A History of Arts in Sag Harbor and Its Connection to the Future

An illustration by Ted Littleford showing, from left to right, the future home of The Church, the future Sag Harbor Cinema Arts Center and Bay Street Theater as anchors on the south, center and north sides of Main Street.

“The arts do live continuously, and they live literally by faith; their names and their shapes and their uses and their basic meanings survive unchanged in all that matters through times of interruption, diminishment, neglect; they outlive governments and creeds and the societies, even the very civilization that produced them. They cannot be destroyed altogether because they represent the substance of faith and the only reality. They are what we find again when the ruins are cleared away.” — Katherine Anne Porter

On September 11, 2001, the co-founders of Bay Street Theater faced a monumental decision: whether to stage the first preview of Ira Lewis’s “Gross Points,” set for the following night.

Juxtaposed against the deadliest terrorist attack in human history, the light-hearted comedy could have seemed disrespectful and silly, a dichotomy between art and the real world. But that uncertainty turned to conviction that the show must go on. Any other way, and the enemy would win.

On September 12, 2001, before the curtain went up, director Stephen Hamilton walked onstage, looked out at his company — among them Alec Baldwin — and said:

“I ask you to literally, and figuratively, stand in the light tonight.”

They did, and continued to every performance thereafter — for the show sold out its entire run, a feat never achieved before, nor repeated since. In the country’s darkest hour, the arts united the local community, providing a refuge for laughter, pain and camaraderie. Patrons stayed late, socializing in the lobby and drinking at the bar, connecting through the aftermath of tragedy.

And as they profited socially from arts and culture, so did Main Street economically, recalled Bay Street Theater co-founder Emma Walton Hamilton.

“It’s long been known that there is a direct relationship between a cultural or arts organization on Main Street and dollars spent,” she said. “The statistic is for every dollar spent at a cultural institution, there is another $4 spent on local business and in the community — whether it’s at local restaurants, shopping in local stores, hiring a babysitter and so forth. The impact is big and it’s real, and we certainly saw that from the earliest days of Bay Street Theater.”

In a village anchored by cultural institutions on the north and south end of Main Street — and soon to be the middle, with the rebuilding of the Sag Harbor Cinema — the thriving arts scene is intrinsically and undeniably linked with economics, yet caught in the midst of an anxiety-riddled business district grappling with soaring commercial sales, new landlords, rising rents and vacancies.

“I think the part that’s a real threat to the arts is what you see happening with real estate,” said Nick Gazzolo, president of the Sag Harbor Partnership. “For so many people, we just see the story again and again if they don’t own their buildings and the rents keep going higher and higher. Unless you have a fortune of your own or you own the building, cultural and artistic endeavors are challenged for that reason.

“In that respect, it feels like the best of times and the worst of times,” he continued. “There are great things happening in Sag Harbor and people really care about that, and they work hard to make it happen and to keep it happening, but the economic pressures are real and it’s hard for independent artistic ventures to succeed with that kind of price tag.”

Despite a rapidly changing Main Street, galleries are flourishing, a cinema is rebuilding and a church is reinventing itself into a cultural hub — all the while, Bay Street Theater’s future on Long Wharf remains uncertain.

“It’s almost immeasurable, the impact that an arts organization can have on a community,” Ms. Walton Hamilton said. “If you don’t have the arts, all the extraordinary benefits — some of which are tangible and practical and visible, and some of which are more amorphous — they go away. And what we’re left with is just commerce. And that’s not a balanced life.”

The Church

When properly executed, a dynamic environment needs no introduction. It is evident from the threshold as a space for quiet — for open eyes, open hearts and open minds — with an enlivened sense of place and vitality.

Historically in Sag Harbor, these were often houses of religion. To Eric Fischl, they could also be centers for the arts. So in the case of the former United Methodist Church, it will be both.

Last year, Mr. Fischl and his wife, fellow artist April Gornik, purchased the 19th-century Madison Street building with a vision: to redevelop what they would call, simply, “The Church,” as a space for creatives to explore and collaborate, eventually hosting think tanks, symposiums, master classes, performances, installations and even a residency program by spring or summer of 2020.

“It still feels like a sacred space of sorts,” Mr. Fischl said of the church, “and what I’m doing is I’m painting portraits of the great creative people that have absolutely been a part of Sag Harbor, and essentially canonizing them. We’re gonna have art saints in the windows, instead of saint-saints.”

