You might not expect to find work by cutting-edge contemporary artists in a barn-style building with wood shingles and white trim on a serene street in East Hampton, N.Y. But that is exactly what is inside Halsey McKay Gallery, a gallery at 79 Newtown Lane. Its current exhibition, for example, features José Lerma’s textured black-and-white paintings, which include a geometric rendering of the Last Supper and several rowdy reinterpretations of civic portraits. For gallery co-founders Hilary Schaffner and Ryan Wallace, bringing emerging art to The Hamptons is the point. “Part of what was so appealing was the opportunity to fill a niche,” Schaffner tells INHABIT. “Unlike opening [a gallery] in New York City, we could be one of a few galleries showing emerging art to a population that can support and appreciate the business.”
Halsey McKay Gallery opened in 2011, but both Schaffner and Wallace were already rooted in the East Hampton community. In particular, Schaffner is a descendant of the Halsey family, which was one of the first to settle in Southampton in the 1600s. “My aunt is still in the house that my great- great-great grandfather built in 1834,” she explains. “When they were renovating it two years ago, we found all these clothes, journals and old deeds to land from the 1800s hidden behind the walls. It was such an exciting discovery because it helped piece together a big part of our family’s history.” In advance of their summer shows, which include art exhibitions with Timothy Bergstrom, Joseph Hart and Samuel Levi Jones, among others, we spoke with Schaffner about the emerging art scene in the Hamptons, her favorite art pieces and her best advice for starting your own art collection.
Why did you decide to open the Halsey McKay Gallery in the Hamptons?
The idea originated from a very casual conversation my business partner and I had one day. We both have connections out East, him through his wife and my family’s history. There is such a rich history of the arts in The Hamptons, from William Merritt Chase starting the first plein-air school in America in the Shinnecock Hills, to Peggy Guggenheim bringing the Surrealists out East in the 1940s, and of course the Abstract Expressionists. I love the idea of contributing to that history and allowing it to continue.
Why do you think there were so few galleries focused on emerging artists there?
There are some wonderful galleries out here that have been operating for a long time, but aren’t necessarily focused on emerging artists. There are more now than when we started. Honestly, I am not really sure. Most people focus on the city as a place to see new art, but it is also saturated with galleries and can be overwhelming for a collector.
Do you think it might be due, in part, to the fact that more young buyers are purchasing homes in the Hamptons?
I have seen more young professionals recently, and yes, they do seem to be more receptive to emerging artists. A lot of galleries in The Hamptons were geared toward the secondary [art market], but it feels like things are moving toward a younger art scene.
What exhibitions do you have planned at the gallery this summer? Which are you most looking forward to?
It’s always so hard to answer that question, but our current downstairs show with Denise Kupferschmidt is wonderful. She is working with very straightforward ideas about the contemporary depiction of female form, yet the work is subtle and modernist in approach. She creates gorgeous Sumi ink drawings on old book pages that reference Matisse cutouts and the geometry of tribal masks. The other exhibition I am dying to see in the gallery is Joseph Hart’s. I adore Joe as a person and artist. He is also someone whose work is subtle and authentic. His interpretation of abstraction through collage and gestural lines evokes the economical simplifications of Cy Twombly.
Gallery owners typically have great personal art collections. What’s in your home?
I have a lot of artists we show—Joseph Hart, Colby Bird, Lauren Luloff, Denise Kupferschmidt, Jennie Jieun Lee, Patrick Brennan and Rachel Foullon. The Rachel Foullon, I adore. It reminds me of the time in my life when I was pregnant. I have an amazing Andrew Kuo and Sara Greenberger Rafferty. [The latter] will always be on my wall, it was one of the first artworks I ever bought. All these works have so much more value to me beyond monetary, they really do represent different periods in life.
What is your best advice for someone looking to start a personal art collection?
I don’t think people trust their instincts enough when they look at art. You are the one who is going to live with the work, so it is important to love it no matter what the market is telling you to buy. I think small works on paper are a great way to start collecting. They are normally accessibly priced, and can give you a sense of how wonderful it is to live with art. Of course buying emerging artists is how many people begin a collection. Helping support a living artist can be very gratifying. I would also recommend finding a gallery whose program you respect and developing a close relationship. The ever-expanding art world can be overwhelming, and those relationships can be invaluable to everyone involved.