Art’s New Summer Home: After Relocation, Parrish Museum Tries to Bring Gallery Culture to the Hamptons

John Chamberlain’s "Tambourinefrappe" at the Parrish Art Museum.

Works by Meckseper and Chamberlain at the Parrish Art Museum.

The stretch of Montauk Highway between Southampton and Water Mill was once blurred by nothing but amber fields, like other undeveloped segues between wealthy Hamptons hamlets. But virgin real estate can’t stay pristine forever. A year ago, a sign appeared on that stretch of land announcing that a former tree nursery right off the highway would be the new site of the Parrish Art Museum—and last Saturday’s lavish Midsummer Party served as the new building’s grand coming-out gala.

“There are a lot of people who are seeing the building for the first time,” Terrie Sultan, the museum’s director, told the Transom, as well-wishers butted in to gush about the space. Ms. Sultan wore a dress spangled with cosmic constellations—sadly, the only stars to be seen on the foggy night.

“Well, the atmosphere here, it can change at any moment,” the director said, staring up at the gray cloud cover hoping for a break.

Not that it mattered; in any weather, the Parrish Museum’s bracing façade is spectacle enough to turn every head on an eastbound jitney. Its two giant triangular roofs rest upon long exposed planks, creating the feeling of a barn that goes on for miles. The entrance is down a concrete walkway, lit in blues and yellows. Inside is an atrium with ample breathing room, reminding guests that such space could never really exist in Chelsea.

When the museum officially opened last November, despite the unexpected incursion of Superstorm Sandy, the
Herzog and de Meuron-designed building became the first new center for art in the Hamptons in over 100 years. And on Saturday, many turned out to show their support. Richard Phillips, the artist who last year unveiled his life-size portraits of Lindsay Lohan at Gagosian Gallery, had reason enough for attending: his fiancée, Josephine Meckseper, has installed her sculptures throughout the lobby and annexes.

“I happen to absolutely love this building; I think it’s one of the great buildings built recently anywhere,” Mr. Phillips said. “It was so strong as an idea, and now it’s such a strong presence. You turn that corner [on the highway], and it kind of like opens up.”

Artists have always flocked to the East End for space and beaches and freedom—Bill Powers told us that he and his wife, designer Cynthia Rowley, came from their beach house earlier that day—and the Parrish Museum Midsummer Party has always been a requisite stop on the summer circuit for certain old families, like the Bushes, the Hiltons, the de Menils and so on. What’s different, with the museum’s reinvention and new location, is that the institution is trying to convince sharp-minded canvas-hawkers that a Hamptons museum has drawing power and that art in Water Mill will actually matter.

Booking David Longstreth—Brooklyn resident, Yale grad, indie-rock savant—to deejay and play songs by his band, Dirty Projectors, wasn’t a bad first step toward proving that Parrish has both bona fides and hip cachet.

“No, I haven’t done many things like this,” said Mr. Longstreth, the only attendee in a dark hoodie, as he spun a song by Fleet Foxes on a laptop. “They just asked me to come. My brother is a big Fairfield Porter fan, and this museum has the biggest collection of Fairfield Porter paintings in the world.”

When dinner began, men with high cheekbones distributed yellow summer gazpacho punctured by a little guacamole. It went quickly. At the bar, Kyle DeWoody, the Soho curator who designed the space that would hold the “After Ten” bash following dinner, ordered a drink.

“There’s an interactive piece in the theater for the dance party, the after-party,” said Ms. DeWoody, who shared billing on the tip sheet with her mother, real estate scion Beth Rudin DeWoody. “You just have to go and see.”

That didn’t give much away, so we asked about her clutch, by Olympia Le-Tan, a French socialite who makes small, expensive bags disguised as good books. (Miranda Kerr, the supermodel, was not actually reading The Last Tycoon at this year’s Met Ball.)

“I gave in and got one, because it was just too good,” Ms. DeWoody told us as the bartender doled out champagne.

Her particular choice of a Le-Tan had on its “cover” cursive script spelling out the phrase “Alcoholics Anonymous.”

“It’s not a funny thing, but it’s provocative,” she said, reaching for her drink. “It’s not a funny problem, but it’s a provocative purse.”

We then noticed the bartender had handed Ms. DeWoody nothing more than a water with a lemon wedge.

As dinner was served, the setting sun forced the staff to turn up the house lights, letting a red glow come across the field. Men in pastels went outside to smoke and talk, and on our way back to the clusters of tables, there emerged the petite frame of Dorothy Lichtenstein, the Pop artist’s sprightly widow.

“It hasn’t even started yet!” the raspy-voiced woman said of the party. If only she were telling the truth. Over dessert—strawberry macedoine with rhubarb compote and crème fraîche spheres—we couldn’t help but hear the honks and screeches of fast cars zooming east or west in the visible distance.

“The only problem,” said our dinner companion, a gallery assistant, “is you can’t help but see the traffic on Montauk Highway.” He suggested they create an “installation of birch trees to block it.”

“Then you couldn’t see the museum from the road,” we countered.

But maybe that would be okay. It doesn’t seem like the Parrish Art Museum will have any trouble drawing a crowd.