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The Parrish: What Have You Got When It’s Gone?

Posted on 07 October 2010

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By Helen A. Harrison

The thump of Governor Paterson’s shovel breaking ground on July 19 for the new Parrish Art Museum in Water Mill must have sounded to the Southampton village elders like a wake-up call. The very next day, they announced the creation of an “arts district” in beautiful downtown Southampton, embracing the Cultural Center, the Rogers Memorial Library, Peconic Public Broadcasting, the Historical Museums and the Parrish, which is its anchor and raison d’etre. The district’s first annual fall festival, billed as its “coming-out party” and dubbed Arts Harvest Southampton, is now underway, and not a moment too soon. That line, “you don’t know what you’ve got ‘til it’s gone,” from the old Joni Mitchell song, comes to mind. What happens to the arts district when its chief attraction leaves town?

As reported in July, the arts district is a key element of the village’s so-called vision plan, which recommends making art “a defining characteristic” of Southampton. So now the planners and officials are scrambling to figure out what to do with the building when the Parrish vacates it in 2012. They should have thought of that back in 1998, at the time of the museum’s centenary, when ambitious expansion plans were unveiled. That proposal, which called for an aggressively modern glass pavilion and demolition of part of the Job’s Lane garden wall, was met with hostility from several quarters, including the village board. No construction could be done without their approval, and not only because of zoning restrictions.

The village actually owns the Parrish’s building. Originally called the Southampton Art Museum, it was deeded to the village by Mrs. Samuel Longstreth Parrish, the widow of the museum’s founder. In short order the collections of art and antique furniture were relegated to the basement and the galleries were used to store plumbing fixtures (the mayor at the time was a plumber). When it was learned that the next step was to demolish the building and replace it with a parking lot—shades of Joni Mitchell again—a group of concerned citizens formed a private non-profit board of trustees and revitalized the museum, renamed in Parrish’s honor, in 1952.

But although the collections, governance and funding are private, the trustees can’t touch the building without the village’s say-so, and that wasn’t forthcoming. Hence the decision to move, first to the Southampton College campus, and when that fell through, to the Water Mill location.

On a smaller scale, this echoes the struggle to relocate the Barnes Foundation from its original home in Merion, Pennsylvania to Fairmont Park in Philadelphia, although in the opposite direction—from in town to the outskirts, whereas the Barnes will move from the suburbs to downtown. If you’ve seen the film, “The Art of the Steal,” you know that this plan has caused a titanic controversy, fueled in part by charges of mismanagement that bear no resemblance to the Parrish’s situation. But what strikes me as similar is the turnaround of the good people of Merion. For decades they wished the place would disappear, prevented it from expanding, and resented its parking problems, litterbug visitors and annoying tour bus traffic. Now that it’s leaving, however, they’re wringing their hands, howling in protest and passing resolutions demanding that it stay. Too little, and way too late.

Like Merion, Southampton is soon going to have a big, beautiful but very vacant building in the heart of town—not exactly a tourist attraction. Mayor Mark Epley has acknowledged that the Parrish’s departure will “leave a hole for a long time,” unless some alternative is found, preferably one that’s compatible with the arts-district concept. One proposal is to make it a multi-use facility for visual and performing arts, a kind of village cultural center. Oops, wait a minute, isn’t there already one of those just down the block? Let’s think again.

Remember the Long Island Automotive Museum that used to be on the highway, next door to the tombstone shop? That was so cool. Why not revive it, and put it into the Parrish building? I think it could work. They had an Avanti in the transept gallery not long ago, and it looked pretty good in there. Roll in a few dream boats and cream puffs for visitors to drool over, show car-chase movies in the concert hall, and problem solved. Not a good fit for the arts district? Anyone who thinks cars can’t be works of art didn’t see that Avanti.

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