The New Parrish Art Museum Rises
by judith h. dobrzynski
The new Parrish Art Museum is under construction on Montauk Highway in Water Mill
With its lavish décor, delectable food, and late-night DJ-and-dancing, the Parrish Art Museum’s Midsummer Party, set this summer for July 14, ranks as one of the most anticipated events of the Hamptons season. Among the 1,000 or so guests who come for dinner and dessert are artists Eric Fischl, April Gornik, Ross Bleckner, and Malcolm Morley and there’s always a sprinkling of celebs like Joel Grey, Kelsey Grammer, or Rufus Wainwright. For the museum it’s a boon, bringing in around $700,000 for operations. “We raise a lot of money there,” says trustee Debbie Bancroft.
This year’s celebration, though, marks the end of an era: it’s the last time the gala will be held in the museum’s Gilded Age Italianate mansion on Jobs Lane in Southampton.
But hold the nostalgia. Long before next year’s party, the Parrish will fling open the doors not just to its stunning new building on Montauk Highway in Water Mill but also to a bigger and brighter future. With three times the exhibition space of its former dwelling, the new Parrish aspires to become a destination museum and in the process change the cultural landscape of the East End. “It’s incredibly beautiful—the architecture and landscape will be an inspiration for people,” says Douglas Polley, cochair of the museum’s board. Growing increasingly enthusiastic as he speaks, he ticks off the vision: “Visitors will increase, membership will go up, admissions will go up, we’ll have more donors to the annual fund, and the increased revenue will give us increased opportunity.”
Or, as Terrie Sultan, the museum’s director, puts it, “I think the new Parrish will give the beach a run for its money.”
They would say those things, of course. But outsiders tend to agree with them. “It will really galvanize the community and be a focal point for weekenders and residents,” says David Maupin, a co-owner of the Lehmann Maupin galleries in Chelsea and the Lower East Side who has a home in Bridgehampton and at one time also had a gallery in the Hamptons. “I think it might be more successful than the beach because some people don’t go to the beach.” And it really doesn’t matter whether they do or not, as the East End is richly endowed with collectors, artists, and culture vultures.
Assuming all goes as planned, the Parrish’s November grand opening will be especially sweet, because getting to this point was more like spending a Friday afternoon driving from Manhattan on the Long Island Expressway, complete with a couple of breakdowns, than gliding into the Southampton heliport. Envisioned by Parrish trustees at least as early as the late-1980s, the expansion experienced a series of false starts and backtracks that might have deterred fainter hearts. Finally, in 2005, the Parrish purchased the 14-acre Water Mill site and, in 2006, it unveiled a design by renowned Swiss-based architects Herzog & de Meuron, who were chosen after the usual competitive selection process. Their plan, an innovative cluster of about 30 individual galleries, with varying shapes and heights, was hailed as extraordinarily sensitive to the landscape and to the artists who’ve worked on the East End of Long Island throughout the decades. Resembling the barns and sheds the artists had converted into studios—an idea the architects devised after interviewing scores of local artists—the gallery pavilions also captured the northern light favored by artists everywhere. Exhilarated by the prospect of building a world-class museum, the Parrish’s board set about raising the estimated $55-to-$65-million construction costs.
Then, the economic crisis of 2008 dashed those dreams.
When Sultan took up her post as director in April 2008, the stock market was down, but not yet out. “By July 2008, I felt a lot like Barack Obama—the job I’d come for was very different from the one I thought I had,” she says. “A tsunami of economic woes had rippled through every area in the country.”
Still, the museum had to do something. Very little of the permanent collection could be shown in the century-old Parrish, and its physical plant needed upgrading.
Over lunch one day, Sultan; deputy director Anke Jackson; Ascan Mergenthaler, the Herzog & de Meuron partner who supervised the project; and a trustee or two considered their conundrum. They talked about what they most cared about in a new museum (the light, for one) and the museums they loved. Then Mergenthaler “drew a little drawing, and we liked it,” Sultan says. “It all flowed from there.” A larger group was convened to discuss their options over four to five days, “and in the end, we had the concept for the new museum,” Sultan says.
The new concept simplified the old one. It’s still modeled on artists’ studios, but the cluster arrangement was scrapped. The galleries have been stretched out, and arranged on two rows along both sides of a central corridor, making a single 615-foot-long barn-like structure. “It flows so well from a viewer’s perspective,” Polley says. And though it’s nearly 25 percent smaller than the first design, it still provides 12,200 square feet of gallery space—more than 60 percent of which will be dedicated to the permanent collection—all lit by north-facing skylights. It cost just $26.2 million, almost all of which has been raised, with Fiona and Stanley Druckenmiller, the Peter Jay Sharp Foundation, the Carroll and Milton Petrie Foundation, and The Harriet and Esteban Vicente Foundation among the largest donors. “We made a smart economic decision without losing the essence of the new museum,” says Bancroft.
Though less distinctive than the first one, the new design has its fans. “It’s much better than the earlier version, which was needlessly complicated and very expensive to build, with interior spaces that were not really useful—just a lot of extra walls,” says artist Chuck Close, who will be honored at this year’s Midsummer Party. “What’s best about these galleries is that they are simple in the way that potato barns in that area were simple and were just what they needed to function. They really made spaces that look like the spaces in which the art was made.”
The design plays directly to the museum’s mission, which Sultan says won’t change. “We have a special focus on art created in this area, but never exclusively,” she says, noting that the legacy of East End artists has reverberated through art history, from the 19th century plein air painting of William Merritt Chase through several generations of Abstract Expressionism through Pop art to living artists.
November will bring the first-ever installation featuring art from all periods in the Parrish’s 2,600-work permanent collection. Many will be completely new to visitors, including some from the more than 30 works that have been acquired in the ongoing “Campaign for Art.” They include a large Louise Nevelson sculpture, Dorothea Rockburne’s Touchstone and Rainer Fetting’s Two Sunsets in East Hampton. Sultan, like every museum director, has her eye on more. “We covet a major Jackson Pollock, and some more great Abstract Expressionism pieces,” she says. “We have some, but it would be nice to have more works by Fischl, Salle, Bleckner, Close, Alice Aycock….”
The design of what many people are characterizing as a “world-class museum”—it’s almost a mantra among museum supporters—provides another attraction, too. Visitors can linger outdoors, sitting on benches built into the exterior that run the entire length of the building on both sides and contemplate the peaceful landscape—the wildflowers, the tall grass, the scrub woodland, the sky.
Bancroft, who has cochaired the Midsummer Party several times, is already envisioning events at the new Parrish. Inside, there’s a 2,400-square-foot room that’s perfect for receptions. “And,” she says, “There’s an enormous terrace near the café, where there could be dancing, or even bocce.” It’s covered, so there’s not even a need for a tent. 279 Montauk Hwy., Water Mill
photography by Herzog & de Meuron (new parrish, gallery, highway view); Patrick McMullan/PatrickMcMullan.com (midsummer party); Gary Mamay (peter dayton, gornik); RYAN MCUNE/PatrickMcMullan.com (fischl)