By Claire Walla
I’m standing with Terrie Sultan, director of the Parrish Art Museum in Southampton, on top of loose soil, while wearing a hard hat and close-toed shoes. No more than 30 minutes prior, the ground beneath our feet was a shallow ditch where electrical conduits had recently been placed.
“Things change so quickly here!” Sultan exclaimed.
It’s Tuesday, July 19, one year to the day since the Parrish Art Museum broke ground here in Water Mill at the site of its future location.
With a skeleton largely in place and concrete walls and flooring already poured, Sultan said construction is “more or less” where they had planned for it to be by now. Though she admitted this winter’s prolonged bout of snowstorms halted construction longer than site managers had projected, the project is still on-track for completion by summer 2012.
The grounds are still more dirt than anything else, and stray pieces of building materials — wood, nails, concrete slabs and Styrofoam — lie in piles waiting to be placed. But, the steel frame of the 12,300-square-foot long structure hints at what the final product will eventually look like.
Sultan takes me on a tour of the barren building while narrating form onto its steel ribs with a description of what the museum will entail.
“One of the points of the design is to actually show the process of how the building is put together,” she said.
Once we step around to the long, northern wall and stand where the main entrance to the structure will be, Sultan points to where the inside walls meet the ceiling. This is where the construction crew is placing light-colored perlins, practicing with ways to transition from what will be white, sheet-rocked walls to a ceiling composed of exposed wooden rafters and the corrugated metal that makes up the roof.
In addition, Sultan explains that a long, rectangular window inside the main entryway will not only peer into the museum, but will create a view that bisects the center of the structure and continues through the south wall and out onto Route 27 and the fields beyond.
“One of the major directives of the building design was to continue to emphasize the relationship of the inside to the outside, which was a major part of the architecture of the early East End because the light and the atmosphere is so beautiful here,” Sultan continued.
The original blueprint for the project called for several smaller buildings, all of various shapes and sizes, a concept that finds its roots in the potato barns that were once almost superfluous here, but eventually came to function as studios for many artists. Sultan said members of the museum’s board traveled to the working studios of such local artists as Fairfield Porter, Willem de Kooning, Jackson Pollock, Chuck Close, Eric Fischl and Julian Schnabel.
“We wanted to absorb the atmosphere of how these artists work,” she said.
While the original concept of building several separate studio spaces was largely quashed by the down-turn in the economy (it included 64 walls of varying sizes — the current plan only has four), Sultan said the same concepts are still present throughout.
Plus, with this new model, the new Parrish will have what’s now being referred to as The Spine Gallery. This long corridor — literally, the spine of the museum space — will be used as the main artery channeling people and paintings through the museum, but it will also be used for exhibition space. In all, the museum will have about 12,300 square feet to use for gallery space, as opposed to the 4,500 it currently has in Southampton Village.
“The real dream has been to have the opportunity to work with the [museum’s] permanent collection and to demonstrate to this community just how much a part of this community we are,” Sultan continued. “And it’s happening.”
For her part, Sultan cannot seem to begin to express the level of enthusiasm she has for this project.
“This is better than everything I’ve ever done,” she exclaimed. “I’ve been in the museum business for more than 25 years and I’ve worked with some of the world’s great artists; and I have to say, nothing compares to this project, for the joy of the creativity involved. There are all these great minds … and I don’t just mean the architects or the landscape architects. It includes the builders and the structural engineers and the concrete people, everyone came to the table and talked about how this building was going to go up.”
“It’s a large-scale work of art,” she continued.
“This is every museum director’s dream, somehow: to have the opportunity to realize something that’s lasting,” she added with a smile and an air of appreciation. “Long, long after I’m gone, this building will still be here. And it will still be a part of this community.”