‘Express Sessions’ Looks at the Rise of Arts and Culture in Sag Harbor

Friday's panel at the American Hotel included, from left to right, Eric Cohen, Tracy Mitchell, Kelly C. Dodds, Nick Gazzolo, April Gornik and Eric Fischl. Michael Heller photos

Sag Harbor Village has long been a place where artists reside and where the arts has been encouraged to thrive. From contemporary art galleries that have peppered Main Street for decades, to iconic businesses like Canio’s Books, and cornerstone institutions including Bay Street Theater, the Sag Harbor Whaling and Historical Museum and the John Jermain Memorial Library, the cultural scene here has been evolving over the years to meet a changing demographic and the needs of a changing world.

With the redevelopment of the Sag Harbor Cinema into the Sag Harbor Cinema Arts Center and the announcement by artists April Gornik and Eric Fischl that they will transform the former Sag Harbor United Methodist Church building on Madison Street into an arts incubator where maker-culture and innovation can be explored, the village appears poised to become the epicenter for artistic creation on the South Fork.

How that is accomplished in an increasingly unaffordable place to live — and how these institutions reach out to youth and to a younger generation trying to raise their own children on the South Fork — dominated the discussion at the last installment of the year of The Sag Harbor Express “Express Sessions” series, “The Rise of the Sag Harbor Cultural District,” on November 16 at The American Hotel.

Panelist Kelly C. Dodds.

In developing the Sag Harbor American Music Festival, its president and co-artistic director Kelly Dodds said canvassing the community and discussing their desires for the festival was a key component when the nonprofit first was organized in 2009. It is through the support of local businesses and a staff and board that is made up entirely of volunteers, she said, that the festival found success and has been able to support programming and funding for youth in the village.

“Part of our mission is to make this music accessible to children even if it’s only for a few days,” said Ms. Dodds. “But we are working with local schools to do more. We provide a few other moments throughout the year for free music but in addition to that any funds we raise outside of our operating expenses we donate to the school music programs and we actively work with them to identify what they need to make music accessible to the whole student body whether it is instruments or this past year they needed uniforms for their concerts because that is sometimes a barrier for entry for some people.”

Documentary filmmaker, author and Sag Harbor resident Kenny Mann has a daughter, Sophie, who is 37 years old. “I would say we have lost about 70 percent of that generation,” said Ms. Mann. “She is in L.A. Many of her school colleagues are in Los Angeles because they absolutely cannot survive out here. I myself am in my 70s, I have lived here 30 years and it has been a hell of a struggle.”

Audience member Kenny Mann poses a question to the panel on Friday.

“Coming from Africa, I have worked in sustainable development,” she said. “That is a term most people think applies to third-world countries but it is what we are talking about here. How do we do sustainable development for our youth, which means not just are they exposed to arts and music and film but that we train them, give them professional training and develop our businesses and local economy to the extent that those young people do have a reason to stay, they can survive here.”

“One of the things I have done,” said Laura Grenning, the owner of the Grenning Gallery on Washington Street, “is I have invited artists from all over the world to come here and I don’t know how or why but I have convinced clients to house them, in exchange for a painting, and what happens over those dinner tables is magical.”

“There are a lot of empty rooms,” she said. “There is no housing, but there are a lot of empty rooms … If we make it known that one of the things we do in Sag Harbor is house artists and we do it in a barter way, I just think it could work … I just think we are not that far off. We have the resources intellectually, we have the resources physically. We just need to find a way to enculture patronage.”

Panelist April Gornik.

“Wouldn’t it be fantastic if people started to solve this problem themselves instead of waiting for legislation of some sort to do it because it is difficult,” said Ms. Gornik, a panelist representing her venture with Mr. Fischl, The Church, and also the Sag Harbor Cinema Arts Center.

“Right now, we spend $350,000 housing all of our artists and that is not because we don’t try to find places,” said Tracy Mitchell, a panelist who is the executive director of Bay Street Theater.

