After 38 Years, Curator Alicia Longwell Retires From the Parrish - 27 East

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Arts & Living / 2044681

After 38 Years, Curator Alicia Longwell Retires From the Parrish

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Alicia Longwell giving a talk on the exhibition of work by artist Jennifer Bartlett, 2014. PARRISH ART MUSEUM

Alicia Longwell giving a talk on the exhibition of work by artist Jennifer Bartlett, 2014. PARRISH ART MUSEUM

Alicia Longwell leading an “Inside the Vault” private tour, 2014. TIAGNE DAVIS

Alicia Longwell leading an “Inside the Vault” private tour, 2014. TIAGNE DAVIS

Alicia Longwell giving a talk on the Roy Lichtenstein exhibition, 2021. JENNY GORMAN

Alicia Longwell giving a talk on the Roy Lichtenstein exhibition, 2021. JENNY GORMAN

Alicia Longwell at the exhibition opening of

Alicia Longwell at the exhibition opening of "Sand," with artist Billy Sullivan, 2008. GINGER PROPPER

Alicia Longwell, left, at the exhibition opening of

Alicia Longwell, left, at the exhibition opening of "In the Light of the Garden," with artist Laurie Lambrecht and Alice Aycock, 2022. JENNY GORMAN

Alicia Longwell, right, at a 2010 exhibition opening with artist Joe Zucker. GINGER PROPPER

Alicia Longwell, right, at a 2010 exhibition opening with artist Joe Zucker. GINGER PROPPER

Alicia Longwell with artist Lonnie Holley at the exhibition of his work. 2021. JENNY GORMAN

Alicia Longwell with artist Lonnie Holley at the exhibition of his work. 2021. JENNY GORMAN

Alicia Longwell, right, at the preview of the Roy Lichtenstein exhibition, 2021, with artist Clifford Ross and Dorothy Lichtenstein. JENNY GORMAN

Alicia Longwell, right, at the preview of the Roy Lichtenstein exhibition, 2021, with artist Clifford Ross and Dorothy Lichtenstein. JENNY GORMAN

Alicia Longwell, right, at the opening of the

Alicia Longwell, right, at the opening of the "Rackstraw Downes" exhibition with artist Dorothea Rockburne, 2010. GINGER PROPPER

Alicia Longwell at the exhibition opening of

Alicia Longwell at the exhibition opening of "American Landscapes" with husband Dennis Longwell, 2009. GINGER PROPPER

Alicia Longwell, center, at the opening of

Alicia Longwell, center, at the opening of "Artists Choose Artists," 2011, with husband Dennis Longwell and artist Herbert Randall. GINGER PROPPER

Installation view of

Installation view of "John Graham: Maverick Modernist," 2017. DANIEL GONZALEZ

Alicia Longwell speaking at the opening program for

Alicia Longwell speaking at the opening program for "John Graham: Maverick Modernist," with curator and scholar Bill Agee, 2017. DANIEL GONZALEZ

Opening for

Opening for "John Graham: Maverick Modernist," 2017. DANIEL GONZALEZ

Installation view of

Installation view of "John Graham: Maverick Modernist," 2017. DANIEL GONZALEZ

Installation view of

Installation view of "Sand: Memory, Meaning, and Metaphor," curated by Alicia Longwell, 2008. GARY MAMAY

Installation view of

Installation view of "Sand: Memory, Meaning, and Metaphor," curated by Alicia Longwell, 2008. GARY MAMAY

authorAnnette Hinkle on Oct 11, 2022

This past week marked the end of an era of sorts at the Parrish Art Museum. On October 10, Alicia G. Longwell, Ph.D., officially retired from her position as the museum’s Lewis B. and Dorothy Cullman Chief Curator after 38 years.

Four decades is a very long time to dedicate oneself to any single institution, but for Longwell, in her role at the Parrish she discovered much of what she had hoped to accomplish in the field of arts. Along the way, the museum also became a home, in every sense of the word. During her time at the Parrish, Longwell not only earned her doctorate degree, she also found the opportunity to create the kinds of art exhibitions she envisioned with artists that she admired, first at the Parrish’s longtime home on Jobs Lane in Southampton, and beginning in 2012, at the new museum building in Water Mill.

