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When we talk about meaning in contemporary art, context is everything. The same principle applies to art institutions, which can influence public perceptions of an artist in lasting ways. The reverse might be true of Guild Hall in East Hampton. Calling the 90-year-old arts centre a regional museum for local talents may be technically correct, but when the locals are such titans as Jackson Pollock, Lee Krasner, Willem de Kooning, Roy Lichtenstein, Thornton Wilder and Edward Albee, the implied provincialism of that description is laughable.

The human-scale galleries at Guild Hall have more in common with the Whitney Museum of American Art or Lincoln Center than your average American arts outpost. I don’t know if Gertrude Vanderbilt Whitney summered in the Hamptons, but Andy Warhol, George Plimpton, Truman Capote, Jann Wenner, Alfonso Osorio and Henry Geldzahler sure did, as do (to name a few) Cindy Sherman, Julian Schnabel, Laurie Anderson, Robert Wilson, Ross Bleckner, Robert Longo, Eric Fischl and Alec Baldwin.

With their active participation, the expertise of Manhattan-based firm Peter Pennoyer Architects, and a $29m makeover, Guild Hall reopened on the weekend of 1 July to an enthusiastic crowd of artists, patrons and friends. Shuttered for two years, it has been transformed from a rainy-day, weekend salon for white elites into a wired, interdisciplinary and inclusive year-round institution that is both forward-looking and worthy of its founding mission: to cultivate “a taste for the arts” and “a finer type of citizenship”.

The exterior of Guild Hall following the recent renovations

So went the thinking of Mary Woodhouse, the philanthropist who donated the property on Main Street and $100,000 for construction—a colossal amount in the Great Depression year of 1931—without a claim to naming rights. Her Guild Hall was no symbol of Gilded Age folly. Nor was it meant to salve the wounds of gentry who lost their shirts in the 1929 stock market crash and, because of Prohibition, could not easily drown their sorrows in drink at their East End estates.

Village residents, including the dipsomaniacal socialite John “Black Jack” Bouvier (father of former First Lady Jacqueline Kenny Onassis), raised the money to open the place in five- and ten-dollar contributions. Volunteers from the surrounding pool of art, music, film and literary stars took charge of programming that is now professionally staffed. (The refurbished John Drew Theater will reopen next year.)

Unlike the new Herzog & de Meuron-designed Parrish Museum building that opened in 2012 in nearby Watermill, Guild Hall was and remains a pocket-size weathervane for all the arts, not just the visual—more “arts town hall”, as promotional materials have it, than social space. After a top-to-bottom, inside-out upgrade, the low-slung white building topped by the round, circus tent-like roof over its theatre, has a streamlined face and improved gardens. More important is the evidence of welcome changes within.

Installation view of Renée Cox: A Proof of Being at Guild Hall, East Hampton, New York

“We’ve loosened our institutional necktie,” says Andrea Grover, Guild Hall’s director. That is not just hype. I have visited occasionally for over 30 years and do not recall any Native American artist ever appearing there before the 2 July ribbon-cutting ceremony, when poet and playwright Andrina Wekontash Smith—an alumna of the Guild Hall Art Academy founded by Fischl—introduced her commissioned poem in the language of the Shinnecock Indian Nation, the area’s original inhabitants.

Standing beside Smith was the Harlem-based artist Renée Cox, who has had a home in Amagansett since 1989. That was the year she left a successful career as a fashion photographer for art school and started making more personal and conceptual pictures. Fifteen riveting examples that the independent curator Monique Long selected from several bodies of work dating from the early 1990s to 2022 make up the opening show, Renée Cox: A Proof of Being(until 4 September).

“It’s a new day for Guild Hall!” Cox says. Before the revamp, her larger photographs would not have made it through the old, cottage-size doors. Nor would they have fit on walls more evocative of a family living room. The old fireplace just would have been in the way.

Installation view of Renée Cox: A Proof of Being at Guild Hall

“It’s amazing what you can accomplish just by raising the ceiling eighteen inches and taking out crappy old moldings,” says artist Steve Miller. Pennoyer also uncovered skylights that diffuse daylight in each of the two exhibition spaces, made room for an education centre and new offices, and installed temporary walls to accommodate Cox’s disorienting new video installation and hand-cut, fractal collages.

Exhibitions

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It is a winning outcome for visitors, too. Now they can float unimpeded through airy rooms that feel genuinely uplifting and, in Long’s pitch-perfect installation, have plenty of mental and physical space to study the fastidious details of Cox’s staged portraits, some in glorious colour and others in exquisite black-and-white. In each, Blackness is the subject and the point.

Renée Cox, The Signing (2017), on view at Guild Hall

A heroic picture of Ziggy, one of Cox’s two sons, draped in an American flag is almost hypnotic in its beauty and sensitivity. Early self-portraits, shot on the streets of the South Bronx in the bad old days, are nudes that emanate an electric sense of urban Black womanhood as well as great personal risk. Another showstopper is The Signing (2017), a reimagining of Howard Chandler Christy’s 1940 history painting for the US Capitol, Scene at the Signing of the Constitution of the United States, with glammed-up Black men and women doing the penning and witnessing. Cox shot her panorama at the historic Andrew Freedman Home in the Bronx. She also costumed the participants in a pastiche of period and contemporary styles, including fantastic Afro-futurist headdresses and elaborate makeup. The work is both defiant and fun.

As Long says, “We wanted people out here to understand what Renee is about.”

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