The Parrish Art Museum in Southampton, New York, announced earlier this week that it was scaling back its ambitious plans for a new $80 million, 37,000-square-foot space. The revised version the museum unveiled is something of an elegant, low-slung gray barn, appropriate to the Hamptons's upscale, rustic aesthetic. On the occasion, the museum announced portentously, "The Herzog & de Meuron design embodies responsiveness to the indigenous landscape, an emphasis on the natural northern light and a dialogue with the local architecture." And, to get right to the heart of the matter, the smaller building, at about $25 million, is also "economically achievable," said director Terrie Sultan in a statement.

Image courtesy of the Parrish Art Museum.


Reaction has been split between fans who applauded Sultan's savvy recognition of the downscaled tenor of the times and architecture critics saddened by the museum's abandonment of its grander ambitions. Writing in the Times, Nicolai Ouroussoff noted, "A creeping conservatism—and aversion to risk — that leaves little room for creative invention."  But few people have questioned whether a new Parrish Art Museum is needed at all.

As of today, the Parrish occupies a magical little spot on the corner of Main Street and Job's Lane, abutting a magnificent, sculpture-filled garden. Founded by attorney Samuel Parrish in 1898 to house his Italian Renaissance artworks, the small brick mansion eventually grew to have a fine collection of American Art. It's particularly strong in the works by Fairfield Porter and the plein-air paintings of William Merritt Chase. It hosts a quality exhibition program; Recent shows have featured Hudson River School painters, American Impressionists, and photography. It's not the Hermitage, but it's quietly glorious. A walk from the beach and across from Sant Ambroeus, the Parrish is the spiritual heart of Southampton Village. Now, it is surrendering to an "industry"-wide pressure to enlarge, its goal to be become the leading cultural institution on the East End.

Sound familiar? Near two-dozen museums have constructed new buildings or added pricey wings in the past several years. It's a "mine's bigger" competition that has changed the skylines of Denver, Los Angeles, Milwaukee, Chicago, Atlanta and New York, towns that have often thrown millions at yet another big white box.  (Am I the only one who misses the old Museum of Modern Art? Or am I the only one who doesn't?) To be fair to the Parrish, the museum tried hard for some time to stay in its century-old home by modernizing that site, but met with strong opposition from a local planning commission that (foolishly) wanted neither the modernization or a wider footprint. That said, nobody's asking why a small-town museum (population 94,000, including neighborhood towns, according to the U.S. Census) needed to use the architects who built Beijing's Olympic Stadium.

This is not to say that no museum should grow or relocate. There have been spectacular architectural achievements (the Guggenheim Bilbao, Santiago Calatrava's soaring bird in Milwaukee, MassMOCA) but success is far from assured. Consider New York's Museum of Art & Design, which gutted the much loved "lollipop" building at Columbus Circle. The Getty spent $1 billion on its high-on-a-hill Richard Meier marble "masterpiece" and the best things about it are the gardens, which Meier didn't do, and the tram ride snaking up to the top. The High Museum in Atlanta's own Meier box is fine-but its loan program is far better, and far more central to its reason for being.

Of course, the trick of all this is that expansions help raise money, as donors get to stick their names on new wings, new walls, new rooms. So, blame the donors? Partly, but, ultimately, responsibility rests with museum management to make other gifting options as compelling. The Parrish has already bought its acreage in Water Mill, N.Y., and will go forward with its new home, essentially in the middle of nowhere. And, with its view of Shinnecock Bay and a wildflower-dotted meadow, it will probably be as beautiful as the art inside.  The thing to remember, though, is that bigger isn't always better, but it is always costs more money.




Jack Tworkov, June 21, 1964 Courtesy Mitchelles Innes & Nash.

 

Don't Miss

In the history of abstract expressionism, Jack Tworkov is the artist who fell into the cracks. A contemporary and stylistic sibling of Franz Kline, Willem de Kooning and Philip Guston, Tworkov died in 1982. He's best remembered as a founder of the New York School and as a teacher—Brice Marden's, among others. But his striking paintings, marked by their exaggerated brush strokes, constrained formalism and echoes of the jazz music he loved, rightfully retained a cult of fans. He was resurrected when Mitchell-Innes & Nash Gallery began to show his work a few years ago, and now a show at the UBS Gallery offers a sweeping five decades of his work. The midtown exhibition runs through Oct. 27.


Mitchell-Innes & Nash is located at 1018 Madison Avenue, New York.