The Art Barge is a familiar visual landmark on the Napeague skyline, and after five decades of being used as an artist's studio, the Victor D’Amico Institute of Art — which includes the Art Barge and the D’Amico house — has been recognized as a historic landmark as well.
The East Hampton Town Board on Thursday, August 15, voted unanimously to designate both structures as historic landmarks, which will protect them from demolition or substantial alteration, and also make them eligible for new grants.
“It’s going to give us legitimacy now that we’ve been recognized by the town as a historic structure,” Art Barge President Christopher Kohan said on the deck of the World War I-era Navy barge on Monday, adding that with the landmark status, the barge’s stewards will be able to apply for grants and get the building “back into shape.”
The Art Barge is in need of bulkhead repairs. Mr. Kohan said that last year, four nor’easters caused water to break through several of the bulkhead’s wooden slats, liquefying the sand and taking it out to sea. Now, the lack of sand is allowing water to creep up closer to the barge.
Two hundred feet of the bulkhead will be replaced, strengthened and heightened 18 inches to preserve the Art Barge for the future, and the landmark designation will make the Art Barge eligible for additional grants to fix the bulkhead.
Mr. Kohan had to apply for permits through the state, the East Hampton Town Trustees and the town. One final permit is needed to begin the project.
In addition, the Victor D’Amico Institute of Art’s board of trustees could apply for grants to winterize, paint and renovate the more-than-50-year-old building.
The landmarking process started about a year ago, after Carol Steinberg, a member of the East Hampton Arts Council, approached Mr. Kohan asking if the institute had any kind of historic designation. Mr. Kohan said Ms. Steinberg was curious about the barge and the D’Amicos’ personal home because of their local and national importance in the artist community.
After realizing the building did not have historic designation, Ms. Steinberg and a half-dozen artists, along with Councilwoman Sylvia Overby, wrote a proposal urging the town to grant the institute historic designation.
A primary objective for the Victor D’Amico Institute of Art is furthering the legacy of Mr. D’Amico and his wife, Mabel, who both have local, national, and international significance in the world of art.
The D’Amicos were among the first of the mid-20th century artists and cultural influencers who came to the East End to establish an art colony in the 1940s. They are historically significant as pioneers of art education. He was the founding director of education at the Museum of Modern Art. He was granted the Medal of Honor by the National Gallery of Art in Washington, D.C., for outstanding service in the field of art education, received an honorary degree of doctor of fine arts from the Philadelphia Museum College of Art, and received a citation of merit from the State University of New York at Buffalo.
Also an artist and art educator, Mabel D'Amico taught at Rye High School in Westchester County for four decades.
The Victor D’Amico Institute of Art includes the Art Barge, which hosts a summer art school, and the D’Amico Studio and Archive, the artists' former home, which has been turned into a museum that contains art, furnishings, books, films, documents and other items pertaining to the D’Amicos’ private life, teaching and art practice.
According to Mr. Kohan, the D’Amico residence represents an early modernist beach house featuring glass and open interior spaces. Next to the main house sits a cottage that was transported from the former Montauk fishing village on Fort Pond Bay. There is also a bayman’s hut, originally located on the beach of Gardiners Bay, that was taken to its current location by Mr. D’Amico to be used as an art studio.
The Art Barge has been functioning as a summer art school since 1960. Before then, throughout the 1950s, Mr. D’Amico offered MoMA-sponsored art classes at Ashawagh Hall in Springs. According to Mr. Kohan, Mr. D’Amico felt the need to expand that program and enlisted the help of local baymen in 1959 to tow a retired barge from Jersey City to property he owned on Napeague Harbor.
“The story he told me was that when he came to the Town Board then and presented the idea and the plans, they wanted to know who his backers were. So, he just mentioned the board of trustees at the museum — Nelson Rockefeller, Ms. Simon Guggenheim, [Anson] Conger Goodyear — and they said, ‘Oh, Mr. D’Amico, I think you’ll have no problem with your idea,’” Mr. Kohan recalled.
In 1973, the organization became an independent nonprofit called The Napeague Institute. In 1982, in honor of its founder, it was renamed The Victor D’Amico Institute of Art.
Victor D'Amico died in 1987, and his wife survived him for a little more than a decade. Upon her death in 1998, their Lazy Point home was bequeathed to the organization.
Before a public hearing on granting landmark designation at a Town Board meeting on Thursday, August 15, Ms. Overby thanked the Arts Council for bringing the Art Barge and the D’Amico home to the forefront. She said she “enthusiastically endorsed,” the Art Barge and D’Amico house for historic designation. “This is the kind of legislation that is uplifting to the entire community and I'm really proud to be able to introduce it,” she said.
Mr. Kohan told the audience, which mostly consisted of Art Barge supporters, that more than 40 people had sent letters to the town in support of the designation.
“Hundreds of people have come and gone to the Barge,” Mr. Kohan said. “I think that will continue all the more so because of the designation. I think Victor and Mabel would be very honored and proud.”
Joyce Raimondo worked at the Museum of Modern Art and started teaching classes at the Art Barge in the 1990s. During the public hearing she said that Mr. D’Amico believed that everyone, regardless of education or financial status, had the right to be expressive and to create.
Joan Edwards of Amagansett added that the D’Amicos have been a part of the “social and cultural history of the East End for a long time,” and that their legacy lives on.
“It’s a remarkable place, with a remarkable story, and remarkable people they’re dedicating it to,” Supervisor Peter Van Scoyoc said.