The Parrish Prepares for its Move; Southampton Village Plans a Local Arts Center

The new Parrish Art Museum under construction

The new Parrish Art Museum under construction

Earlier this month, the Parrish Art Museum in Southampton raised $675,000 at its glitzy annual fund-raising gala—the last to take place in its present building. Meanwhile, a few miles away, in Water Mill, the skeleton of the Parrish’s new home, an elegant, barnlike building designed by Swiss starchitects Herzog & de Meuron that’s as long as a city block, has begun to rise by the side of Montauk Highway, next to Duck Walk Vineyards. Days before the Parrish’s gala, the village of Southampton presented to the public for the first time its future plans for an arts center in the Parrish’s present, soon to be former, building on Jobs Lane.

On the afternoon of the gala, Parrish director Terrie Sultan took The Observer on a tour of the museum’s vault, where its collection of over 2,600 artworks is housed. She rolled back floor-to-ceiling racks to reveal paintings by William Merritt Chase, Willem de Kooning and realist Fairfield Porter, of whom she says the museum has the largest collection in the country. (When Porter died in 1975, his widow donated the contents of his studio to the Parrish.) In the new building, set to open next summer, 7,500 of the 12,300 square feet of exhibition space will be dedicated to shows from this permanent collection.

While it’s been scaled back from the Parrish’s original ambitions—an $80 million project by Herzog & de Meuron that would have mimicked the look of artist residences—the new building, a financially more manageable project that was conceived during the recession in 2009, is widely admired. (It’s still nearly double the size of the current building, and its $26.2 million price is 80 percent paid for, with construction proceeding on schedule.) With its capacity for showcasing the permanent collection, it is also meant to inspire growth in the collection: “It’s very hard to solicit works from collectors if you can’t demonstrate that they will be on view,” Ms. Sultan said, adding that “there’s a wish list.” And so far, it seems to be working. In the vault, Ms. Sultan pointed to a recent acquisition—one of Ross Bleckner’s “Architecture of the Sky” paintings still in the bubble wrap in which it was shipped. It’s the first of that series to enter a public institution (Mr. Bleckner had been saving the piece for himself, but changed his mind). Nearby were some Porter paintings that came as gifts. Ms. Sultan also mentioned a recent gift of a Keith Sonnier sculpture.

Museum supporters are eager to see that permanent collection go on regular view. A recent addition to the board of trustees—he joined in December 2009—Manhattan-based lawyer Peter Haveles characterizes himself as “a modest collector”; his children benefited from summer art-education programs at the Parrish. He said he’s excited to see the museum “operate on all of its cylinders” by doing temporary exhibitions and permanent collection shows at the same time; up to now, it’s been either/or. He described his recent visit to the vault with Ms. Sultan as being “like a 6-year-old in a candy store,” and says the typical patron of the Parrish will be excited about seeing the rotating exhibition of Fairfield Porters.

But it’s not just the permanent collection that will be on view once the new building is completed.

“If you’re asking, are we going to be organizing and presenting world-class exhibitions that people will come from all over the world to see, the answer is yes,” Ms. Sultan told The Observer, standing in the museum’s current exhibition of work by Dorothea Rockburne. She added that the museum will be “engaging in an international dialogue on all levels.” She said it’s too early to release information about the opening exhibition, but hinted that it will be of a contemporary artist who has a connection to the East End, and that it will be “the kind of thing where people say, ‘Of course! And why didn’t we think of that?’”

Last September, the museum added a trustee—one of six new board members to join since December 2009—who seemed particularly interested in world-class exhibitions and international dialogue. Adam Sender, who runs the hedge fund Exis Capital Management, has been summering in Sag Harbor, with his family, for the past 15 years. Two weeks before the Parrish gala, he hosted a cocktail party for the museum at his home. Ms. Sultan and Art in America magazine editor Lindsay Pollock, as well as local artists like Michael Halsband and Matthew Satz, toured the spacious house and landscaped grounds, gazing at works by international avant-garde stars, the kinds of pieces you are likely to come across at Art Basel or the Venice Biennale. Mr. Sender is anything but a modest collector. A large white abstract Sol Lewitt sculpture sat on the manicured lawn; a huge Urs Fischer sculpture of a cigarette lighter dominated the living room; across from it hung a giant Damien Hirst butterfly painting; an entire gallery space devoted to pieces made from panty hose and cigarettes by Sarah Lucas was next to the stairwell; light-box photographs by Jeff Wall lit up the dining room; a bright yellow Bruce Nauman neon light tube piece that spells out “Run from fear fun from rear” illuminated an upstairs hallway; there were works by up-and-coming talents like Brendan Fowler, Elad Lassry and Matt Chambers. Mr. Sender employs a personal curator and regularly loans his artworks for exhibitions around the world.

