Editor’s Note: This story originally appeared in On Balance, the ARTnews newsletter about the art market and beyond. Sign up here to receive it every Wednesday.
When the pandemic hit in 2020, wealthy New Yorkers made a beeline for the Hamptons. Soon enough, galleries and auction houses followed the exodus down Montauk Highway and set up shop.
That year, Pace, Skarstedt, Van de Weghe, Michael Werner, David Lewis, Hauser & Wirth, and Sotheby’s opened spaces in East Hampton and Southampton. For a while, the Hamptons appeared ready to mature into a robust art scene, commensurate with the astounding real estate market that regularly sees one-percenters drop $50 million or more on an oceanfront villa. And yet, post-Covid, only David Lewis and Hauser & Wirth remain. Turns out, it’s difficult to hack it in the Hamptons, especially after most Manhattanites have retreated to the city.
“There’s this false conception,” Ryan Wallace, cofounder of Halsey McKay, in operation in East Hampton since 2011, told ARTnews, “that because of the wealth here, you can open up a store and billionaires are gonna walk in and buy art from you. But that’s just not how it works.”
While Wallace said that he didn’t see a dramatic shift in sales during the pandemic, nor did he feel in serious competition with gallery giants like Pace, his longtime clientele were suddenly more available. The second the fairs reopened, that changed.
“One of the beautiful things during Covid was that there were more interesting conversations in the gallery, on the phone, because people weren’t on the merry-go-round of the fair circuit,” said Wallace. “The day that Frieze New York opened back up again, everyone’s attention … was like all over the place again.”
David Lewis, who opened a space in East Hampton in 2020, has similarly found that the fair circuit draws attention from otherwise active collectors.
“There’s this kind of staccato rhythm [to collectors’ engagement] because, even though there are really, really serious people around, their engagement is almost purposefully turned off or intermittent,” Lewis told ARTnews. “What some of them openly say is, ‘We’re not going to do art this summer.’ After 10 months of the art fair circuit, this is their offseason.”
That offseason dynamic is why Wallace has often relied on fairs, and international collectors, to sustain Halsey McKay year-round, even as its unique location has opened doors to important collectors who might otherwise ignore a young gallery. “The way the art world operates today is not regional,” said Wallace.
For Lewis, as “tantalizing” as the immense wealth in the Hamptons was, he has kept the gallery running largely because of the local art history, institutions, and talent: he has recently been working with Claude Lawrence, a painter and musician who got his start in Sag Harbor in the ’90s.
Institutional leaders face a similar dilemma—there’s wealth and talent around, but investment isn’t always sustained.
Corinne Erni, deputy director of curatorial affairs at the Parrish Art Museum in Water Mill, New York, said that local institutions are constantly trying to get collectors and patrons to see the Hamptons as more than a place for their “third or fourth home.”
The question is “how [to] make them feel that this is an important place to them, that they should want to invest in this community,” Erni told ARTnews.
At the same time, Erni says that Hamptons institutions have found that they don’t necessarily need to rely on the one-percenters to build an engaged audience. In the last decade, the Hamptons has gone from strictly a summer destination—with only workers and a few locals living there year-round—to a place where wealthy young families set down roots. This new crop of year-round residents has driven up housing prices and forced workers to live hours away, but it has also created a robust audience hungry for regular cultural programming similar to that in New York.
The Parrish, for instance, recently organized a series of major shows celebrating its 125th anniversary, displaying dozens of living artists with local ties alongside East End legends from the museum’s permanent collection. Still, the new paradigm has the museum, and similar organizations, struggling to retain staff who simply can’t afford to live in the area.
The brief duration of the Hamptons outposts owes to their reason for opening in the first place. As Gordon VeneKlasen, a partner at Michael Werner gallery, explained, many gallerists already had homes in the Hamptons. When the pandemic hit, they headed out east for the same reason as collectors.
“We came out for long weekends and ended up spending six months there,” VeneKlasen told ARTnews. “Me and friends like [Pace Gallery CEO] Marc Glimcher found spaces out here and it seemed like a nice way to get out of the house.”
In short, it was a fun, productive way to cope with a dull, dull time.
VeneKlasen enjoyed putting together shows for the community, using artworks that could ship locally, and experimenting without the usual pressure of preparing catalogues and working at a breakneck pace. He sold a few major works and reinforced relationships with collectors, but once the world opened up again, he and his staff were back to preparing for multiple shows, with global commitments every couple of months. Maintaining the East Hampton outpost was no longer feasible between the restart of the grueling art world circuit and the local housing situation. Serious collectors were back to spending the summer months with their families and taking a break from the art world.
Besides, VeneKlasen missed enjoying his summer home as “a haven and a place to hide,” he said. “It’s no mystery [that the Hamptons galleries closed]. We have lives too.”