‘The Season’s Been Extended Indefinitely’: Manhattan Dealers Who Opened Hamptons Outposts This Summer Are There to Stay

With no great migration back to the city after Labor Day, galleries are staying out east and putting on shows for hunkered-down clients.

Harper's Books gallery in East Hampton. Image courtesy of Harper's Books.

The week following Labor Day is the traditional march back from the country to the city, when wealthy collectors who decamped to the Hamptons for the summer begin again the New York City ritual of commuting from home to office, and seeking out new art to buy.

This is a different September. Offices are closed. For so many high-powered New York collector-types, there is no commute to the workplace. And yet, miraculously enough, there is art to buy. Nearly 75 new shows opened at galleries in New York last week—real shows at real galleries with real people who made the trek to Chelsea to see works in real life. Galleries are even organizing small dinners following openings, at hot spots with chic outdoor seating situations. By the end of the month, indoor dining will be allowed in New York for the first time since early March.

But for many who went to the Hamptons, the world of pre-March Manhattan is a distant past that has not yet returned. They have heard about the state of the city and are opting not to come back. Despite the calendar month, one of the world’s toniest stretches of coastline is still bustling. Which means the dozens of dealers who hastily opened new East End outposts this summer to bring art to where the collectors are—well, they have to stay out in the Hamptons, too.

“There’s no other place in the world like the Hamptons, where there’s so many people who have second homes—it’s very relaxed, it’s very easy to put work on people’s walls,” said Christophe Van de Weghe, who opened a space on Newtown Lane in East Hampton in June. “And there are more clients who are going to stay out there until the end of the year—and even more people have rented houses until the end of the year.”

Van de Weghe has owned a house in East Hampton for 22 years. But he had never considered opening a gallery there until the lockdown shuttered businesses and sent the wealthy running to their cottages during the decidedly off-season month of March.

Rental Gallery in East Hampton. Photo by Jenny Gorman. Image courtesy of Joel Mesler

Rental Gallery in East Hampton. Photo by Jenny Gorman, courtesy of Joel Mesler.

Establishing a summertime presence in the Hamptons is far from unprecedented. In recent years, galleries like Karma have rented small spaces in Amagansett, and fairs such as the Upstairs Art Fair and The Bridge have sprouted up in recent years. But to try to sell art out East as the temperatures drop is a radical departure from past fall seasons. By late September, the fancy grocery stores in the old fishing villages and the cocktail bars in old whaling wharfs are abandoned, the whole place made a ghost town by those who go back to the city. But this year, people are staying put.

“A lot of the friends I talk to who are usually in New York are postponing reentry for another couple months at least—some of them have to bring their kids to school in the city two days a week, but that’s it,” said Emmanuel Di Donna, who has an eponymous gallery on the Upper East Side.

The exterior of Sélavy in Southampton. Photo: Jacob Snavely.

Di Donna Galleries is known for whipping up immaculately curated, deeply sourced secondary market shows that shed light on under-appreciated slices of art history. Last year a show focused on surrealists in Mexico, and it was a museum-caliber presentation of a series of works rarely seen in the US. The painstaking process of organizing the show meant pinpointing and then reeling in a constellation of loans, but that intellectual weightlifting paid off when a steady stream of visitors came by the Upper East Side space.

Not so much the most recent Di Donna show, which had the bad luck of opening in March.

“We’ve had an exhibition hung since March that four people have seen,” Di Donna sighed. “From my point of view, given the type of exhibitions that we put on, I’m not programming anything in the near future.”

Instead of moping about losing an audience in New York, Di Donna teamed up with his wife, Christina, to open a Hamptons project space called Sélavy (named for Duchamp’s female alter ego Rrose Sélavy). Here there would be no ambitious, encyclopedic, hyper-specific shows. The duo capitalized instead on the forced domesticity of stay-at-home orders and now offer a series of design objects—Lalanne chairs, a chess set designed by Max Ernst—which can be bought by Hamptons locals and quickly slotted into their houses.

Plus, Di Donna has also been slinging higher-priced work privately to collectors in the area, having them come in to private viewing rooms one at a time, mask on, to see works that had been consigned to the gallery.

Emmanuel Di Donna and Christina Di Donna in the gallery. Photo by Jacob Snavely.

“We’ve seen major collectors, and some are in a buying mood and some are not,” Di Donna said. “It’s not a normal situation, but they’re still buying.”

When it comes to the pop-up spaces in towns full of occupied second homes, secondary dealers like Van de Weghe and Di Donna said they would lean away from doing ambitious public-facing shows like the ones they put on in New York. But for primary market dealers, the Hamptons is an ideal place to put new work by gallery artists on display for all to see, said Alex Logsdail, the executive director of Lisson Gallery. In August, Lisson opened a small space on Main Street in East Hampton, steps away from fellow primary market shops Rental Gallery, Halsey McKay, and Harper’s Books. The gallery recently used the space to stage its first show with painter Van Hanos, who joined the gallery this summer.

The plan going forward is to install one new work by a gallery artist every two weeks, thus allowing for nimble programming that can be dreamt up on the fly.

“Everyone has one great work in their studio—everyone has one great thing they can show,” Logsdail said. “We’ve sold work out of every show, the engagement’s been great.”

The exterior of Lisson’s East Hampton gallery.

He added that it’s impossible to think that a shack in the Hamptons can float a gallery’s entire New York operation, and said that his focus will still be on the Lisson spaces in Chelsea, where they just opened shows of work by Carmen Herrera and Ryan Gander. Before lockdown, a minimum of 500 people would come by the New York galleries in a day, and a maximum of 3,000 for an opening, Logsdail said. In the Hamptons, somewhere between five and 25 people come by the gallery a day.

Still, he’s programmed the East Hampton spot through December, and plans to renew the lease when it’s up in March—simply because the collectors are staying put.

“This is a seasonal place, it’s just that the season’s been extended, well, extended indefinitely,” Logsdail said.

He added that, with spaces opening up in the city and restrictions getting eased—indoor dining coming back, for instance—some may think that collectors will follow suit and relocate back to the city. Not quite. Many are older, putting them at a greater public-health risk, and so they’ll stay in their homes on Long Island, which never had a Gotham-level outbreak. And even if they are willing to socialize, many two-home collectors own Manhattan apartments in doorman buildings with strict policies against guests, putting the kibosh on hosting dinner parties like in the old days.

“If you live in a building like that, your social life becomes weird, and then what do you do, you only eat out at restaurants? Who knows if that’s going to work?” Logsdail said. “There’s so many unknowns, and people hate unknowns.”

Shirazeh Houshiary, Only a Flicker (2016). © Shirazeh Houshiary; courtesy of Lisson Gallery.

Another advantage to staying out East: the rents are surprisingly cheap. Logsdail said the rent on the space is a “fraction of the cost of doing one major art fair”—and that’s the rent for the entire year.

That’s van de Weghe’s thinking as well. He signed a three-year lease without batting an eye. He added that many of his colleagues did too. And now, even though the season is technically over, he’s still getting lunch with his colleagues nearly daily. No dealer wants to be the first to abandon their summer post, just in case a client who’s staying in town for the long haul comes along looking for something to buy.

“It’s a very small investment for a very big potential,” he said. “I think it would be a safe bet to stay.”

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