“Victor D’Amico” is a name Christopher Kohan knew long before he put a face to it — his own art teachers often referring to the man who once taught them.
The founding director of the Museum of Modern Art Education Department, D’Amico had established himself as an artist, teacher and progressive visionary, a fierce believer in the endless creative potential within every human being. His innovative learning experiences revolved around that ideology, and he sought to unlock it at every turn, from 1937 to 1960 in New York.
By the mid-1950s, he had expanded his reach to the East End, starting with MoMA-sponsored classes at Ashawagh Hall in Springs before, eventually, craving more control and a place to call his own.
In alignment with his mission, he created the Art Barge in 1960, a floating school for artists and educators to learn from him and one another, just 2 miles from his home in Lazy Point, where he lived and worked with his wife, Mabel.
Together, the two sites now comprise the Victor D’Amico Institute of Art in Amagansett, which Kohan first visited in 1975 at the insistence of his parents, who owned a motel in Montauk, and an encouraging neighbor.
The then-20-year-old wasn’t sure what to expect.
“I went in and immediately struck a rapport with Victor, and we had a great conversation,” Kohan recalled. “He was very humanistic, very approachable, very funny, and I was in awe of who he was.”
Nearly 45 years later, Kohan still looks back in disbelief at his memories of his mentor and friend, the man who would help blaze his path as president of the Victor D’Amico Institute of Art, which is now under consideration for historical landmark designation by the East Hampton Town Board.
“Local designation is a first step in wanting to preserve it,” Kohan said. “It’s a little bit more than symbolic, but it’s not as restrictive as a national designation. Once we do have town designation, we’ll also look into county and then state designation for the property. It will help us to publicly fundraise to secure the buildings, restore the buildings and digitize the collection. It gives us a little bit more of a legitimate weight when we request funds.
“We’re not just a paper organization,” he added. “We’re very much rooted structures here on the property.”
Located on Shore Road across from Hicks Island, the site of the D’Amico residence — facing Gardiners Bay at the entrance of Napeague Harbor — was of immediate interest to the couple in the 1940s, as were the pre-existing, primitive bones of an incomplete home already there.
Enamored with found object construction art, the artists lived to breathe new life into forgotten objects. They got to work and, entirely on their own, poured the new floors, installed plumbing and a fireplace, and even built an outdoor patio, where they would watch the baymen come and go from the shoreline.
They used an old cottage — previously moved from the Montauk fishermen’s village following the Great 1938 Hurricane — as a guesthouse, and an oyster warden’s hut as an art studio. And somehow, over the next two decades, the idea for a unique art center began to take shape.
“It must have been a very organic, natural thing,” Kohan said. “They owned the property where the Barge is located and it wasn’t desirable by the late ’50s because of the housing development on the ocean side. They were seeing the fishing boats coming in and out of the water, so I think Victor put two and two together. And, also, when you have a boss like Nelson Rockefeller, any idea is very possible. You tend to think big.”
Enlisting the help of local baymen, D’Amico secured a retired World War II Navy barge from a surplus yard in Jersey City, tugged it up the East River, through Hell Gate, out to Long Island Sound and into Napeague Harbor — Ms. D’Amico and his secretary following along by roadway. Beached and secure, the barge remained in its original condition for the first summer season, empty and without electricity.
But that did not stop the artists.
Boarding via gangplank from the beach, they hauled their supplies into the barren building, establishing themselves as the first class of Art Barge artists.
“There were still farms on Springs-Fireplace Road with cows and chickens and plowed fields. This was really quite unique and novel to be out on location and to be painting,” Kohan said. “Victor even took them to the East Hampton Town Dump when they used to ignite the garbage, and he had people painting the flames.
“A farm field is nice and bucolic and pastoral, but this was the beginning of abstract and action painting,” he continued. “To try to depict a burning mass of garbage was quite modern subject matter.”
From his first summer painting class in 1975, Kohan said he was hooked. His friends quickly became his fellow artists and the small Art Barge staff, including handyman Robert Hedges.
Often the youngest student on board at any given time, he once remarked to the woman seated next to him, “Can you believe, Bob said he was born in 1898.”
“Oh, that’s nothing, dear,” she replied. “I was born in 1895.”
He burst out laughing at the memory.
“I kind of knew I was in a very different territory than anybody else, and it was just rather comfortable. My parents were elderly, so it was not a problem,” he said. “Victor asked me to do certain things, helpful things, around. As a teacher, when you know you have a really good individual student who’s very helpful, you want to keep them around. I think the trust must have been established at that point, and then just grew.”
D’Amico invited Kohan to stay, moving him into the small guesthouse on their property. Their affection for one another was mutual, he said, and in 1985, the founder officially named his student a trustee — just two years before he died at age 82 at the Southampton Nursing Home.
“When Victor died, it was a great void,” Kohan said, “but organizations always are evolving and it had evolved up to the time of his death. So we had to make the decision of, ‘How do we take the Barge to the next step?’”
With the help of additional teachers on staff, they divvied up daily responsibilities and expanded the class portfolio — not to mention accessibility and overall interest.
“I jokingly say The Art Barge has an Empire State Building Syndrome. A lot of people know of the place, but you seldom go over to it or go into it,” Kohan said. “I think it’s really important that local people and visiting people should get to become much more familiar with the historic and the cultural aspects, and the natural aspects, of what we have here.”
This year, public classes begin June 3 with studio painting for adults, kicking off a varied summer season — from ceramic, drawing, mosaic and pastel workshops, to children’s photography, to a Bauhaus preliminary course, taught by an educator from The Josef and Anni Albers Foundation that coincides with the movement’s centennial.
“You not only learn from the instructor, but you also learn from the people you are in the class with,” Kohan said. “That was a very important Victor-type of a philosophical direction: You learn and develop yourself through a creative process, but you also learn through your interaction with other people. You break down any kind of social, economic, racial, gender barriers, and you end up getting to know your fellow artist. And by doing that, you end up getting to know your community and society a lot better.”
The annual “Artists Speak” series aims to spark conversations with creators in film, design and the visual arts, beginning June 19 with Kris Moran and A.S. Hamrah, and followed by Emilia and Ilya Kabakov on July 17, and Maira and Alex Kalman on August 14.
“In the past, we had one artist speaking, possibly with an interview. This year, I thought, ‘Let’s have people who have interacted with one another and let them talk,’ because artists can be a little bit shy when they have to communicate,” Kohan said. “So if they could communicate with somebody they’re friends with, or that they’re working with, there may be a better conversation.”
After nearly six decades, the innovation and growth seen at the Art Barge only sets the stage for what is yet to come, Kohan said, and the impending historical designation will inevitably play a large role.
“I felt I wanted to protect the properties and the buildings and the collection and the organization for the future, instead of seeing it go by the wayside at some point,” he said. “Being here this length of time, it’s personal and professional, but I also want to be able to know that, in the near future, the organization can continue.”
For more information about The Art Barge, visit theartbarge.org.