In other words: Fairfield Porter this was not. Alice Aycock, an artist who is known for her earthwork-style sculptures, and who will have a major exhibition of her drawings at the Parrish in 2013, was among the guests at Mr. Sender’s party. “My jaw dropped,” Ms. Aycock told The Observer a week later, describing her reaction to the house, grounds and collection. “I live within walking distance and I had no idea this was there.”

She added, “If people like Adam Sender will get behind the Parrish, then the museum will be cooking with gas.”

“With a building like that, they have the opportunity to do some exciting shows,” said Mr. Sender, referring to the new Herzog & de Meuron structure. He put aside plans to open a private exhibition space for his collection in a disused church in Sag Harbor, joining the Parrish board instead. “Exciting to me means contemporary.”

Mr. Haveles characterized the Parrish’s board, a mixture of full- and part-time residents, as diverse and engaged, but not meddlesome. On the board level, he said, the museum is discussed not as one with aspirations to be a global or national institution, but rather as an important regional one, one that reflects the art of the region and serves the region’s needs, and that will be attractive to people visiting from other parts of the East End, and also to visitors from Manhattan.

Ms. Sultan put the emphasis on the artistic legacy of the East End—ranging from Childe Hassam to Jackson Pollock to Roy Lichtenstein to Chuck Close.  “We are very proud to be a museum in this region,” she said. “It’s one of the only regions like this in the country where the level of contribution from the artists who have an association with this area is as high as it is.”

 

If the word “regional” comes up often in discussions of the new Parrish, “local” and “pedestrian-oriented” are more likely to be used in descriptions of the village’s plans for its own $20 million project: a hybrid arts complex at the site the Parrish is leaving.

On July 7, the village of Southampton held the first public presentation of plans—four different ones were presented—for the Southampton Center for the Arts. Siamak Samii, chair of the village’s planning commission, told The Observer that part of a master plan for the center of the village is the creation of an arts district, of which the old Parrish site will serve as anchor. It will incorporate visual and performing arts as well as education, and parts of it will be accessible around the clock; the center will be aimed at both summer and year-round residents. (The village’s full time population is 3,000-4,000; in summer it spikes to around 12,000.)

One object of the project, Mr. Samii said, is to “bring residential living into the heart of the village.” In neighboring villages like East Hampton, he said, “commerce and retail” have been the engines of growth. “We want culture to be the engine of growth.”

The arts complex will be fueled by partnerships with cultural institutions, such as museums and theater groups, and educational institutions outside the village that will use the facility as an extension. He said the village has so far reached out to 15 institutions, including the Lincoln Center Film Festival, and responses have been positive.

The Parrish’s lease is up in summer 2012; it plans to have next summer’s gala in its completed building, in Water Mill. Between now and that time, Mr. Samii said, the village will set up boards, bring in a director and fund-raise, with the aim of breaking ground in the next two to three years. Manhattan-based arts consultancy Webb Management Services has put the three-year project, which will create 40,000 square feet of facilities at around $20 million, once the operational costs are factored in.

The village does not see its arts complex competing with the Parrish, but rather complementing it—an “amicable relationship” that, as Mr. Samii described it, could even include the Parrish’s doing loan shows there.

“One of the main elements is to engage some of the local artists even more,” said Mr. Samii. “Local artists who don’t feel they are on the radar of the Parrish. And there are a lot of them.” He added that the facility would ideally be a place “where there would be more interaction between the community and its artists.” It is envisioned as “a place of gathering, a piazza for the center of the village.”

The Parrish, as he put it, “is extending itself to a more international high-profile, high-energy art scene. But we think that should not be at the expense of ignoring the local community.”

sdouglas@observer.com