Honoring a Radical Approach to Art Education

Pictured Above: The Art Barge | Victor D’Amico Institute of Art photo

Out at the end of the Napeauge stretch, across a desolate railroad crossing, beside an iconic radio tower, there’s a place where artists have been congregating for generations.

The Art Barge, formally known as The Victor D’Amico Institute of Art, is a retired Navy barge beached by Mr. D’Amico on Napeague Meadow Road in 1960, with the help of local baymen.

Mr. D’Amico, the founding director of the Museum of Modern Art’s Education Department, had a radical idea that art should be accessible to everyone, regardless of their education, age or social status, and he put that theory into practice both in his work at MoMA and at The Art Barge.

While The Art Barge has long been open to the public, Mr. D’Amico and his wife, Mabel D’Amico, also an accomplished art instructor who later taught at The Art Barge, kept a fascinating house and studio not far down the road, in Lazy Point, which is open for tours at set times. 

The couple built the house and studio themselves in the early 1940s, with the help of local carpenters, and the integration of salvaged materials from abandoned buildings, eventually constructing two other buildings on the site, known as The Fishing Cottage and the Oyster Watcher Hut.

While many who still paint and teach at The Art Barge fondly remember the tutelage of the D’Amicos (Victor passed away in 1987; Mabel in 1998), their influence has become a part of history.

East Hampton Town honored that history this month by naming both The Art Barge and the D’Amico Studio as historic landmarks.

Chris Kohan at a 2018 open house at the D’Amico House & Studio

Christopher Kohan, the President of the Board of Trustees of the Victor D’Amico Institute of Art, submitted more than 40 letters in support of the designation at a public hearing on the designation Aug. 15.

Mr. Kohan said Mabel and Victor D’Amico were regular visitors to the far reaches of the South Fork as early as 1915, when they camped out in a rented house in the windswept ocean bluffs of Shadmoor, now a state park just east of Montauk.

Not long after Victor D’Amico’s appointment as MoMA’s Education Director in 1937, he and Mabel were renting a cottage near the Smith Meal fish factory on Cranberry Hollow Road.

“They walked up the beach and they came to Lazy Point, where Grandpa Babkin showed them the best house site on Lazy Point,” Mr. Kohan told the town board. “They built a little seaside house. They owned the barge property, but they left it abandoned until Victor hatched the idea of a summer arts school.”

In the late 1950s, Mr. D’Amico ran a summer painting program at Ashawagh Hall in Springs, before hatching a plan to beach a barge at Napeauge. He originally called the site Kearsarge, a Native American word that means “place of heaven.”

Mr. Kohan, who showed up at The Art Barge in 1975 and never left, said he once met an old handyman named Roger Hedges who had worked for the D’Amicos. He was born in 1898 and he told Mr. Kohan his family had been English sympathizers during the American Revolution.

“When we’re dealing with history, we’re dealing with individuals,” he said. “It was fascinating to me, as a young fellow in the 1970s, meeting a man who was connected to the Revolutionary War…. From the Revolutionary War to the 1970s to tomorrow, it’s important that history can share the past and also give something for the future.”

Mr. Kohan said he’d recently read a 1980 interview with Mr. D’Amico in which the interviewer told him he’d become historical. Mr. D’Amico responded by saying “as long as I don’t become hysterical.

“Hundreds of people have come and gone to the Art Barge and become East Hampton residents,” he said. “I think that we will continue, all the more so, because of this designation. I think Victor and Mabel would be very proud, and Victor may get a little hysterical.”

Whimsical found object pieces abound in the studio

Art instructor Joyce Raimondo agreed.

“I came to The Art Barge as an instructor in the 1990s. I was working at MoMA coordinating education programs for children,” she said. “I was deeply moved by Victor D’Amico’s legacy. He believed that everyone — children, teens, adults — regardless of their education or financial status, had a right to be expressive and create. It’s not just about art. It’s a core principal about the value of being American, that everybody is equal and we all deserve a chance.”

Ms. Raimondo said that school teachers still come to teacher training classes at The Art Barge, where they learn how to teach creatively, “which is more important now than ever.”

“Parents and children are taught to be open-ended thinkers,” she said. “That is really a dying skill.”

Ms. Raimondo said that many people, of all social strata, have gained something from working in the extraordinary beauty of The Art Barge, and that she believes it is imperative that all the land here not become a playground for the rich.

“This is not just about history,” she said. “It’s about the future.”

Joan Edwards of Amagansett agreed.

“Victor D’Amico’s groundbreaking ideas about art education were an inspiration for me and many other students,” she said. “The D’Amico house is an amazing place. It’s an early example of modern architecture on the East End. Its design is a unique blend of function and art in a small space. We go around here now and there’s all these huge mansions, and here’s a small space that functions in an amazing way. It’s also an example of repurposing.”

The outbuildings at the D’Amico house and studio.

Ms. Edwards said she’d recently read that painter Jackson Pollock was sitting around on the property while the D’Amicos were building an addition to the house, and he’d suggested the addition be build with windows that go all the way to the ground.

Orly Friedman of East Hampton was hired at The Art Barge a month after Victor D’Amico’s death.

She said she learned that Victor D’Amico had set up art for people to do on the streets among the tenements of the Lower East Side of Manhattan, and had brought art from the United States around the world.

Famed photographer Diane Arbus “said he put the camera in my hand,” added Ms. Friedman. “So few people know what Victor did for society at large.”

The board unanimously passed the historic designation.

Beth Young

Beth Young has been covering the East End since the 1990s. In her spare time, she runs around the block, 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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