The history of the Southampton Arts Center is a long one. Samuel Longstreth Parrish, a successful Quaker attorney from Philadelphia (and now Southampton’s best-known benefactor), constructed the building that now houses the Center to be a gallery for exhibiting his collected treasures, consisting mostly of Italian Renaissance art and reproductions of classical Greek and Roman statuary. Built in 1897, Parrish’s gallery was known as the Art Museum at Southampton.
After 50 years, the brick structure began showing its age, and so in 1952 a restoration began—spearheaded by Mrs. Robert M. Littlejohn, a respected resident of Southampton’s estate section—to restore the building, now renamed the Parrish Art Museum. But by the mid-1980s it became clear that the Parrish Art Museum was outgrowing this original building—it lacked the basic infrastructure required of a professional museum, and it lacked the space to show its permanent collection along with temporary exhibitions, let alone new acquisitions. And so the Parrish Art Museum moved to a new building in Water Mill in 2012.
The building they left behind in Southampton is the property of the Village of Southampton. Losing a major art museum and having a beautiful empty building on its hands, the Village did quite a bit of soul-searching to maintain the coherence of the historic building and the values it represented. It could have turned out to be a lot of things, but Mayor Mark Epley, Planning Commission Chairman Siamak Samii, and Planning Commission member Thomas Knight agreed that a multidisciplinary, mixed-arts use for the building would not compete with the Southampton Cultural Center on Pond Lane, another key element of the arts district. Rather, they said such a facility would complement the offerings at the Cultural Center.
The Southampton Arts Center’s mission is not just to promote art. The foundation works to encourage creative expression, familial unity, and community. Its galleries often show East End artists and its theater features performances, movies and live music. The building is surrounded by lush lawns on which children and adults can gather in the spring and summer months for musical treats or for art-centered workshops. It’s an interactive cultural center, really. Michele Thompson, director of the Center, has big plans to make the space more “organic” to the community.
“We’re working on making modern amenities happen for the Center,” Thompson says. “We really need to accommodate the flexibility of artists now.”
Enthusiastic and extremely knowledgeable, Thompson is devoted to the betterment of the Center. She wants to bring the Center’s facilities up to date and to also bring more natural sunlight into the second gallery space as a means of balancing art and the outdoors. Wanting to reinvigorate the space, she’s partnering with institutions like the Bay Street Theater, the Hamptons International Film Festival (HIFF) and the Miriam and Ira D. Wallach Gallery of Columbia University, to name a few. She’s added staff and she’s had over 10,000 visitors flock to the Center from July to August 2014 alone. Thompson will soon announce upcoming corporate sponsorships.
The space retains its historical integrity with beautiful features like its brick façade and walls, the wrought-iron side door and gates, and the interior ceiling’s plaster friezes. Inside, you may notice how the pure white walls in the gallery are kissed by soft, warm studio lights that shine on artwork of vastly different sizes and content. It is truly a calm, clean, and spiritual environment. Greco-Roman busts adorn the shady lawn just beside the entrance, an example of Samuel Parrish’s passion for iconographic art and serious art collecting. This is display enough to convince anyone to further explore the establishment. Or it could be the last thing that you visit—coming out of the museum, you’re drawn to peek behind the brick walls overlooking Jobs Lane. The busts will be there, lined up like tombs at a national cemetery, waiting ever patiently for your admiration.
In addition to their art exhibitions and installations, the Southampton Arts Center features outdoor movies on Friday evenings throughout the summer. Check DansPapers.com’s online events calendar at Events.DansPapers.com for listings.
The Southampton Arts Center is located at 25 Jobs Lane in Southampton. Call 631-283-0967 or visit southamptoncenter.org.