By Rebecca Liebson and Luis Ruiz Dominguez
If it weren’t for the two cartoon-inspired Roy Lichtenstein sculptures towering over the front gate, the Parrish Art Museum in Water Mill could easily be mistaken for a typical patch of East End farmland, with wild grasses sprouting throughout the property.
Opened five years ago this week, the Parrish celebrated the anniversary of its barn-inspired building on Sunday, offering free admission as part of a special community day.
Long Island has five museums dedicated exclusively to art, but the Parrish is the only one that was built in the last decade. Prior to 2012, the museum had occupied the same building in downtown Southampton since 1896.
“The goal for the new museum certainly was to develop a space where we could do temporary exhibitions and show work from the permanent collection at the same time,” Terrie Sultan, Director of the Parrish said.
Aside from increasing the square footage, the current location has also helped the Parrish to appeal to a larger audience, making art more accessible to the community as a whole.
“Since moving into the new building they have more space so they’ve done a lot of different outreach to create programming that’s friendly to different kinds of people,” Pat Rogers, Publisher and Managing Editor of HamptonsArtHub.com said. “It makes it a friendly place to walk into for someone who maybe wouldn’t go to something more formal.”
The museum drew 61,967 total visitors and gained 342 new members last year, according to their 2016 annual report.
One way the museum has increased its visibility among those unfamiliar with the local art scene is through the annual Parrish Road Show event. Each summer local artists are commissioned to take their work out of the galleries and into the streets, placing site specific art installations throughout the surrounding communities.
“People’s perception and expectations change when they enter a museum,” Corinne Erni, the Curator of Special Projects for the Parrish said. “However, when they encounter a work of art in an unexpected location—in nature, on water, on a highway, in a barn—it suddenly makes them look at the world around them differently, perhaps discovering or understanding something new about a location they see every day.”
In recent years, the Parrish has increased its focus on appealing to children through various art education programs.
Thanks to a three year grant from Institute of Museum and Library Services the museum has become deeply embedded in the curriculum of the Southampton, Bridgehampton and Tuckahoe school districts, developing a program that incorporates visual arts into language arts instruction.
“It’s basically about observing analyzing and interpreting which you do in art and in literature.” Cara Conklin-Wingfield, the Education Director for the Parrish said. “The fourth piece is to reflect on your understanding so they do that through producing their own writing and their own visual art.”
In an education system where arts budgets are usually the first to get cut, Barbara Imperiale, an art teacher in the Tuckahoe School District, said that programs like the one developed by the Parrish are crucial for giving students a creative outlet. “With education right it’s really hard for kids to explore their own ideas and concepts so I think art education is a great vehicle for that,” she said. “They don’t always realize that they’re learning but at the end of the day they’re able to explain to you exactly what the lesson was about.”
Through an initiative called Access Parish, the museum has developed special accommodations for groups with physical and developmental disabilities who may not otherwise have access to cultural experiences.
“These programs are intended to help them make a connection to the real world through artwork, even if they’re suffering through debilitating diseases that might make it more difficult,” Sultan said.
Partnering with the Alzheimer’s Disease Resource Center (ADRC), the Parrish created a monthly program which buses Alzheimer’s patients from across Long Island to the museum. They are then able to take tours of the galleries and create their own art projects.
“What we see is people coming alive,” Mary Ann Malack-Ragona, Executive Director for the ADRC said. “It gives them a sense of purpose. It brings back some of the functioning in the brain that was lost because of isolation.”
To help expose the masses to the growing number of innovators on the East End, in 2012 the Parrish began hosting a lecture series called PechaKucha Night Hamptons. The series gives local artists a chance to present their work directly to museumgoers.
“It is good practice to discuss your own work to a diverse audience of individuals who are not familiar with your ideas and your tools for making art,” Patricia Maurides, a multidisciplinary artist who presented at PechaKucha in March said. “Ultimately, it is a way to expand artistic literacy beyond the studio and beyond the academic classroom to the greater public.”
In the past five years, Rachel Judlowe, Director of The Architectural League of New York said the Parrish has gone from being a local treasure, to a prominent player in the art world as a whole. “The Parrish has certainly helped put the East End of the map culturally,” she said, adding that the museum has done a good job of balancing both regional and national artists.
“I think that we’re lucky to have the Parrish and other cultural organizations that make it easy to find art because that’s really rare,” Rogers said. “How can you appreciate art or even get to know what you think about it if you don’t have the opportunity to see it?”