Parrish: What Stays And What Goes - 27 East

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Parrish: What Stays And What Goes

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"The Caesars" at the Parrish Art Museum will stay put.

"The Caesars" at the Parrish Art Museum will stay put.

"The Caesars" at the Parrish Art Museum will stay put.

"The Caesars" at the Parrish Art Museum will stay put.

The Parrish Art Museum belongs to Southampton Village.

The Parrish Art Museum belongs to Southampton Village.

The Parrish Art Museum belongs to Southampton Village.

The Parrish Art Museum belongs to Southampton Village.

author on Feb 21, 2012

It will take three climate-controlled air-ride semi trucks to move 2,600 pieces of artwork 2.8 miles but the Parrish Art Museum move from its current home in Southampton to its new digs in Water Mill will be a procession without much ceremony.

All of the artwork will be transported more or less at the same time, according to Museum Director Terrie Sultan. It will not be like a “group of ants” carrying one piece at a time down the street, she said. The move will happen quietly behind the scenes, and in one fell swoop, this August, she reported.

“We’re not going to have a parade for that,” Ms. Sultan said during an interview at the museum last week. “We’re just going to move the artwork.”

“No artwork left behind,” Chief Curator Alicia Longwell added.

“No artwork left behind that belongs to us,” Ms. Sultan stressed.

Ms. Longwell nodded in agreement. There will be, indeed, an array of paintings and sculpture missing from the new 34,500-square-foot, $26.2 million Parrish Art Museum in Water Mill when it opens in October: Samuel Longstreth Parrish’s founding collection.

The choice to leave the artwork behind is out of the women’s hands. The collection—which also includes the building, its furniture and grounds—belongs to Southampton Village, they explained.

“The sculptures in the garden, certainly the stone Caesars—that’s what we call them anyway—the rosettes that are on the side of the building all belong to the Village of Southampton,” Ms. Sultan said. “The plaster cast of classical sculpture, the paintings ...”

“The Italian Renaissance panel paintings,” Ms. Longwell continued. “That was all given by Parrish’s estate to the village. That is indeed the collection that will stay here.”

At present, it is unclear what will come of Mr. Parrish’s collection, according to Village Administrator Stephen Funsch. He expects a plan to be pulled together by late spring, after the village hires an architect, who will be renovating and redesigning the building, he said.

“We’re really not sure what we’re going to do with it yet,” he said of the collection during a telephone interview last week. “We have gone through it. We may display some of it in one section of the building, but there’s no final decision yet. It’s pretty interesting stuff.”

Mr. Parrish’s love of the Italian Renaissance, and the Greek and Roman classical civilizations that preceded it, is abundant in his collection, Ms. Longwell said. But it’s a fascination that the Philadelphian Quaker, who lived from 1849 to 1932, did not discover until his years spent at Harvard, leading him to seriously begin buying art in the early 1880s, she said.

“He became an attorney. His firm dealt a lot with railroads. He amassed a sizable private collection,” Ms. Longwell explained. “He wasn’t a Mr. Frick or Mr. Morgan in that sense. He didn’t have those means. He also did not have advisors as they did. He pretty much educated himself about these great hallmarks of western civilization, which is really what they were for him. He might say he was more interested in the history than the art itself.”

It was during those years that Mr. Parrish regularly visited his family’s Southampton home, nestled in the popular summer community that quickly piqued his interest. He retired from active law practice and moved to the East End. It was during a trip to Italy in 1896 that he decided to build a museum in the village.

He commissioned a fellow Southampton resident, architect Grosvenor Atterbury, who designed the museum over a 20-year span. The Art Museum at Southampton, as the Parrish was then known, was a single large exhibition hall—today’s Transept Gallery. It was constructed of wood in 1897. A concert hall was added in 1905, and in 1914, the wing to the street was built on. The arboretum was laid out on the museum’s grounds, with a plant list supplied by Warren H. Manning, a well-known horticultural authority and designer of the time.

“Parrish said he wanted to transplant to this small, Puritan village on the East End of Long Island something of the great exotic of the Italian Renaissance and Greek and Roman traditions,” Ms. Longwell said. “To that end, that’s exactly what he did.”

The collection became a major attraction, Ms. Longwell said. Mr. Parrish brought people together with his artwork, she said, because they’d never seen anything like it.

For the museum, Mr. Parrish had plaster reproductions of the marble Babylonian and Parthenon procession friezes sent over from the Louvre, where he wired the necessary funds, Ms. Longwell said. She added that the museum’s founder was, in effect, “online shopping” for the collection decades before the rest of the world caught on to the idea of purchasing goods and paying for them from afar.

“We think of L.L. Bean as a recent phenomenon,” Ms. Longwell laughed. “You can see those friezes installed here. Those were some of his first things. He went with Augustus Saint-Gaudens, who was a preeminent sculptor, to the allée of Caesars in the Louvre, and they together decided they would have this great group of busts of the rulers of Rome in the museum. So he was very much vested in looking at the great, in presenting these ideas about these cultures. He was an educator, ultimately.”

But the museum hit a standstill when Mr. Parrish died in 1932—in the midst of the Great Depression—and his estate, overwhelmed by the care of the property, donated the collection, building and land to Southampton Village.

It wasn’t until approximately two decades later that the museum was revived in the 1950s by Ms. Robert M. Littlejohn, née Rebecca Bolling, the newly elected president of the museum’s board of trustees. She dissolved the governing board and reincorporated it as the Parrish Art Museum. It was never officially chartered as a museum until this point, Ms. Sultan pointed out.

“She moved it into the 20th century,” Ms. Sultan said. “There is a bit of a physical separation between the Art Museum of Southampton, which was comprised of Mr. Parrish’s collection, to what we now know as the Parrish Art Museum. It was Mrs. Littlejohn who gave the founding collection of the modern-day Parrish Art Museum, including the great William Merritt Chase, Thomas Moran, Childe Hassam, all the great landscape pictures.”

“It was unusual to collect American painting at that time,” Ms. Longwell added. “Everybody was still looking to France. She very much thought about collecting American painting, and she also had the brilliant idea that it would be interesting to know about the painters who actually painted here, like William Merritt Chase.”

Mr. Parrish’s and Ms. Littlejohn’s collections complement one another in Southampton, Ms. Sultan said. The combination was a perfect marriage. He wanted to bring the exoticism of the Italian Renaissance to the area as an educational tool, and her view was to look at the strengths of the region, to consider the East End’s own backyard as exotic, the museum director said.

But the two collections don’t belong together in Water Mill, according to Ms. Sultan.

“That collection of Mr. Parrish’s belongs in this environment,” she said. “You could not really select works from his own collection and transfer it readily into a building that was essentially designed to reflect the Parrish as it became in 1950. It really would not make any intellectual or philosophical sense whatsoever. This building, Mr. Parrish’s collection, that’s a history that’s, in a way, cast in amber.”

Right now, both Ms. Sultan and Ms. Longwell said they are looking to the future. While they can revere, appreciate and discuss Mr. Parrish’s entire collection, there are not any specific pieces the women say they will “miss” after the move.

“It’s so much of a piece that, in a way, it never focused on the individual object,” Ms. Longwell said. “It was always a collective display, in that sense. Could I single out one panel painting? Honestly, no. And it’s not from any lack of affection of these paintings, but it’s so much about in the way it was collected. Let’s say the whole is greater than the sum of its parts.”

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