Once upon a time and not so long ago, the gallery scene in the Hamptons was the only scene. Friday nights were charity openings; Saturday nights, free wine. Cars clogged Montauk Highway for miles. Celebrities mixed with cognoscenti, authors, artists, actors, anchors, playwrights and producers. And all this took place in only one gallery: Elaine Benson’s in Bridgehampton. She was the earth mother who reigned from 1965, when she arrived, to 1998, when she passed, leaving daughter Kimberly Goff at the helm.
For 30 years, Benson put her musings into her Dan’s Papers column. She also created “South of the Highway,” anonymously, so people wouldn’t be afraid to confide. And so, we launch our “Art Seen” column—a look at the Hamptons’ burgeoning art scene—with a nod to the woman who started it all.
We found Goff in her loft-like, art-filled, concrete Water Mill home, overlooking a solar-heated pool and sprawling vegetable garden. A butterscotch cat padded after her. “There’s never been anybody to take Mom’s place,” Goff mused. “As a painter, I wish there were.
“She started so many things that have become Hamptons’ institutions. The Hospital Summer Party, the Meet the Writers book fair, the Plate Auction for the Retreat, and benefits for ARF, the Nature Conservancy and the Group for the South Fork all began at her gallery. She was a fearless powerhouse, a great connector. She began in public relations, so she knew how to create events to bring people into the gallery. Our first show, in May, was considered the official opening of summer.”
She was a true friend. When Truman Capote and Willem de Kooning wound up in the hospital from too much booze, Benson, the hospital’s Community Relations Director, was the first to show.
“Edward Albee was a great client,” Goff continued. “Lanford Wilson and Jean Kennedy curated shows of Outsider Art before it became trendy. Alan Alda’s wife, Arlene, showed her photographs there and became close. I introduced Terrance McNally to his partner, Tom Kirdahy, at our East End Gay Organization (EEGO) gallery benefit. Bud and Tinka Topping from Topping Horse Farm were constant companions.”
Peter Jennings, Julie Andrews, Betty Friedan, Bella Abzug, Joe Pintauro, Bobby Van, artists Lee Krasner, Louise Nevelson, Larry Rivers, Jimmy Ernst, Syd Solomon and Sheila Isham, Sheldon Harnick, Ted Dragon and Alfonso Ossorio, Peter Matthiessen, LongHouse founder Jack Larson and Maddoo founder Robert Dash were all part of her orbit.
Elaine started the gallery with Emanuel Benson. “He was the Dean of the Philadelphia Museum College of Art and she was Public Relations Director when they met,” Goff recalled. “She was 40. He was 60. They fell madly in love, married and moved here. There was an extraordinary concentration of artists, but no galleries. He had the connections. So, they opened the Benson Barn Gallery. ‘I’ll give you five good years,’ he promised.” Eerily, six years later, he was dead. To carry on, Elaine worked mornings in the hospital and ran to the gallery at noon.
The Elaine Benson Gallery never made big money. But it made Benson’s life rich in every other way. “Times were different,” said Goff. “It wasn’t about chrome and glass or being fancy. We sold mainly emerging artists. When things were hard, Mom said, ‘Look, Cookie, we live the way we want to live. We have the most fascinating life imaginable, scintillating people around us and endless things to talk about.’
“Art is for everyone,” she believed. And so was the Elaine Benson Gallery.