Linking the Past and Future

Neil Watson is an expert in contemporary art who’s built a career showcasing 20th and 21st century work at museums around the country. This made him a surprising choice to take the reins as executive director of the Long Island Museum, which houses the country’s top collection of carriages and paintings by 19th century painter William Sydney Mount of Setauket. But Watson’s vision embraces the past and sees great prospects for the future as well. He likes to merge the old with the new, helping history come alive and adding depth and context to fresh art.

Watson has been at the Long Island Museum for only a year, but he’s already installed outdoor sculptures (a first for the venue), transforming a pastoral corner of Stony Brook into a
site for contemporary works by Elizabeth Strong-Cuevas and William King. He’s updated and renovated unused gallery space, vastly increasing the museum’s exhibition possibilities, forged alliances with other museums and invited local artists to present their work. (LIMarts: Here and Now, the inaugural exhibition of the group, opens this month.)

“My fingerprints are all over,” Watson cheerfully admitted, but he also enjoys letting his curators and educators do what they do best, only adding his fire to get things cooking. “Nothing gets done by one person. I’m a lightning rod,” he said. His ability to ignite passions and blaze new paths helped turn the Katonah Museum of Art in Westchester County into a serious venue for contemporary art during his eight-year tenure.

But Watson’s 30-year involvement in the art world is both broad and deep. He’s directed and curated at museums from Tampa to Tacoma before returning to the East Coast, and has been both presenting and making art. After graduating from the Rhode Island School of Design, he was a professional exhibiting painter and printmaker for many years before taking his first curatorial position in 1994 at the Tampa Museum of Art. “That infuses everything I do and how I look at things,” he said.

In addition to preserving the museum’s extensive collection, 40,000 square feet of exhibition space and 14 buildings, Watson wants to shake things up by showing local artists. To that end, he initiated LIMarts, an artists’ member group that meets regularly at the museum to gain from the experience of the staff and develop their own visions, like those that can be seen in Here and Now.

Watson looks forward to presenting landscape paintings by Jim Molloy and Doug Reina’s experimental fusions of figure and abstraction. Shirley Wegner creates conceptual large-scale photographs that blend aspects of performance, sculpture and painting—explosions that capture clouds of smoke and flames crafted from painted paper and other materials in her studio.

LIMarts members should have no difficulty finding inspiration working with Watson, who expressed his view of art as “the chair you sit in… the glass that you hold. It’s everywhere. It’s everything… It’s a way of teaching how you approach a problem.” And visitors to the museum are bound to feel it too, “Contemporary art will have a real presence here…” said Watson. “Artists bring creativity. They bring life.”