60 SummersSong & Stage

Six Decades of Arts & Entertainment on the East End

Artists and directors reflect on the past, present and future of the local arts scene.

The East End has long been a place where artists in myriad mediums have come to find inspiration, hone their skills, develop exciting and innovative new works and thrive in a community that always celebrates the creative spirit.

What stands out to you about the rich legacy of the arts on the East End, and how has it evolved over the years?

G.E. Smith, Musician: There are, and have long been, quality artists of all types living in eastern Long Island. I have been surprised several times in just the last few years to find well-known musicians living right near me. Rick Davies of Supertramp was within a mile of me for years and I didn’t know it. Now we play together.

Jess Frost installing the Ray Johnson exhibition at Guild Hall
Jess Frost installing the Ray Johnson exhibition at Guild Hall, Photo: Oliver Peterson

Jess Frost, Executive Director of The Arts Center at Duck Creek and Associate Curator/Registrar of the Guild Hall Permanent Collection: My parents brought me to exhibitions and openings at Guild Hall, Ashawagh Hall and the Elaine Benson Gallery in Bridgehampton, among others. We frequented the Birches (formerly Jungle Pete’s) and other venues for dinner and jazz throughout the ’80s. When I became a teenager, I read the nightlife section [of Dan’s Papers] regularly and remember the Warhol-esque Danceteria ads in particular.

Alex Ferrone, Photographer and owner/Director of Alex Ferrone Gallery: What stands out for me is the concentration in one area of so many artists working in varied styles and with different mediums. Along with that, I believe the diversity of gallerists along the years who have promoted, and continue to support, those individual styles have played a major role in the artistic legacy here and continue to contribute to it.

Gene Casey, Musician: I suppose the fact that, while there are the rich and famous musicians who live on the East End, the local music scene exists on its own accord. Yes, there are the occasional Jimmy Buffett or Billy Joel “sittin’ in” scenarios but the local players keep things moving along. And that is not easy to do.

Art Donovan, Artist and Lighting Designer: I think it’s the “continuity” that stands out the most. Although the East End boasts one of the richest cultural enclaves of artists in the country, its essential foundation seems to blessedly resist the seduction of the “moment.” Our area’s artists successfully resist “Twitter-ish” whims and trends while still remaining in the vanguard of fine art.

Wade Dooley, Tovah Feldshuh and Scott Schwartz, Photo: Lenny Stucker
Scott Schwartz (right) with the cast of “The Prompter” (Wade Dooley and Tovah Feldshuh), Photo: Lenny Stucker

Scott Schwartz, Artistic Director of Bay Street Theater: I’ve been at Bay Street Theater as Artistic Director for six years. While I was aware of the great performing arts scene out here before I joined the Bay Street team, my historical knowledge is a bit limited. What I can say is that in the past six years, I’ve seen the performing arts flourish, not only at Bay Street, but across the East End.

Not only is attendance and audience enthusiasm up, the amount of work being done and the variety of work has certainly expanded during my time here. I think the way the performing arts has always been led here is from the community. Passionate artists, both professional and amateur, who are part of our community, have reached out beyond the canal and across the country to attract leading artists to our area. And our lively and sophisticated audience has provided a fertile environment in which they can grow their work.

Kate Mueth, Artistic Director of the Neo-Political Cowgirls: It’s gotten tremendously busier and eternally more inventive! When we first arrived 20 years ago, it was only a couple of institutions presenting and producing. The magnets for audiences were Guild Hall, Bay Street Theater, The Stephen Talkhouse and Westhampton Beach Performing Arts Center. As the population has grown, so have the number of organizations and individuals staging, producing and presenting various art forms on “stage.” Everyone is a “producer” now—yoga studios, churches, wineries, libraries, galleries, restaurants.

Kirsten C. Lonnie, Executive Director of the Southampton Cultural Center: They have grown significantly, both in the amount of performances offered and in diversity of offerings. At the Southampton Cultural Center, for example, we offer over 130 performances every year that include free summer concerts, theater productions including musicals and plays, classical concerts and recitals, dance and more.

Terrie Sultan with art by Ross Bleckner
Terrie Sultan with art by Ross Bleckner, Photo: Barbara Lassen

Terrie Sultan, Director of the Parrish Art Museum: Since the late 1800s, the Hamptons has been a cornerstone in American art history. With the extension of the railroad from Penn Station to Southampton, important artists—such as William Merritt Chase, Winslow Homer, Thomas Moran and many others—made the journey here to paint. This legacy continued through the next century and continues on today.

It is almost easier to note which key artists did not have a relationship with this area than who did. Aside from the most well known, such as Jackson Pollock, Willem de Kooning, Robert Motherwell, Elaine de Kooning, Helen Frankenthaler, Lee Krasner, Roy Lichtenstein, Andy Warhol, Larry Rivers, Chuck Close, Cindy Sherman, Eric Fischl, Donald Sultan, Tara Donovan, Richard Serra. The point being that this area is likely one of, if not the most, significant artists’ enclave in America.

Discuss the state of the East End art scene today…

Jess Frost: The East End art scene is now thriving more than ever. I often miss the intimacy of this community in the ’80s, and the feeling like I actually knew so many of the people I was reading about in Dan’s Papers back then. But that sense of community hasn’t changed, it’s just expanding, which is what enabled me to move back to East Hampton. I subletted my apartment in Chelsea in the summer of 2004 and worked briefly for Donald Baechler, making backgrounds for his paintings. That season I saw the writing on the wall, and with the art scene out east growing, it galvanized my desire to return here full-time.

