By Annette Hinkle
When the Parrish Art Museum opens the doors of its new home on Saturday, the public will get a first glimpse inside the impressive barn-inspired structure that dominates the landscape on Montauk Highway in Water Mill.
Designed by Herzog & de Meuron architects for the express purpose of displaying artwork in the best possible light, this is the first museum to be built on the East End in more than a century and the state of the art facility is expansive.
Set on 14 acres, it is 34,400 square feet overall with more than 12,000 square feet of exhibition space (4,600 of which is designated for special exhibitions and 7,000 which is for museum’s permanent collection) and a 2,400 square foot theater — to say nothing of the café, reception area, lobby, covered terrace and administrative offices for Parrish staff.
But a museum is more than just numbers, and after witnessing the vision take hold from the spark of an idea, seeing it through the design phase and now, completion of the final product, the Parrish’s director Terrie Sultan has been in the unique position to watch the project grow from the ground up.
Now, on the eve of the museum’s official opening and with the staff and art in place, Sultan is able to stand back, consider the results and share her impressions of the final product.
The centerpiece of the facility, naturally, are the galleries and within the museum they vary by size — most are 1,000 square feet, but there are also two intimate 500 square foot spaces, and one each at 2,000 and 2,500 square feet. Art can also be displayed in the spine of the museum — the center corridor running alongside the galleries, and the variety, notes Sultan, enhances the experience for viewers.
“It creates a pleasing change in the intimacy of scale. As a visitor you don’t get fatigued seeing the same thing over and over again,” explains Sultan who adds that the sheer amount of gallery space allows new possibilities in mounting exhibitions.
“For the first time in history, if we do a special exhibition, we can offer an installation of works from the permanent collection that contextualize it,” says Sultan, pointing to a 2011 showing of work by Dorothea Rockburne at the museum’s Job’s Lane site as one that would have had greater depth in the new space. “We could have featured work by people she studied with, or people who studied with her. There are all kinds of ways to make exhibits more enriching, more detailed, denser and create diverse ways to understand art better than in the past.”
“We can also now do all kinds of installations with the permanent collection,” she adds. “Guest curators can come in and mine the collection. We have these beautiful sky lit spaces made for looking at art. In some galleries there are 25 to 30 pieces, another of the same size has just four pictures. And it works great in both.”
“It’s a much richer experience for visitors. You can come for an hour and see all kinds of great stuff, have a bite in the café and see a movie,” notes Sultan. “It’s a center of engagement.”
Beyond the gallery spaces themselves, there are also the little surprises — touches Sultan didn’t expect would impact her as much as they have now that the package is complete.
“One of the amazing things I hadn’t really focused on is the proportion of the doorways going from the spine into the galleries and from one gallery to the next,” she says. “It’s a beautiful proportion — and a small detail. But the result is amazingly pleasing.”
Ultimately though, for Sultan the true star of the show in the new space is something the building actually brings in from the outside — that famous East End light which has drawn artists to the area for generations.
“It’s beyond what I could have imagined,” she says. “You see the skylights going in and you think you know what it’s going to be like. Now the artwork is in the gallery and things change. I have to say, it’s beyond my expectations which were incredibly high. Being in the Fairfield Porter gallery and looking up and seeing the blue of the sky and clouds through the skylight, it’s such an uplifting experience.”
“Even during the storm when we had no power, being in those galleries was like being in the most tranquil place you can imagine,” says Sultan.
And Sultan should know. She has been in the museum field for 30 years and has worked for some of the most highly-regarded arts institutions in the country. But in the end, Sultan is feeling the new Parrish may top them all.
“This museum is just about perfect. It fills my heart with joy to be here,” says Sultan. “I feel surges of creativity when I’m here and so grateful to have the opportunity to be a part of this.”
Even better, notes Sultan, is what others have said about the new space so far — including artist Peter Campus who came on site to install a piece of art which the Parrish had acquired.
“He said, ‘I’ve shown in every museum in the world — but I’ve never seen a museum as beautiful as this one,’” notes Sultan adding that Malcolm Morley, whose work is the subject of one of the new Parrish’s inaugural exhibitions, told her he was leaving the building a different person than when he came in.
“When you hear that from artists, you know you’ve done something special,” says Sultan. “That makes me proud.”
The new Parrish Art Museum officially opens to the public at 11 a.m. on Saturday, November 10, 2012 (open house for members is 9 to 11 a.m.). The museum is located at 279 Montauk Highway in Water Mill. Call 283-2118 for details.