Every summer New Yorkers leave the city for the Hamptons for beaches, drinks and fine dining. Something else drew Manhattan residents this past Memorial Day weekend: the Hamptons’ art scene, which has been transforming in the last two years.
The Hamptons has always had an arts scene, but it’s never seemed so vibrant. More spaces are opening in the area and instead of setting up pop-ups like dealers have been doing in recent years, some gallery owners are making a concerted effort this summer to invest in an ambitious program that will extend beyond this season to include both international and local artists, often with a strong emphasis on the region’s rich artistic heritage.
The momentum began in 2020, in the early stages of the pandemic, when Manhattanites ventured east to find shelter in the hamlets of Long Island. They snapped up rental apartments or casually bought mansions, and enrolled their children in the private and public schools that they hoped would open in-person tuition sooner than their city counterparts.
While these Manhattanites waited, galleries and auction houses dutifully shipped works to outposts stretching from Southampton to Montauk, like nomads following migrating prey. Among those that did were galleries such as Van de Weghe, Lisson and Di Donna, all of which set up seasonal spaces that closed at the end of the season.
Now some dealers are betting even bigger by dedicating permanent galleries in the Hamptons.
“It seemed very natural to come here,” said New York retailer David Lewis at the grand opening of his new East Hampton premises. “The scene here has gotten a lot bigger and more dynamic and I thought it would be a good idea to be a part of it.”
David Lewis featured a number of works by Thornton Dial, a late self-taught artist whose work is seen more frequently today, with the Met acquiring ten of his works in 2014. The reception featured paintings that focused on Dial’s use of the tiger motif, which symbolized his person’s struggle for survival and the larger struggle for civil rights. Lewis said of that work, “There’s an experienced and discerning clientele in the East End, so it makes sense to put out quality work like Dial’s here.”
Ellie Rines, founder of Lower East Side Gallery 56 Henry, attended many events this weekend and noted that the scene had matured since the initial panic movements of the early pandemic.
“Last summer this flood of people took over clothing stores, put pictures there and called it a gallery,” Rines said. To her relief, the rabble seemed to have disappeared, making way for more sophisticated programming. Of Max Levai’s new space, the Ranch, Rines said, “The Ranch raises the bar for new institutions in the East.”
Founded by a former director of the Marlborough Gallery, Levai has brought an ambitious range of works to this space, now in its second season. Monumental sculptures by Frank Stella were on display during the opening reception last Sunday. Werner Büttner’s pictures were impressively displayed in a stable that had been converted into a gallery. The other barn remains a stable and there are a few horses grazing in the pasture which provided a pretty backdrop for the barbecue hosted by Levai.
But as much as these new spaces have to offer, Rines especially loves the local galleries from the Hamptons, which have been championing East End artists for the past decade.
“You have to show quality artwork to counter all the lobsters and jerks that are coming in from the East,” Rines said. “The fact that there is a strong art scene is because of places like Halsey McKay and Eric Firestone.”
Halsey McKay had exhibited a number of Matt Kenny’s works. At first glance, Kenny’s images of the World Trade Center look like iPhone photos, with sharp shadows and the reduced angle of pointing a cell phone camera up a skyscraper. Upon closer inspection, a surprise strikes: a caricatured, menacing figure that pops out of the buildings in every painting.
The Eric Firestone Gallery presented Hanging/Leaning: Women Artists on Long Island, 1960s–80s, an enormous tribute that included the gallery’s usual exhibition space and an expanded storage space just down Newtown Lane, a street away from the mainstream one Row of shops including Cartier and Stop & Shop.
And the season is just getting started: major exhibitions and events at local museums like the Parrish are yet to come.
As much as things have changed, the scene remains the same in some key respects. Kids run around while their parents sip rosé, and price lists — those little-seen, heavily guarded slips of paper in urban galleries — float around the room, alongside press releases or under sweating mugs.
“All these pop-ups over the last year have taken away from the unique artistic history there,” Rines said. “The community of local artists has kept that history and those standards, so you just have to ignore the hustle and bustle of Sotheby’s salesroom.”