Pictured Above: Landscape Designer Ed Hollander with Guild Hall Executive Director Andrea Grover at a June 29 press preview of the renovation.

When Mary Woodhouse spurred the community of East Hampton to build Guild Hall, which opened in 1931, she envisioned that it would serve as an arts town hall, a central hub that would invite the community to participate both in the arts and in the conversations that help create community.

Guild Hall’s current renovation is attempting to do just that, creating more public spaces, gardens and a café where the community can gather both while programming is underway and at times when the building is closed.

The galleries and gardens opened to the public in early July with a breathtaking exhibition, “A Proof of Being,” by Amagansett-based photographer Renée Cox, whose large-format works reappropriate the depictions of Black bodies by white American culture. The exhibition is on view through Labor Day.

Renovations of the John Drew Theater at the heart of Guild Hall will continue into 2024.

Andrea Grover

“Nothing would make me happier than to hear people say ‘meet me at Guild Hall,'” said Guild Hall’s Executive Director, Andrea Grover, of the community-centered redesign of the spaces in the hall at a June 29 press walk-through of the renovated space. “Mary Woodhouse had a very civic-minded vision — the founding purpose was to make us better neighbors by participating in the arts.”

Ms. Woodhouse’s donation of $100,000 led to the construction of the hall, but at its unveiling in 1931, Ms. Grover said she wasn’t interested in being acknowledged, and she made clear that a broad swath of the community matched Ms. Woodhouse’s commitment to build the hall.

Guild Hall launched a $10 million fundraising goal for renovations on the occasion its 90th Anniversary in 2021, but ended up raising $25 million, which it is using to completely revamp the building while maintaining its historic architectural details, after initial plans were met with public pushback by community members who wanted to see the theater’s historic architecture maintained.

The renovations include a completely modern heating and air-conditioning system, inclusive handicapped accessibility throughout the building and the gardens, widening of all doorways to accommodate large-format art, and upgrades to lighting, acoustic and technical systems necessary for all forms of art.

Booths in the back of the theater are expected to be removed to make way for more traditional seating, and the rake of the seating in the theater will be pitched so audience members can have a good view of the stage from any seat in the house. The painted circus tent ceiling of the theater is being restored, and a chandelier designed to look like balloons rising into the circus tent will be updated with LED fixtures that can change to any color. Updates to audio and video equipment in the theater will allow performances to be recorded and streamed, and enable more multimedia performances.

“It’s a nearly total infrastructure update. The building looks and feels historic, but it functions like new construction,” said Ms. Grover. “I’m extremely proud of the accessibility. It’s inclusive design, so everyone uses the same entrances and exits.”

The gardens, designed by Ed Hollander, include a courtyard behind the South Gallery that can be used for receptions, and a larger space adjacent to the rear parking lot behind the North Gallery that can accommodate performances and gatherings. A garden path lined with tall cylindrical sweetgum trees alongside the building leads to the patio in front of the hall, is now filled with hand-fabricated tables and chairs built by local industrial designer Evan Ye, wheere visitors can relax with baked goods and coffee from Tutto Caffé’s on-site coffee bar.

Renée Cox, the inaugural artist exhibiting in the space, initiated a series of conversations on race in America, called “Ring the Alarm,” during the height of the protests over the Minneapolis Police murder of George Floyd in the summer of 2000.

Ms. Cox’s portraits take a cue from her observation, while visiting relatives in France with her French husband, that the French often have giant oil paintings of their ancestors in over their mantles.

“I needed to bring this to my landscape,” she said at the press preview of her show. “We don’t see Black bodies at this scale and grandeur.”

She also works with extremely small scale, in a 4″ by 4″ image, which viewers must stand inches away from in order to see the image of a Black mother holding her dead son, in the classic style of a Catholic pieta of Mother Mary holding her murdered son.

“The impact comes when you have to get very close,” she said. “Black men are shot every day. I wanted the interest concentrated.”

“Renée is very playful in her use of Black vernacular bodies in her work,” said Monique Long, the guest curator for the show. “She’s flipping the script, reclaiming it and making it her own.”

Renée Cox and Monique Long discuss the works on display in "A Proof of Being"

The gallery is open Thursdays through Mondays from noon to 4 p.m. Admission is free.

Guild Hall is planning a series of both on-site and offsite program as it continues renovations this year. More information is at guildhall.org.

Beth Young
Beth Young is an award-winning local journalist who has been covering the East End since the 1990s. She began her career at the Sag Harbor Express and, after receiving her Masters from the Columbia University Graduate School of Journalism, has reported for the Southampton Press, the East Hampton Press and the Times/Review Media Group. She founded the East End Beacon website in 2013, and a print edition in 2017. Beth was born and raised on the North Fork. In her spare time, she tinkers with bicycles, tries not to drown in the Peconic Bay and hopes to grow the perfect tomato. You can send her a message at editor@eastendbeacon.com

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