Art Tussle in the Hamptons: The Tony Parrish Museum Is Leaving Town on Bad Terms

It was 4 p.m. on a Thursday-quittin’ time in the petite town hall of the village of Southampton, N.Y. After another day navigating the headaches of a small town, where he can hardly move a pencil without outrage from the Preservation Society, the last thing Mayor Mark Epley wanted to discuss was the Parrish Art Museum. The village institution, after over a century housed off Main Street in a perfectly quaint red brick building surrounded by manicured Roman sculpture gardens, is about to break ground on a new home. The architecture firm Herzog & de Meuron (better known for the Beijing Olympic Stadium) is set to build a new Parrish, a massive longhouse in Water Mill, N.Y., inspired by artists’ studios and potato barns. By attempting to become what Parrish director Terrie Sultan called “the art museum of all the Hamptons,” the museum will leave its hometown village in the dust.

“I think it’s absolutely the worst thing that ever happened to the village,” said Mayor Epley. He invoked tradition, pointing to the mayoral portraits that hang on the disco-era wood-paneled walls of his office, an array which includes Samuel J. Parrish. Mayor Parrish’ collection of Renaissance and Classical miscellany was the original foundation for the museum. “They’re walking away from 100 years of history, and it absolutely blows my mind.”

But the Parrish has been moving in a different direction since the 1950s, when a renewed contract changed the museum’s focus from Renaissance-era art to the contemporary art of Long Island, ranging from Fairfield Porter to Roy Lichtenstein to the little-known Rackstraw Downes. Local art is fine for a small-town museum, but whether the tony East End stalwart will be able to achieve near-national prominence is the gamble of this endeavor. They plan on doubling annual attendance-from about 30,000 to about 60,000-and are confident that their audience won’t mind driving where it once walked. For Ms. Sultan, the size of the new museum-with three times as much gallery space, plus a cafe, theater and other amenities-is a declaration of intent. “We’ll finally be able to function normally,” she said.

It’s a cautionary tale for the Southampton townsfolk. The Parrish is the third museum in the past few years to relocate outside of its neighborhood after becoming exhausted from years of fighting local opposition to relatively modest expansion plans. (The Barnes Museum of Art, outside Philadelphia, and the Whitney Museum of American Art, on Madison Avenue, are the other two.) On the flip side, it may be a cautionary tale for the Parrish, too. A nationwide museum-expansion boom has left several institutions bigger than their britches and loaded with debt. The Fayetteville Museum of Art in North Carolina, for example, closed last month after a failed attempt to relocate to a gleaming $15 million tower.

But it has been decades since the old Parrish building, last renovated before the Great War, has been sufficient, according to the director Ms. Sultan, and the Parrish has considered alternatives at least since the 1980s. They never wanted to move until 2003, when a group of outraged townsfolk led by the head of the architecture review board at the time, Cathy Bellows, drew battle lines. The Parrish’s proposal to give the museum a loading dock, new gallery space and climate control (the kind of amenities museum accreditation boards like to see) at the expense of some of its historic, and beautiful, facade. By Southampton’s standards, the improvements were far from extravagant, but the citizens of this mega-rich Mayberry wanted their local museum to stay, in all senses of the word, local. In community meeting after community meeting, the fight for the historic shrubs, trees and exterior dragged on, for nearly a year. Then the museum just decided to leave town.

Why couldn’t everyone just get along? “To me, it was wrong to go after them like that,” said village building inspector Jonathan Foster. “They were very upset, because they have to fund-raise to get their funds, and they had spent a few million to that point with architectural designs, presentations, meetings, things like that.”

After a flirtation with reopening on the grounds of Southampton College, the board settled on the Water Mill site, a 14-acre plot on the heavily congested Montauk Highway. Their original plan for the new building, drafted in 2006, was scrapped when the recession seriously stalled fund-raising, and made its $80 million price tag look unrealistic. Thus, the hiring of Ms. Sultan. Then the much simpler $25 million barn. (Faulted by some architecture critics as too unambitious.)

When he learned they were scaling back, Mayor Epley made a last attempt to heal old wounds. Armed with a revised master plan, which envisioned a sanctified arts district as the spine of the village, he offered to expand the museum’s footprint so that they could have their loading dock and use it, too. They weren’t interested, and they haven’t spoken much since.

“Nobody from the Parrish Art Museum has come over to say, ‘We’re breaking ground in a month,'” he said. “Or, ‘We plan on being out of there by 2012.’ They only come over here to ask me to sign when they need a liquor permit to have a party.”

To stay in the old space, Ms. Sultan said, was “just not possible. It’s a beautiful gem of a building, but it can’t function as a 21st-century museum.” For board member Doug Polley, who has a second home not far from the Parrish, a pressing fear over the past few years has been losing the institution’s accreditation from the American Association of Museums-the certificate that allows them to take artwork in on loan. He’s less worried about local opposition. “We’ve always welcomed them as guests to our events. I’m extremely confident that once the new building is complete, they’ll have a revelation. This will be an epiphany.”

Although changing designs caused a two-year delay, the last of the paperwork has been filed, and the final building permit was granted May 10. No official date for groundbreaking, but the sign is up and Ms. Sultan said their fund-raising is in order-they’ve raised about 70 percent of the total $25 million need, and therefore plenty to get started. “Groundbreaking is imminent. We’re just waiting to pull the trigger.”

Opponents to the move cite an “Icarus” argument, noting that the institution might have lost touch with its pedestrian roots. After all, does a museum in a town with a population of under 100,000 need to hire the architect that did the Olympic Stadium? Town historian Zachary Studenroth, who is also director of Southampton’s whaling museum, fears for the Parrish’s future. “They believe that they are [a destination]; therefore, moving out will not significantly affect the visitors that they have now, or that by building a much larger compound, they will build a much larger audience,” he said, then made a face. “I’m sure they’ve had smart people look at that and figure out that that’s a reasonable projection.”

Mayor Epley, though he called Ms. Sultan “really on the ball,” thinks the new location is trouble. “Good luck to ’em,” he said, and provided the cautionary tale of the Children’s Museum of the East End, in Bridgehampton. Because they are inaccessible by foot, he said they “struggle.”

Ms. Sultan dismissed concerns that their audience will not follow them to the new site. “We’re only four miles away! You can walk there … if you’re in really good shape.”

Southampton Village’s problem now is what to do with the building once the Parrish is gone, leaving nothing but a $1 million leaky roof and Mr. Parrish’s original collection of Roman busts and classical paintings. Because his people are not trained to care for the work, he would rather the museum take Parrish’s collection when they go, but it does not jibe with their 20th-century, plein air aesthetic.

Various uses have been considered-including, briefly, installing an above-ground skating rink-but the museum’s refusal to set a firm exit date has made securing a tenant impossible. Mayor Epley wants to keep it artistic, using the historic site to house live theater, or the Hamptons International Film Festival. “I’m not worried about the past now,” he said. “I’m worried about the future, and I’m excited about the future.”

Strangely, an hour earlier, Ms. Sultan had said nearly the same thing, dismissing past conflicts in favor of a future embodied by a white paper model that she cannot wait to see full scale. “Every night, I close my eyes and imagine a walk through the galleries,” she said. But you’ll need a car to get there. Art Tussle in the Hamptons: The Tony Parrish Museum Is Leaving Town on Bad Terms