held dream of staging the Upstate Art Weekend to highlight the offerings of local art organizations. The socially distanced event, held in late August, included major institutions such as Storm King Art Center, Dia:Beacon, and Magazzino Italian Art among its participants.
“We had over 400 people safely—socially distanced, wearing masks—visit Stoneleaf over the weekend to see a huge installation of Keisha Scarville’s ‘Passports,'” Toomer said, adding that the event “truly married art and nature, and that’s what we all needed.”
Upstate Art Weekend helped salvage the season for Stoneleaf, which had to push its 2020 residency class to next summer. It will include Ellie Irons and Anne Percoco—who run the Next Epoch Seed Library, a sustainable seed bank—and their children: for the first time, the program will also host the families of artists as well.
“I know some artist mothers who would jump at the chance to do a two-week residency away from their family to focus on their practice and connect with other artists, and some who are not interested—or able to—leave their families at all,” Toomer said.
The difficulties of balancing her own career with the demands of motherhood have been dear to Toomer since giving birth to Harry, now age two.
When she shared her struggles with Whitewall magazine editor-in-chief (and fellow new mom) Katy Donoghue last December, the two realized the conversation needed to be held on a larger scale.
So in April, Toomer and Donaghue started hosting Monday-night Zoom calls with other mothers in the art world, creating the Art Mamas Alliance, which now has over 100 members.
“These weekly calls were a lifeline,” she said. “I left every single one feeling better, supported, and connected. Everyone is facing hardship—everyone! And there’s something so comforting in being able to share what’s going on in your life—what you’re struggling with, especially in regards to parenting, as being a mum is exhausting.”
Her partnership with Romano has also been key, as he generally watches Harry during the day. But Toomer misses her family, who live in the UK and haven’t seen her son since February.
“Some days it’s truly frustrating when you just loaded the dishwasher or folded clothes for the hundredth time—but then I realize I’m so lucky to have a dishwasher, washing machine, family to cook for, clean for, and I just have to suck it up,” she says. “That’s where wine and Netflix help.”
Meanwhile, Toomer is looking to the future, with the second edition of Upstate Art Weekend scheduled for August 27 to 29, 2021. More ambitiously, there’s hope for an even bigger edition the next time around.
This past weekend, Toomer unveiled a new project at Stoneleaf, courtesy of one of its inaugural residents, Macon Reed, who previously staged dramatic, neon-colored installations with Toomer at Pulse and the Spring/Break Art Show in New York. Reed and her dog Frankie took refuge at the residency in March, when a fellowship at London’s Royal Academy of Arts ended abruptly, leaving the two temporarily homeless.
“They spent a few months with us and in that dark, uncertain time,” Toomer said. “Macon fell in love with the area, and in September, she moved into her own place in Kingston. We offered her the studio, so she could get back to making art. She’s just completed a mural, which is perfectly surreal and at home in the landscape here.”
Despite the considerable toll 2020 has taken, Toomer describes herself as “romantically optimistic” about the future of the art world.
“I think that the Armory [Show] in September 2021 is going to be a huge art party, when we can all fully come together again and celebrate all the incredible work artists made during this time.”
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