Long Island Museum celebrates 75th anniversary

Neil Watson, executive director of the Long Island

Neil Watson, executive director of the Long Island Museum in Stony Brook, shows a painting by artist William Sidney Mount titled "Dance of the Haymakers" at the museum on Feb. 20, 2014. (Credit: Daniel Brennan)

The Long Island Museum celebrates an anniversary when it reopens its doors Saturday, emerging from a two-month winter hibernation.

"It's our 75th year. That's something to hang our hats on," says the new guy at the helm of the Long Island Museum of American Art, History & Carriages. Neil Watson, formerly director of Westchester County's Katonah Museum of Art, succeeded Jackie Day, who retired in July. For his first two months on the job, Watson lived at the Three Village Inn -- "a great way to get acquainted with Stony Brook," he says of the historic hotel-and-restaurant complex a stoplight away from the nine-acre museum grounds with three exhibition buildings and several other diversions.

Among Watson's plans for the cultural landmark once known as the Suffolk Museum and then, until 2000, the Museums at Stony Brook, is to take advantage of the plural in its former name. "We want to mix it up with shows that take up the whole campus," he says, asking rhetorically. "How many museums have a campus?"

INDOOR/OUTDOOR Assuming spring arrives someday, the museum, a Smithsonian affiliate since 2006, will install serial outdoor sculpture gardens on the hilly grounds, beginning with works by two East Enders, Elizabeth Strong-Cuevas and Bill King.

But with snow still falling as two shows were being installed last week, attention is directed indoors for now. The new exhibits reflect both the museum's roots and its ambition to be a major regional attraction.

"Brothers in Art: William Sidney Mount & Shepard Alonzo Mount": With 140 paintings, prints, artifacts and photos, it's the museum's boldest statement in years that its Mount collection is the world's most extensive. The museum's gestation can be traced to a collection of hunting trophies displayed at the Christian Avenue home of Carol Lempfert, sold in 1939. The collection survived intact thanks to Dorothy Melville, wife of Thom McAn shoe magnate Ward. The Melvilles began locating and acquiring Mount paintings and archives -- a natural fit, since the Mount farmhouse, which still stands at Stony Brook Road and Route 25A, is just a quarter-mile from the museum site.

The Mount brothers, particularly younger William, were among America's most prominent artists before the Civil War. (The brothers, who both trained at the National Academy of Design, died within months of each other in 1868.) Rejecting European standards dictating that only religious/literary subjects or upper-crust society portraits were worth painting, William's art reflected scenes from everyday life -- often rural tableaux from the Three Village area. Shepard concentrated on family-and-friends portraits and landscapes. Both were adventurous colorists, digging for clay and other pigment sources along the North Shore.

Remarkably, the museum's collection includes not only such captivating paintings as "Dance of the Haymakers" but also some of the actual objects pictured in the scenes, such as fiddles. William, a musician as well as an artist, patented his own violin, dubbed "Cradle of Harmony." (New York City musician Chris Tedesco plays Mount's music on "Cradle" in front of the farmhouse hearth in a video that's part of the exhibit.) "We wanted to add three-dimensional elements to the exhibit," says curator Joshua Ruff, "showing an interpretive quality to the work. It wasn't just copying what they saw."

"Jackson Pollock's Prints: Works from the Pollock-Krasner House": An artist who flourished on Long Island nearly a century later -- until drunk-driving killed him (and a passenger) in 1956 -- is revealed through a lesser-known aspect of his career in this exhibition. Before Andy Warhol gained fame with the technique, Pollock turned out "photo-silkscreen prints in . . . monochromatic black suggesting abstracted human forms," says Helen Harrison, director of the Pollock-Krasner House in Springs, where Pollock, the drip-painting abstract expressionist, and his wife Lee Krasner lived and worked. Harrison curated the prints show, which includes Pollock lithographs and intaglios, plus such personal objects as a checkbook with whimsical doodles.

HOLD THE REINS Observing the museum's legacy would be incomplete without a visit to the Carriage Museum, erected on the former site of the Stony Brook Hotel. With more than 200 horse-drawn carriages -- about 100 displayed at a time -- the museum's collection is considered the finest in the United States. Among its most recent dioramas is "Streets of New York," featuring a fire-wagon responding to a blaze, which crackles like a gaslit fireplace. Next door is a blacksmith shop and across the greensward stands a one-room schoolhouse.

The campus extends across Route 25A to the Visitors Center, formerly an exhibit space. "We're reopening those galleries," including the popular miniature-rooms and decoy displays, Watson says. Beginning Saturday, the Visitors Center's "Colors of Long Island" exhibit shows off the talents of local student artists, kindergarten through 12th grade.

Future Mount brothers and sisters, perhaps?

The Long Island Museum

WHEN | WHERE Reopens Saturday for its 75th anniversary with three new exhibits. Museum hours: 10 a.m.-5 p.m. Thursdays-Saturdays and noon-5 p.m. Sundays, 1200 Rte. 25A, Stony Brook

INFO 631-751-0066, longislandmuseum.org

ADMISSION $9 ($4 ages 6-17); 2-for-1 admission Thursdays

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