Looking every bit like the star that she is, Kate Mueth in her green leather jacket, brought a little light to the opening of Paton Miller's
Kate Mueth with art by Paton Miller, Photo: Daniel Gonzalez

Kate Mueth: It’s interesting. It’s tireless. Brava to all the art makers! This expanse of performance offerings is entrepreneurially wonderful and yet simultaneously challenging as it spreads the audiences thin. I see that at times this waters down the ability for local arts organizations and artists to make clear ground within the community, particularly in the summer. I’d say the challenge of “an embarrassment of riches” is a remarkable place from which to operate.

While I am always a cheerleader for “more arts, please!” there can also be legitimate drawbacks with oversaturation—whether that be to the quality of the work, financial support for the organizations calling the East End home, or to the monies raised that then leave our community—and there’s real blowback to the East End with that last one that never gets acknowledged. There is more potential audience than ever before, but also countless new opportunities for finding a place offering entertainment which, while exciting and wonderful on one hand, also creates an environment of this beautiful, creative snake eating itself.

Terrie Sultan: There are many, many creative people that call this place home. The area continues to thrive as a magnet for visual and performing artists, musicians, and writers. It is a very rich environment. I would like to think that the construction of the new Parrish Art Museum building in Water Mill plays a significant role here in continuing to advance the creative legacy this community enjoys. Our “Artists Choose Artists” project—in which seven established artists each select two artists from the area who will all have their work on view in the Museum exhibition—has proven to be a terrific mechanism for introducing artists to one other and the general public.

G.E. Smith on stage
G.E. Smith, Photo: Barbara Lassen

G.E. Smith: We’re lucky to have some good places to both see music performed and to play at Stephen Talkhouse is a longtime favorite of mine.

Gene Casey: It is vibrant, colorful, varied—everything from open mics that yield great surprises to summer concerts and the wineries, the old guard and the newcomers. The local press and LTV and WPPB, and to a lesser but appreciated extent WEHM all cover the local music scene. I think the music scene is busier than ever, despite the bizarre attempts to outlaw live music by local government.

Scott Schwartz: It is lively and varied! I love that I can see theater, dance, music and comedy almost every week in the summer and now also year round.

Art Donovan, Photo: Barbara Lassen
Art Donovan, Photo: Barbara Lassen

Art Donovan: Surprisingly diverse. I say “surprisingly” because the predominance of resort and seaside community art scenes are, forgive me, colloquial. Here on the East End, the year-round infusion of NYC and East Coast professionals mark our community one of the most artistically and culturally advanced in the country.

What is the future of the East End arts scene?

G.E. Smith: If I knew the future of music or anything else, well, I’d be a lucky guy. I can tell you that music is not going away. Not here or anywhere else.

Photographer Alex Ferrone.
Photographer Alex Ferrone, Photo: Nicholas Chowske

Alex Ferrone: There is a tremendous flow of visitors to our area throughout the year enjoying the region’s offerings, and I believe the art scene could progressively benefit further from a bit more promotional advocacy outside the area. Some visitors, and even some residents, are aware of the North Fork tourism attractions, but may not be aware of the wonderful art scene here. So with that in mind, I would like to see more attention on this region’s artistic offerings.

I think promotional forces within and outside of the area can bring in new audiences of interested admirers and collectors who will enjoy experiencing our region’s art district. That, in turn will expand the overall artistic scene with additional galleries and artists locating here.

Art Donovan: I can’t make any predictions here. That depends upon so many unforeseen factors—social, financial and cultural, that any prediction may be staggeringly incorrect. I’m reminded of the predictions made by futurists in the 1930s and ’40s. If they were proved correct, we would now be wearing silver jumpsuits and riding in flying cars. Nope, can’t possibly predict it.

Scott Schwartz: I see the base of performing arts here on the East End continuing to grow and flourish. As audiences continue to grow and artists continue to have good experiences here, I think there will be more and more offerings from Montauk to Sag Harbor to Hampton Bays and beyond, not only in the summer, but all year long.

Kate Mueth: The Hamptons is a brand that often forgets that people really live here. The issue of art reaching all populations is a place we must acknowledge holds space for growth. The need for reaching deeper into communication with our at-risk and year-round communities is tantamount and it calls us to be more generous and curious in how we offer up our endeavors. I do hope doing so is part of our East End “evolving.”

I’d like to personally make more street-version theater, of the “every man/woman/youth” nature—the kind our towns usually say “no” to. I also see the imperativeness in imaginative partnerships and collaborations. While the fear response is to shrink and worry that “there’s not enough to go around,” whether money, support, audience, ego space, the higher vision response is, “there’s abundance and myriad ways we can come together in what it means to be art makers.” I’d love to see the East End arts scene evolve to step off of the dime of the age-old “Hamptons scene” interpretation and get more grounded in serving our full-time community better.

Gene Casey and Nancy Atlas
Gene Casey and Nancy Atlas, Photo: Barbara Lassen

Gene Casey: My crystal ball is a little cloudy, but I do happen to believe live performance will never die off. The recording industry has changed to the point where I do not recognize how it works—does it work? Yet, live entertainment is natural and necessary and will outlive whatever format or technological advance that comes down the pike.

Terrie Sultan: The creative community will continue to flock and thrive here. Like begets like—people want to be with a group they can relate to, communicate and share with. Again, I do believe that the Parrish will play a major role in ensuring that the “East End art scene” will thrive for many generations.

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