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The Parrish Art Museum. (Photo credit: Hazel Hutchins)

For 125 years, the world-famous Parrish Art Museum (279 Montauk Highway, Water Mill) has been an essential corner of culture on the East End. The critically acclaimed, modern, barn-like structure on 14 acres of expansive meadow is an eye-catching sight. Honoring both the natural environment and the incredible artistic talents that dwell on the South Fork, it’s hard to imagine the Hamptons without it. 

First and foremost, the Parrish is all about fostering artists and showcasing what is relevant in the modern art world. “We are delighted to celebrate the Museum’s 125-year legacy of relevancy and excellence—and our evolution as a leading institution in one of the most important creative communities in the U.S.—with a unique history of attracting, inspiring and supporting artists for generations,” said executive director Mónica Ramírez-Montagut.

After mounting the first ever exhibition in 1957, the Parrish now presents exhibits throughout the year whether they be temporary, new installations drawn from the museum’s collection of more than 3,600 works or special exhibitions reconsidering works of single artists, or groups exploring compelling themes.

Who was the visionary who started it all? Born into a family of Philadelphia Quakers in the 1800s, Samuel Longstreth Parrish fell in love with Italian Renaissance art as a student at Harvard College and graduated into serious collecting after moving his law practice from Philadelphia to New York. But it was the regular visits to his extended family in the Village of Southampton that pulled him to the East End. 

Samuel Parrish, the man that started in all 125 years ago. (Photo courtesy of the Parrish Art Museum)

In 1898, Parrish opened a museum here to house his ever-growing collection. The original building, named the Art Museum at Southampton, was constructed in wood as one large exhibition hall with the entrance on Main Street, but ambition died with its benefactor. Further developments to the museum were halted after Parrish’s death in 1932. It took nearly a decade for the resurrection of Parrish’s dream: The Parrish estate gifted the Village of Southampton the grounds, building and original collection in 1941, changing the name to the Parrish Memorial Art Museum. 

It didn’t take too long for the museum to outgrow its original building and by the 1980s, a search ensued for a new home (great art cannot be rushed, after all). The land in Water Mill was purchased in 2005; planning and construction would take another seven years, but it was well worth the wait. 

Designed by Swiss architecture firm Herzog & de Meuron — the creative brains behind the Tate Modern in London — the new building’s plans were inspired by the reasons every artist falls in love with eastern Long Island to begin with: the light, land, sky and water. From the modern barn-like exterior and overall landscape, to the common spaces, galleries, and art studio flooded with natural light, the architecture captures how the elements around us play an essential role in the synergy between art and nature. 

The land itself makes you pause to take in the beauty of its broad meadow of waving grasses and native wildflowers ending at the sturdy oak and evergreen hedgerow. The weaving in of natural plants and native landscape elements was part and parcel to the carefully curated plan of landscape architects Reed Hilderbrand Associates.  

It also makes a great open-air space for more art, such recent installations like “The Waves” by Clifford Ross in 2018. “These are nice messages by artists that are visible from Montauk Highway, and it’s inviting for people coming into the Hamptons to see that artwork, and hopefully entice them to come to the museum,” said deputy director of curatorial affairs Corinne Erni. 

The beautiful lofted interior of the Parrish galleries. (Photo credit: Bilyana Dimitrova)

There’s much to come, too. Opening August 5 is their James Brooks: A Painting Is a Real Thing exhibition, which will be the first full-scale retrospective by the abstract expressionist in his 35 years of work. Brooks, who lived in East Hampton for five decades, is key to the artistic legacy and art community in the Hamptons. This sizeable retrospective will be comprised of more than 100 paintings, prints and works on paper drawn from Brooks’s seven-decade career, including 84 selection from a major gift to the museum aby the James and Charlotte Brooks Foundation, plus works from public and private U.S. collections over Brook’s seven-decade career. 

Artists Choose Parrish is a particularly exciting yearlong exhibition done in three parts, which kicked off this past April and runs through February 2024. In it, 41 artists curate multiple vignettes using the Parrish’s deep collection alongside their own work. “This project highlights the artistic legacy of the Hamptons as well as the richness of the collection and the living artists of the East End,” said Erni. “They have chosen works of artists [who] were mentors to them or friends or even lovers. Or works by artists that they had never seen before but they felt there was a kinship or poetry that was maybe relevant to them or their own work.”

The Parrish doesn’t only curate art, though; it curates community. There’s a multitude of programs, events, benefits and educational opportunities throughout the year, including the artist in residency program—a series of museum-based workshops facilitated by exhibiting artists. They also hold ongoing series of talks and lectures, as well as important collaborations with local organizations. And be sure to grab your seats for the museum’s 20th annual collaboration with OLA of Eastern Long Island, hosting the Spanish Language Film Festival on September 15. Hot on the heels of that: the fourth annual Black Film Festival in partnership with Bridgehampton Child Care & Recreational Center on August 11.

The annual multi-town student exhibition at the Parrish invites local youth to show their talents. (Photo courtesy of Parrish Art Museum)

The Parrish Road Show, now in its tenth year, has become an important pursuit for the museum as well. It is an annual offsite creative series that features temporary projects by regional artists. “It’s important to take the art into the community, take it out of the museum walls and bring it to where people actually congregate where everyday life happens,” said Erni. 

At 125 years young, the Parrish seems like it’s only getting started. “This important anniversary milestone is a pivotal moment that allows a renewed commitment to providing access to excellence in the arts for varied and diverse audiences in this region and abroad, always anchored in the creative force of our unique location,” said Ramirez-Montagut. “It’s an exciting moment to solidify our relevance and contributions to the field of art, architecture, arts education and community engagement.”

It’s a landmark moment, and the Parrish welcomes everyone in the community and beyond to come by the museum and celebrate with them. “We’re just really excited about the 125th anniversary of the Parrish,” said Erni, “celebrating the artists in the region, celebrating our collection, our vision looking forward, and how we keep engaging with the community and the area, but also globally.”