The Victor D’Amico Institute of Art in Amagansett is comprised of the Mabel and Victor D’Amico Studio and Archive in Lazy Point and The Art Barge on the south shore of Napeague Harbor. All of the structures at these two sites were designated historical landmarks by the Town of East Hampton in 2019.
In 2021, the VDIA was accepted as a member of the Historic Artists’ Homes and Studios, a program supported by the National Trust for Historic Preservation.
Victor D’Amico and Mabel Birckhead D’Amico were pioneering artist teachers who made practical and philosophical contributions to modern art education that remain relevant to this day. They continue to inspire, motivate, and teach through the singular sites that comprise the Victor D’Amico Institute of Art: the Mabel and Victor D’Amico Studio and Archive and The Art Barge.
Mabel Birckhead (1909-1998) and Victor D’Amico (1904-1987) were products of and participants in the Progressive Era, a time of social reform that was integral to the development of Mabel and Victor’s advanced, experimental, and individualized approaches to teaching art. Building extensively on modern progressive education’s hands-on approach to learning, they espoused understanding art by making art; or more broadly that individuals could understand the world and themselves through art and with art.
Victor D’Amico was the founding Director of Education at the Museum of Modern Art from 1937 until 1969. While at MoMA, he developed inspiring art education programs for people of all ages, developing outreach programs for the community and creating innovative learning environments for children, parents and children, high school students, and war veterans. His philosophy was based on a fundamental faith in the creative potential of every man, woman, and child. He believed, “that the arts are a humanizing force and that their major function is to vitalize living.” Mabel Birckhead D’Amico shared equally in this progressive idea and contributed to modern art education as a practicing artist teacher, teaching during more than three decades at Rye High School (1929-64) and making essential contributions to programs at MoMA. Their combined life’s work inspired generations of individuals to develop their individuality through the creative process in order to create a better world in which to live.
The D’Amico House
Following a visit to Amagansett in 1939 when Mabel and Victor stayed near what was then a prominent fishing port at Promised Land, the couple looked to settle in the area and found a house lot in nearby Lazy Point. They began construction of a modest beach house in 1940. As modern, American artist educators, Mabel and Victor’s objective in teaching was to learn. They practiced what they taught by learning to build their own home to fit their singular lifestyle. To their artist-educator eyes, the Lazy Point locale afforded the opportunity to build to their liking, budget, and needs.
Mabel and Victor would continue to transform and expand their home and the move from working and living in New York City to Eastern Long Island became increasingly realized. Beginning in 1955, under Victor’s direction, MoMA-sponsored summer painting classes were held at Ashawagh Hall in the Springs, East Hampton. Victor, however, had a greater vision for these classes, a place he described as, “more dramatic and reflecting the character of the environment – sky, sea and salt air, either a boat, or resembling one.” In addition to teaching technique, his aim was to bring amateurs, children, adults, and artists and teachers together in a stimulating setting within a natural environment.
The Art Barge
With MoMA’s support, Victor fulfilled his creative vision with a retired World War II Navy barge. In March of 1960, with the help of local baymen, he beached the barge on the south shore of Napeague Harbor, across the water from the D’Amicos’ home in Lazy Point. A second story was added the following year, creating additional studio space with panoramic views of both Napeague Harbor and the Atlantic Ocean. It became known familiarly as The Art Barge, immediately attracting the attention of landscape painters and photographers. In the early years, studio painting and teacher training classes were taught by Victor.
Gradually other instructors joined him, including Mabel. The program was expanded to include classes in watercolor, drawing, printmaking, sculpture, and workshops designed especially for young people. It is at The Art Barge where Mabel and Victor’s ideas flourished and have continued to be utilized in teaching generations of students. Each summer, for over sixty years, individuals of all ages have participated in classes that, along with the breathtaking natural surroundings and the school’s unique architecture, serve to inspire, motivate, and ultimately draw out each student’s creative potential.
The Art Barge program continued to expand following Victor’s death in 1987 and, upon Mabel’s death in 1998, the ever-evolving D’Amico home became a complement to the program as a representation of their ideals. At The Art Barge and the D’Amico Studio and Archive the lives of Mabel and Victor come together conclusively to illustrate an outstanding and singular legacy for modern art education and for art in everyday living.
The spirit of innovation, experimentation, and exploration is palpable at The Victor D’Amico Institute of Art. The program of classes, events and exhibitions, the archives and collections, and the structures themselves represent Mabel and Victor’s life and achievements and reflect their shared belief that “art is a human necessity”. Classes and events at The Art Barge apply the D’Amicos’ ideas and methods for creative education to address challenges in contemporary art education. The permanent and rotating displays of furnishings and collected objects, artwork, clothing and jewelry, and archival material at the D’Amico Studio and Archive manifest the ideal of creative living. The “D’Amico experience” continues to be transformative, with the potential to impact contemporary living and practices.