The night before, Fischl had just finished a portrait of Betty Friedan, who will join the ranks of luminaries such as James Fenimore Cooper, Herman Melville, Olivia Ward Bush-Banks, Charles Edison, Ephraim Byram, E.L. Doctorow, Lady Caroline Blackwood, Elaine Stritch, George Balanchine and Spalding Grey, just to name a few.

“The thing is, when you start getting into who is going to be there, who are you representing in those windows, you realize that there’s at least 150 legitimate names of great writers, thinkers, actors, et cetera, et cetera, that have been a part of the Sag Harbor history since the beginning — and they’re just the dead ones,” Mr. Fischl said. “I had to cut it off someplace. It’s kind of a mixed blessing. On one hand, you kind of want to be in the window, and at the same time, you don’t want to have to get there the same way.”

The artist laughed to himself. “But seriously, there’s this gigantic group of people that, not only were they connected deeply to Sag Harbor, but they also moved the needle of culture from this small place,” he continued. “They impacted America, or they impacted the world in some cases. It has always produced an economy that was part of a global economy and not just simply a local consumer one.”

As Sag Harbor teeters toward the “second-home suburbanization” of the greater East End, Mr. Fischl said he fears the village will lose its character. “This is why we, as artists — who are very much connected to Sag Harbor — see the potential for a rebirth that is connected to the DNA of the town itself, which is through its creativity, through the people that have global careers and have this place as a place of production.”

It is no accident or mistake that, over the last 100 years, great artists and writers have found themselves drawn to Sag Harbor, according to Laura Grenning, owner of Grenning Gallery on Main Street. And the same could be said of Mr. Fischl and Ms. Gornik stepping up as leaders of the cultural district, she noted.

“You’ve got some really creative, and very capable, and highly respected artists buying one of the most important, beautiful architectures that used to house a church,” Ms. Grenning said. “If you stand at the top of Main Street, you’re within a quarter mile of six or eight spiritual institutions. The 19thcentury was probably the height of the churches being a social center, but I think April and Eric taking over the church is, like, our new religion is creativity. Our generation is creativity and awe of nature, and most great artists are responding to what they’re observing in nature, at least at my gallery.”

The Galleries

One of the first artisans to call Main Street home was Romany Kramoris. It was 42 years ago when she opened her gallery, she recalled, moving a small slice of Greenwich Village into Sag Harbor.

The change was nearly immediate, she said, though intangible at first. But as more collectors came to her gallery openings, or dropped by to see her stained glass art, the more liveliness and resources they brought into the downtown economy.

It marked the official start to a burgeoning cultural movement, she said, and the way it has grown in the decades since is nothing short of “miraculous, with tremendous foresight and tremendous hard work and imagination.”

“I think any time the arts come to the village, like when Bay Street Theater moved in, they are interesting and growth producing in soul and spirit and creativity and happiness — seeing creative things, hearing music,” she said. “There seem to be a number of galleries mushrooming on Main Street and I’m happy to see that. I think one helps the other.”

From Monika Olko and Grenning to Sara Nightingale and Tulla Booth, the galleries are the heartbeat of the village, according to Ms. Grenning, and an expression of the soul of the downtown.

“It seems to me like the arts are thriving — they’re absolutely essential, especially in a luxury community like we have — but people have to come into the stores and buy the paintings,” Ms. Grenning said. “It feels like a community that appreciates art and is supportive. I’ve run a gallery in this town for 21 years, and I’m in business because of the people buying.

“If you like galleries in town, you have to vote with your dollars,” she continued. “If they go away, you end up with the mind-numbing, commercial luxury brands, which is incredibly predictable and available everywhere. If it’s just about consuming items and not about the human expression and response to nature, then you end up having that empty feeling when you’re walking down Main Street — and that’s exactly what’s happened with some of the neighboring towns.”

Julie Keyes saw it firsthand, before moving her Keyes Gallery from East Hampton Village to Sag Harbor in January. She is the newest among the group, adding to the “aggressive number of galleries on Main Street,” she said with a laugh.

“The cool thing about the galleries is we’ve decided to do ‘Thursday Night Lights,’ where we’re all going to be open Thursday night,” she said. “We’re going to do mutual openings. We’re going to have art to correspond. We hope to make it so this group of art galleries actually becomes a force amongst itself. We’re working together.”

“We aren’t starting arts and culture in Sag Harbor. We are trying to carry the Olympic torch that Sag Harbor has,” she added. “And we need the movie theater back.”

