Spanning Great Divides at the Parrish

Much of the dynamism comes from a place relatively hidden in the open-plan construction
Frederic M. Seegal, an investment banker with a history of active involvement in arts organizations, was elected chairman of the Parrish Art Museum’s board in January. Under his leadership, the museum administration hopes to expand its mission and endowment. Morgan McGivern

   It may appear that it’s solely the new building that’s giving the Parrish Art Museum its current buzz and vigor, and it is certainly part of the equation. But the energy emanating from Water Mill also comes from within, particularly as the Parrish gears up for its first summer season.
    Visitors see it immediately, from the structure’s startlingly long footprint, noticeable from the highway, to its imposing front doors, even in the new admission badges, with a likeness of the building prominently displayed. After years of dealing with the peculiarities of the old Florentine Renaissance revival structure in Southampton Village, the soaring galleries are still disconcerting in their serious and singular purpose.
    But much of the dynamism comes from a place relatively hidden in the open-plan construction: the administrative offices in the building’s eastern wing.
    After the museum’s November opening, its trustees and director, Terrie Sultan, wasted little time in naming Frederic M. Seegal its new chairman. The Parrish has been adding board members over the past few years to help it close the gap in its capital campaign, which Ms. Sultan said is 99 percent satisfied, and expand its small endowment into a significant instrument of long-term financial health.
    During a conversation with Mr. Seegal and Ms. Sultan on a recent Sunday afternoon, the new chairman, a part-time Wainscott resident who has donated $1 million to the capital campaign, made it clear that he would not be simply a bank for the museum. He has balanced decades of Wall Street media deal-making with participation on a number of boards of cultural institutions.
    His current involvements include the City Center in Manhattan, the San Francisco Symphony, and the James Beard Foundation. He has also served on the boards of the American Ballet Theater, the San Francisco Opera, the Neuberger Museum, Southampton Hospital, and Guild Hall.
    He has been on the Parrish’s board for two years and was on the committee of the museum’s big summer benefit last year, the last one ever under the giant tents off Job’s Lane. Apparently the partygoers, who were treated to cloud projections and other happenings that played up the surroundings, are ready for something new.  This year’s event will not take place until mid-July and sales of tickets and tables are already brisk.
    The museum’s new location, within the South Fork’s more eastern sector past an imaginary line beginning at the Princess Diner, brings it front and center into the minds of all who drive by. “We like to say that by moving to Water Mill, we’ve moved to the Switzerland of the Hamptons,” Ms. Sultan said. “It’s neutral territory between Southampton and East Hampton.”
     According to Mr. Seegal, integration of the museum’s programs will be the focus of his tenure. “We have a great indoor and outdoor space. There are a lot of people who are interested in things other than art,” he said. His involvement with dance and music organizations has already brought programs to the Parrish that push the envelope of its traditional focus. For example, Mr. Seegal and Ms. Sultan are working together to find musicians and choreographers in residence, who will work with visual artists to create interactive pieces.
    Mr. Seegal, who is an art collector, said that many of his favorite artists have backgrounds related to dance, whether, like Alex Katz and Henri Matisse, they designed and painted sets, or, like Degas, painted the dancers themselves.
    “One of the reasons we are excited about Fred being our new chair is that we always wanted the Parrish to be a real center of cultural engagement on the East End,” said Ms. Sultan. The museum has been filled with weekend events since it opened, and it will add jazz music and dance to the mix as the season progresses. “We believe visual arts don’t exist in a vacuum,” said the director.
    Mr. Seegal is setting a high bar for these offerings. He cited the Guggenheim’s musical programs in its rotunda and the Museum of Modern Art’s film series. MoMA has also hosted music and poetry performances lately, while the Metropolitan Museum of Art has held chamber music concerts for years. “It’s a great way to enhance the brand,” said Mr. Seegal.
    If that sounds like corporate speak, it is. Mr. Seegal has worked at some of the most well-known firms on Wall Street, including Lehman Brothers, Wasserstein Perella, and Salomon Brothers. He had his own firm for a few years and was recently named vice chairman of Peter J. Solomon after joining the firm in 2009. His specialty is media; he was a longtime adviser to Mel Karmazin, known for radio and television empire-building, and a consultant to Time Inc. in the Time Warner merger.
    His contacts in the worlds of finance and media will certainly be helpful in building support for the Parrish, said Mr. Seegal, but he was clear that his business and cultural activities are unrelated. “This is a passion for me, it’s not related to anything in my business career. But having lived out here, I know a lot of people in the finance and media business. Hopefully they’ll give us a good look.”
    His goals are long-term, and may not be realized for a few years. “I don’t expect that in the next 18 months that we will have a cascade of people who have never been involved with the Parrish to show up and write checks and give us wonderful art. It’s going to take at least three to five years for people to get comfortable.”
    Mr. Seegal, who opened his grounds for the museum’s annual Landscapes Pleasures garden tour a decade ago, said he’s realized through his board membership that the museum’s core supporters have primarily been Southampton Village residents. “We live among the world’s most extraordinary collectors, and a relatively small percentage have had involvement in the old Parrish,” he said. “I hope to open avenues to the whole community.”
    Mr. Seegal said he was inspired by such institutions as MASS MoCA in North Adams, Mass., and the Palm Springs Museum in California, “recent examples where, by sheer force of personality and unique architecture, they became destinations.”
    Admissions and interest are at all-time highs, according to both Ms. Sultan and Mr. Seegal. Since the opening, the museum has attracted 35,000 visitors, said the director. “The idea is, if you’ve missed something we’ve done here, you really feel like you’ve missed something, and you will make the effort to come here, because you’re not going to see it anywhere else.”