Southampton Arts Center: Adapting While Lobbying for Change – Dan’s Papers

With its beautiful gallery and ongoing slate of arts programming, Southampton Arts Center (SAC) continues to be a jewel in the heart of the village. Executive Director Tom Dunn discusses adapting the arts in these times, how the local arts community advocates for each other and more.

Talk about how Southampton Arts Center has adapted this year.
It has been a year like no other. We’re doing okay, and there’s a number of reasons why. We’ve successfully navigated federal relief that was available to us, which was early quarantine navigation. Secondly, I have an unbelievably dedicated board of directors, many of whom were founders. Like most arts organizations and nonprofits, we weren’t able to do our gala this year and that’s incredibly important to us for a multitude of reasons, often representing between a third and half of our income for the year. We pivoted this year and created a 2020 patron’s circle and the response was astounding. We went to our most generous and dedicated and trusted friends and the response was phenomenal. Another reason we’re in a position of strength is our collectors’ sale. Over 80 artists and art collectors responded favorably to our ask and donated 105 works of art that benefited our year-round programming. It’s incredibly humbling to see our peers and neighbors affirm how important SAC is to this community.

SAC Executive Director Tom Dunn
SAC Executive Director Tom Dunn, Photo: Barbara Lassen

There’s a sense of frustration among groups that the government has been slow to move on reopening the arts. What are your thoughts on that?
I would certainly like to see the local government follow the lead of the federal government, to some extent, but I also think the federal government has a lot more to do with regard to the entertainment and cultural sector. Following the lead of the UK, for example, where they had a stimulus package designed specifically for arts and culture and entertainment. I know there’s legislation being considered at the federal level, and my Hamptons Arts Network colleagues and I are continuing to lobby our New York State representatives in that regard. It goes without saying that arts and culture are a major economic driver everywhere, and in this region in particular. We take that leadership position very seriously.

It was very important for us to try to reopen our gallery as early and safely as possible. After negotiating with local government at both the village, town and county level, I got approval to open as part of Phase 2 Retail before many of my peers in the cultural sector, who had to wait until Phase 4. We were among the first to open in June. There’s nothing to replace an in-person experience. But it was also important to our neighbors in the Southampton Village business district. Last year, 50,000 people came to our programs and those were folks who were coming to Carvel and the Publick House and shopping locally.

What is the general feeling of the businesses in Southampton Village?
We’re a founding member of the Village Revitalization Committee and we’ve met weekly via Zoom with business owners in partnership with the village government, as well. We’ve had an ongoing dialogue about how best to bring our economy back. Yes, there are significant financial challenges at the moment, but there are more people out here than ever before. As it turns out, we have fewer retail vacancies than ever before because many New York retailers like Hauser & Wirth have followed their New York patrons out to the Hamptons. So we see a vitality there.

How do you look ahead to programming a post-pandemic world?
We’re planning exhibitions throughout 2021 and into 2022. We need to, for fundraising purposes. The longer the lead time, the greater opportunity I have to go out to go out to foundations and businesses. But there is still a tentativeness to what we can do. Cuomo recently announced that indoor film outside of New York City can reopen at 25% capacity. My first email was to our landlord and partner, the Village of Southampton, just to make sure there’s a degree of comfort proceeding along those lines. We have the benefit of three beautiful acres in Southampton Village so our outdoor programming was almost as robust, if not moreso, than previous years.

Talk about the Hamptons Arts Network’s work during the pandemic.
It’s a coordinated, thoughtful effort with and among our peers. During the height of the pandemic, we had a standing weekly call with all 19 members of the Hamptons Arts Network where we helped each other navigate the federal relief. We all shared our reopening plans with one another. We all have the same intention. We’re stronger together and don’t view each other as competition.

For Southampton Arts Center’s full slate of programming, to donate to the center and more, visit