The Cinema

Armed with a half-dozen shovels, members of the Sag Harbor Partnership officially broke ground on the Sag Harbor Cinema Arts Center to erupting cheers — an outpouring of joy in the wake of the December 2016 fire that destroyed the iconic cultural destination.

And as the neon “Sag Harbor” sign lies in wait, the cinema is readying itself for a final round of fundraising, to the tune of $3 million, to purchase film and projection equipment, concession and café supplies, and support administration and staffing costs — including the search for an executive director — as well as potential expansion and architect fees, according to Ms. Gornik, who chairs the partnership’s fundraising campaign.

“It’s almost embarrassing to ask the community to chip in again. However, we’re heading toward some really fantastic and finishing funds that we need,” she said. “We’re making something that doesn’t exist anywhere else that I know of on Long Island. That’s something that we’re cognizant of and we want the cinema to be as special as we have promised.”

Collaborating with village institutions such as the John Jermain Memorial Library and the Sag Harbor Whaling & Historical Museum, the Cinema will operate as a hub for film — with three screening rooms — and educational programming, with a focus on innovation and affordability, helping give rise to a true cultural district on the East End.

“It’s way busier than it used to be out here in the winter, by far. It’s noticeably more active,” she said. “It feels so good. It feels like things are really rolling. And that makes us feel fantastic. And I hope we’ve been a part of the stimulus for that.”

Lisa Field, president of the Sag Harbor Chamber of Commerce, said she is certain they have, and only anticipates their reach to increase — economically, socially and otherwise.

“I’m really hopeful that, when the Sag Harbor Cinema is completed, that’s just another piece of the puzzle,” Ms. Field said. “I do see the arts continuing, but I think we’ve already come a long way. Sag Harbor, in the 1980s, was bars and discos. Before that, we were a factory town. Now it’s really evolved. There are lots of second homeowners here, lots of visitors. We’re a tourist destination, and on top of that, the bars and nightclubs have given way to restaurants and more art galleries. I think it’s been evolving. We are a cultural destination right now, and I think things will continue to go in that direction.” 

The Future of Bay Street Theater

But even with so much artistic growth in the village, arguably the most critical cultural anchor in the village — Bay Street Theater — could be on its way out, due to an aging building, rising housing costs for talent and a sheer lack of space to properly mount productions.

“I remember when Bay Street started,” Ms. Field said. “To see how much they’ve grown and what they contribute to the village and the community, I think that would be a definite loss to the community, even if they were to go to another town close by. Taking them out of Sag Harbor would hurt. I would hate to see that happen.”

Executive director Tracy Mitchell says she is in complete agreement, and while she declined to discuss specifics, she noted that the theater still has four years left on its lease and is open to other options than relocating and building from the ground up.

“It’s devastating to think about leaving, and I live here,” Ms. Mitchell said. “It’s not to say we won’t be replaced by something else, but where can you find a place that has a waterfront theater that’s a professional regional theater? I think the arts are one of the few things that can truly help keep people coming down to the center and down Main Street. It’s proven time and time again, not just here, that that’s what draws people in. It’s one of the main factors that people will make the effort to go out for something.”

From the time Bay Street opened in 1991 with Joe Pintauro’s “Men’s Lives” — a conscious decision that set the tone for the theater, uniting the baymen and the affluent alike — the not-for-profit has expanded exponentially, now on the brink of outgrowing itself.

For nearly every production, Ms. Mitchell rents 8,000 square feet in Riverhead to build their sets. Their housing budget has escalated to $350,000 annually. And the staff offices are busting at the seams.

“If there is ever a possibility of staying here and adding on, that would be interesting to us, of course,” Ms. Mitchell said. “But we’re not going to invest in something we don’t own, and [owner] Pat Malloy has been very clear. There’s no surprises; he’s been great that way. He’s always said he’s going to keep the Wharf as one piece, so I get that. From a business perspective, I respect it. It just is what it is. We can only do what’s in our control, which is to keep negotiating in good faith, as he does, and to simultaneously always have our eyes open.”

If Bay Street Theater leaves in four years time, the lasting impact it has made on the village will stay, Ms. Walton Hamilton said, as will the cultural district it’s helped to shape.

“Those of us who work in the arts, it’s our job to continue telling the story of how very, very important they are in our lives,” she said. “It’s not just for the business impact on Main Street, or the educational impact. It’s long term. How do we even know what history is? We know through the arts and culture of early societies, how they lived. The arts are the most profound reflection of who we are — and they stand the test of time to tell future generations who we were.”