“You can ask anyone at this table or anyone who owns a business how hard it is to get people to work for you because they can’t afford to live out here,” she said. “If you can get them to drive, after that first year they see what that drive is really like, spending an hour and a half to get here or back and the kind of hours they work for us, late at night, it’s very difficult.”

Eric Cohen, the coordinator for technology and media for the John Jermain Memorial Library, who in 2010 began calling for the concept of a cultural district for Sag Harbor, noted cultural districts have been created in places like Patchogue, where zoning is crafted to encourage the development of arts in blighted areas.

“The problem is we don’t have a blighted area,” he noted.

Panelist Eric Fischl.

“It’s the curse of the artist,” said Mr. Fischl. “The [National Endowment of the Arts] in 2000 decided arts communities were an economic force to develop a town and stopped giving money directly to artists and more to towns who identify, like Patchogue, to develop an arts community, the result of which is in a lot of communities artists were priced out within two years. They are using artists to do something that is not about art, it is about economic development.”

Mr. Fischl and Ms. Gornik have envisioned their Madison Street space as a place where art and economy may take root together. On Friday, he announced early interest from a technology research and development partner which will help them bring artists together with new materials and processes — a continuation of Sag Harbor’s long history in innovation and in industry.

“For me, the thing is when I talk about Sag Harbor as a historically productive town, I am not talking about a gimmick. I am talking about people feeling right about themselves contributing to something on a daily basis; but what they do here is of significance to the larger world,” said Mr. Fischl. “That is what the history of Sag Harbor has at its core.”

Panelist Nick Gazzolo.

Mr. Fischl said if what is created is superficial, the youth “will see through it right away.”

“People will come here as tourists. They will take in the most shallow aspects of it and Sag Harbor will not be the model we aspire it to be,” he said.

Nick Gazzolo, president of the Sag Harbor Partnership and treasurer for the Sag Harbor Cinema Arts Center, noted the cinema brought Zita Cobb to Sag Harbor this summer to talk about her work to create a sustainable economic model on Fogo Island in Canada largely based around art, architecture and the environment.

“One of the things she said in her lecture is, ‘Tourism is great. Everyone needs money, everyone needs jobs, everyone has to make a living, but if you let your community get to the point where that is the only thing, you are going to lose its soul.’ So you have to find another thing and in my opinion Sag Harbor has unbelievable riches in terms of culture and history and when the cinema burned down it was a moment where as a village we had to say here is this cultural destination that has been on Main Street for 100 years and we have to ask ourselves do we want to have that as a cultural destination for the next 100 years or are we going to let market forces take it another way … Fortunately enough people have said we do want that to be a cultural destination and with what Eric and April have decided to do with The Church it is like we have decided as a community to reinvest and really double down on this being a place of culture and a place of history.”

Panelist Tracy Mitchell.

“Sag Harbor is one piece of the East End,” added Ms. Mitchell. “This past year, we formed the Hamptons Arts Network and it is 19 arts organizations and the executive directors meet once a month to talk about exactly the kind of things we are talking about here to the extent that the East End, there is no reason why the Hamptons should connote anything but like what the Berkshires command. We should be seen as the hub of arts just outside of New York. We have more art per-capita on a per person basis, we just have more. The kind of things we are discussing today are being looked at across the East End and that can only help us as a village as well.”

Mr. Cohen said monthly, the group behind the Sag Harbor Cultural District concept discusses how it can work together to enhance programming without infringing on each group’s mission.

“I just want to echo what people have been saying on this panel about the importance of art in this community — not just art but culture in this community, because culture is

Panelist Eric Cohen.

bigger than art, our history is part of our culture and that is reflected in the fact we have two historical organizations and a historical museum in our cultural district and our churches and our synagogues are a part of our culture and they are involved. I think we all look around at Sag Harbor and we see there are big changes that have happened and big changes continue to happen at a faster and faster pace, but the one thing that is not changing is our commitment to the arts and our commitment to our history and culture. And I think that is Sag Harbor’s golden goose. We ignore the arts at our peril. We ignore our culture at our peril.”