Reggae music radiates from the Island Surf shop while a rack of t-shirts in the doorway beckons shoppers to come in and browse. Two women in baseball caps, tank tops, and solid-colored skirts eat ice cream cones and peer into gift store windows. Restaurant employees fuss with final touches on al fresco tables along the sidewalk before the first diners arrive at 5:30 p.m. Kites of all colors billow in the wind. Kids and the occasional adult ride the mechanical horse outside the five and dime store, Sag Harbor Variety.
Storefronts everywhere show posters announcing theatrical productions at Bay Street Theatre. The theater is one bookend for Main Street near the docks that are now home to yachts capable of cruising the world. The other is a divided road- with both lanes leading to extended Sag Harbor neighborhoods.
Other posters in store windows announce theater at Guild Hall in East Hampton, puppetry in Sag Harbor or an upcoming Sag Harbor house tour. Walking around the long city block that defines Sag Harbor’s Main Street, strollers are also bound to notice- along with colorful displays of brightly colored exotic clothing- art exhibition cards placed in front of seven galleries that call Sag Harbor home. Of course, chances are a visitor might walk right into an artist before ever setting foot inside a studio.
“There’s a lot of artists who live here,” said David Slater, an artist who has lived in Sag Harbor for 23 years. Mr. Slater was spotted in the street- greeting other artists- and shared some local knowledge at an exhibition opening at the Flying Space Gallery on Saturday night. “There are artists who live here, but show art in other places…In Sag Harbor, people open to each other. It feels like a real town. I think that’s missing in a lot of places. We have a Main Street, and there’s a lot of interaction… you constantly run into people you know. It’s just a good feeling.”
Probably the most visible sign that Sag Harbor is a locus for creative energy is the number of art galleries that line Main Street. There are seven – the majority of them opening in the last year or so. Currently, the number of galleries rivals the count in Southampton, also seven, and nearly matches the nine in East Hampton. These figures include only spaces whose primary mission is to sell art.
When you add in book stores with galleries, real estate offices with designated gallery space, shops and stores that sell paintings or photography – exhibition style – artists’ studio spaces and former full-time galleries that are now operating on a limited schedule, what you have is the highest concentration of places that sell art in the Hamptons.
The most commonly cited reasons for galleries wanting to be in Sag Harbor are the friendly people and a feeling of old-fashioned community. “People, they wave at you all the time,” said artist and new gallery owner Fernando Vignoli of the Vignoli Gallery, through translator and director Gabriela Paina. “They make you feel welcome. We decided to open the gallery here because of it. It’s not like the other towns where we looked.”
Sharing the downtown area with other art galleries plus antique shops and eclectic stores makes it a natural place to sell art, said Rebecca Cooper Waldman, who co-owns The Gallery with Sally Breen. The Winter Tree Gallery is located one floor above them. A woodcarver plies his craft a footpath away. The Vignoli Gallery and the Merz Gallery are within eyeshot. The Flying Space Gallery and The Grenning Gallery are directly across the street.
“We just wanted to make it work,” said Ms. Waldman. “It’s an exciting place. I think this is the new Soho.”
Driving the success- and sales- of Sag Harbor galleries is the foot traffic that doesn’t seem to slow whether afternoon or evening. Helping to keep that steady traffic moving is 11 or so restaurants on the main stretch- from the Long Wharf to Madison Street- that typically open at 5:30 and stay open late. More restaurants can be found on nearby streets. The shops along Main Street stay open late. So do the galleries.
“I sold one painting at one o’clock in the morning,” said Mr. Vignoli, whose gallery shows his paintings and hand-made jewelry by another artist. “The couple had just finished dinner and saw the light on. They banged on the door, came in, and bought a painting. I know they didn’t plan on buying a painting when they went out to dinner, but it worked out well for all of us. This can only happen because the restaurants are open late and people know they can walk around.”
Tulla Booth, the owner of the Tulla Booth Gallery, said her photography gallery gets a lot of walk-ins. To help entice passersby into her gallery, she displays photography and jewelry she designs in her window.
“Purists might say I’m doing the wrong thing by showing jewelry in the gallery, but I think it’s fine,” Ms. Booth said. “It helps draw people into the gallery, especially women. They see the jewelry in the window and come in. While they’re here, they look around at the photography…You only have people for a few minutes. You have to try and grab their attention and get them to stay a little longer. I want people to look at the photographs; to try and help them understand, whether they buy something or not.”
Elisca Jeansonne, the owner of Gallery Merz, tries to draw people into her gallery by offering a diverse selection of artwork. The gallery has a glass storefront with a shelf on which a sampling of artwork can be displayed. Above the shelf, passersby can easily see the gallery.
“I like mixed media work with different and new approaches, but I don’t want to leave the general public behind,” Ms. Jeansonne said. “I want to show art that people can deal with…I want to engage and put conservative things and radical things together. It draws people in and gives them confidence that they will recognize something. Once in, they’re in a position to have to look at some of the other things…I like variety. I try to give people a compelling experience that’s comforting, engaging, and challenging.”
People must like what they see because they don’t just look when they visit Sag Harbor galleries- they buy. Ms. Booth said her buyers could be divided into categories. Some are people who are fans of a particular photographer or subject, like nostalgic New York, the spirituality found in Far Eastern art or the intrigue and beauty of flowers. Others are looking to capture some visual sense of the waterside community or the greater Hamptons area and take it home with them.
“Anything that reminds people of the beach does well,” Ms. Booth said. “Even if it’s not from the Hamptons. If it reminds them of water and has something that transcends the subject, it goes. That’s what I look for in photographs- it has to transcend the subject, not just report…If it’s not a beach scene or something that reminds them of water, then it becomes ‘Where is it?’ If it’s from here, people want it.”
