Guild Hall opened to the public in the summer of 1931 as a gift of philanthropist Mrs. Lorenzo E. Woodhouse. Designed by architects Aymar Embury II and his wife, landscape architect Ruth Dean, Guild Hall provided East Hampton with an art gallery, a theater and meeting place -- the cultural center in the center of culture. The East End of Long Island is a unique region that has attracted many diversely talented people such as artists, writers, musicians, actors, and directors over the years. They search for and find inspiration in the natural beauty of the landscape, the magnificent light and the endless beaches.
Long Island, with close proximity to New York City, became a popular tourist destination with the onset of the Long Island Railroad in the late 19th century. The L.I.R.R. was very active in marketing the charms of the region by distributing thousands of brochures and leaflets. In the 1870s, Hudson River School painters portrayed the white sand beaches of eastern Long Island. Winslow Homer came to visit in 1872 and in 1878, a group of New York artists known as the Tile Club traveled to the East End and visited several of its small villages including East Hampton. Thomas Moran and his family settled permanently in 1884. His home and studio became the center of life for artists who visited the village.
In the teens, twenties and thirties many artists including Guy Pene du Bois and George Bellows, visited the area. Later after WWII, the Surrealists aided by artist and philanthropist Gerald Murphy were welcomed guests. They were followed by the Abstract Expressionist artists Jackson Pollock, Lee Krasner and Willem de Kooning, Pop artists Roy Lichtenstein, James Rosenquist and Andy Warhol, Photo Realists Audrey Flack and Chuck Close, 80's and 90's Neo-expressionist artists Eric Fischl, David Salle and Julian Schnabel as well as many contemporary artists today such as Ross Bleckner, Donald Sultan and April Gornik. These artist-residents continue to make the East End the country's foremost art colony.
In 1931, when Mrs. Lorenzo E. Woodhouse dedicated Guild Hall as a cultural center for the community, The New York Times noted that Howard Russell Butler's portrait of Thomas Moran, on exhibit in the galleries, was not a loan, but an acquisition. "It marks the beginning of a permanent art collection which it proposed to build up in Guild Hall," the newspaper explained. From this beginning over 73 years ago, the holdings have grown significantly in size and scope. In the early 1960's, the collection began to focus on the artists who have lived and worked in the region, including some of the country's most celebrated painters, sculptors, photographers and graphic artists. It was not until 1970 when the Dewey Wing, with climate-controlled art storage and processing facilities, was added, that collecting started in earnest. In 1973 the museum received the distinction of being accredited by the American Association of Museums. Today, the holdings of 19th, 20th and 21st century art number some 1,900 objects which include paintings, sculpture, prints, watercolors, photographs and drawings by internationally renowned artists. The museum continues to acquire works by donation and acquisition.
The exhibition space consists of four galleries: Moran, Woodhouse, Spiga and Leidy; as well as the Ruth Dean Garden and the Myrtle Shepherd Sculpture Garden. The year-round schedule of changing exhibitions includes both one-person and group shows, an annual Members Exhibition and the Student Arts Festival.
Guild Hall is also home to the historic John Drew Theater, with a gorgeous jewel box proscenium stage that has hosted a veritable who's who of 20th century theatrical luminaries since its inception in 1931. John Drew, a celebrated thespian, bon vivant and reigning lion of the Barrymore clan, chose East Hampton as his summer getaway. John Drew so charmed the citizens of the town that they dedicated the theater posthumously in his honor. The Theater enchants audiences with its octagonal shape and blue and white striped tent-like ceiling that sweeps up to a chandelier of glass balloons. But it's not just the interior that captivates audiences; it is the magic of what happens on the stage. World-class performances by such entertainers as Academy Award winning actress Mercedes Ruehl, comedienne Joy Behar, performance artist Laurie Anderson and Robert Wilson, as well as author and playwright Wendy Wasserstein, cabaret stars Andrea Marcovicci and Michael Feinstein and jazz greats such as Earl Klugh and Regina Carter. Like the Guild Hall Museum, the John Drew Theater will continue to ignite the imagination, curiosity and wonder of our community, moving us forward into a new and exciting chapter of our history.