At the Grenning Gallery, the buyers’ philosophy has been similar. In recent years, the gallery has added more local landscapes and seascapes to the lineup of paintings and painters they exhibit. The current exhibition, “Shifting Sands,” by Nelson H. White, features beach scenes featuring brightly colored umbrellas. To draw the attention of pedestrians, a painting was set outside the glass-front gallery on an easel on Saturday.
Friendly people, an eclectic atmosphere and a literary tradition that draws other creative types to Sag Harbor are the reasons cited for attracting all of the gallery owners. Foot traffic helps keep them there. But when it comes right down to it, most galleries landed in their current spots by chance.
Opening a gallery seemed to be their response to a push from fate, they all said. None had owned a gallery before. Most ran a business before launching their galleries. But it was the Sag Harbor vibe that ultimately convinced each owner that he or she had found the best place for them.
“I just came into town, and this space just opened up,” said Oliver Hoffmann, owner of the Flying Space Gallery, a painter, and a former fashion photographer. He’s spent time working in non-profit spaces specializing in cutting edge art and has lived around the globe. “I wasn’t planning on opening a gallery, but I had a backer and a space in a cool town. It seemed like it was meant to be, so I went for it.”
. “Suddenly, these shops emerged and outside were these beautiful displays of pyramids of fruit and vegetables,” says Gruen. “When I started walking the streets of New York, I thought I must do something with the fruit I see in front of me.”
“I began there- first with potatoes, then bunches of asparagus, then eggs. Then I’d go inside a store and do a display of Newman’s own products, so that everything is together, like aggregates.”
Slowly, what Gruen soon discovered on the outside was what he claims to be lacking on the inside – a beautiful sense of order and calm. From there, with no end to the possibilities, the idea for the series just grew and grew.
“I went to Chinatown and saw the displayed fish, this kind of fish and that kind of fish,” he says. “Of course, these people thought I was crazy, taking pictures of these fish. But they were so beautiful. Then I shot a bin of 5.000 watches. I felt, putting the world in order, everything is going to be all right.”
While the shooting itself was therapeutic, Gruen wasn’t sure if the end result of his photography would live up to his expectations.
“Then when I saw them, I realized they do add up to something,” he says. “It’s silly, and a bit fanciful perhaps, but I felt good- then I did 100 of them, all over the city.”
Once Gruen had his mission in mind, finding subjects was a breeze.
“You look for it then, and you discover it. Rows of lipsticks, scissors hanging down together,” says Gruen. “I went to the Metropolitan Museum and there, in the store, were these miniature 18th-century ladies costume shoes, all in a row. I have a picture of that. Cheese graters, socks. You can go crazy. What did it add up to? An awful lot of photographs.”
Gruen’s next problem was to decide how large to print the photos.
“Either I thought I would make them very big, which is popular in today’s mode,” says Gruen. “Then it would cost a fortune. So I thought- go small. Go small young man. I did, and I thought they were just lovely.”
“The masses and the individual- there is a metaphor,” says Gruen. “Here are the many. Within the many are the few, within the few is the individual. Sometimes the many have the capacity of showing the individual in another light. None of us is alike. The comfort of sameness is all very well, but nothing is the same. Everything is different. A potato, we as human beings. Then you have to ask, ‘Is sameness something to strive for?'”
“I’m always pleased to find variations in the sameness,” adds Gruen. “Certainly it’s true in animals and fish. What a world to look at a slew of fish. To see how they’re made and shaped. The other thing that’s so interesting is how these things relate to one another. How does one object relate to another similar object? Is there a dynamic between one banana and another?”
“When you do photograph something inanimate it suddenly becomes animate. That’s so interesting,” says Gruen, who found this to be especially true of the toys at F.A.O. Schwartz where Gruen shot teddy bears and Barbie dolls.
“When you get them together in this little picture, they are so alive,” he says. “With the Barbies, they were encased in boxes, and there were thousands of them. I could only get a few, 7 or 10 in a frame. Suddenly you get scared about the attack of the Barbies. And mysteriously, they stare at you through the cellophane, and have a life of their own, an inner dynamic that speaks to you.”
“They draw you in. Others may pass them by, but not me,” says Gruen who is currently finishing up another series of photographs, this one of people.
“It’s called “The Utter Loneliness of the Museum Guard,” says Gruen, who wandered through the galleries and surreptitiously photographed guards at the Metropolitan Museum of Art. “I’ve restricted myself to the Met. It’s huge with lots of guards and they’re all in the same uniform. I never talk to them and they never know I’m photographing them. The nice thing about the Met is you can photograph without a flash. I catch them leaning against the wall, their expressions, their stances, the way they put their feet. What they do with their arms.”
Gruen is also working with the Whitney Museum to photograph the artists whose work is in their collection.
“My mission there is to photograph the old artists before they die,” says Gruen, who don’t believe in complicated, heavily lit studio set-ups.
“I’m mad about photography. I love the whole idea. I’m such an impatient person. Photography is so fast, and you can just do it,” he says. “You’ll never find me in a studio setting up lights. That’s an anathema to me.”
“For me photography is both something to do quickly and one of the biggest mysteries. To capture a moment of time and make it stand still.”
“Whatever I look at in the lens is what I look at in life,” he adds. “But what I see when I look in the lens is something entirely more palpably alive than being alive and far more alive than the print. It’s like some kind of elixir with layers of meaning. You wait for the movement when you click, and it’s so perfect.”
“You’re bewitched by the magical force of photography and what it can be. To me it’s not the print or subject matter, it’s the taking of it.”
by Pat Rogers
The Southampton Press