But none of this was something that Longwell initially imagined when she first moved to the East End.

“I arrived at the Parrish 1984,” Longwell said. “It wasn’t a career move.”

In fact, Longwell came to the area with her husband, Dennis Longwell, after he was asked by acting teacher Sanford Meisner to help write his book “On Acting.” At the time, the couple had a small house on the East End and two young children, and they decided to live there for a year while Dennis worked on the book.

Longwell and her husband were both well acquainted with the art world through their professional careers. They had met at the Museum of Modern Art (MoMA), where she worked in the registrar’s office for five years and he was the curator of photography. After leaving MoMA, Longwell coordinated exhibitions for Richard Avedon’s studio in New York from 1976 to 1981.

But what was initially expected to be a temporary relocation to the East End in 1984 soon evolved into a new life for the couple and their children, Julia and Oliver.

“That fall, after a beautiful summer and all of us doing what we liked to do together, I said, ‘We’re not going back after Labor Day, are we?’” said Longwell. “A registrar job had opened at the Parrish. Dennis said, ‘Take this job, we’ll be fine.’ I said, ‘Who will raise the children?’ He said, ‘Don’t worry about that.’”

So Longwell accepted the position, and while some people struggle to redefine themselves once they move to the East End and leave behind all that is familiar in New York City, that was not an issue for the Longwells.

“Given the history and proximity to so many artists I met early on, I realized this was a very special place,” Longwell said. “As a transplant, I knew Alice Aycock — her husband had worked at MOMA — and others like curator Klaus Kertess, artists Joe Zucker, Malcolm Morley, Billy Sullivan, Michelle Stuart, Connie Fox and Bill King.

“I always say that working at the Parrish passed as a social life,” she added. “There were talks and gallery openings. My work and social life was one and the same. Having access to artists — even those with studios in New York who worked out here — being able to invite oneself to their studio, it was a matter of access. These are small towns and you can run into these artists at Schiavoni’s IGA. There’s a commonality of loving the area and those who come out here from New York have to want to be here.”

Longwell also found that her time working in MoMA’s registrar office had prepared her well for the role she stepped into at the Parrish in 1984.

“The registrar at MoMA is a key position — you deal with objects. You’re not only moving things in trucks, you have to be aware of materials and how objects are handled, even cataloging, that kind of physical, almost forensic examination of objects stands one in good stead.”

Curation was a job that came naturally to Longwell and the Parrish’s director at the time, Trudy C. Kramer, recognized that. So on those occasions when the museum found itself short on curatorial staff, Longwell happily stepped into the role.

“I’m always thinking of ideas for shows,” she said. “I’m probably the only person who still has a clip file.

“I always had an innate idea that objects have to relate to one another in a space. Pieces in a proximity have to get some conversation going,” Longwell explained. “To me, to be able to bring objects together you have to think about how they look.”

One of Longwell’s ideas for an exhibition was based around sand as material and as metaphor — a substance prevalent on the East End, but also full of meaning. Sand is used to mark the passage of time in an hourglass, while the number of grains on a beach embody the concept of infinity.

“I always thought could you talk about sand as a concept. I was amazed by sand, also as part of a medium. In the ’20s and ’30s, artists loved to throw sand on paint,” said Longwell, noting that when Terrie Sultan joined the Parrish as its director in 2008, the concept was approved and became the exhibition “Sand: Memory, Meaning and Metaphor.”

“It was green-lighted before knowing how it would all play out,” Longwell said. “We had international, contemporary, long-gone artists all together, with sand being a natural element, that was one of the most fun shows, if curators are allowed to have fun.”

Once the Parrish opened its new expansive museum in Water Mill in 2012, the curatorial possibilities expanded and Longwell suddenly had the opportunity (and the wall space) to dive deep into the permanent collection and consider themes that might make for intriguing exhibitions.

“I have always enjoyed putting together themed shows from the collection — starting with a finite number of things,” said Longwell. “That really developed when we moved to the new building, because on Jobs Lane we didn’t have a dedicated space for the permanent collection.”

Some of Longwell’s noteworthy Parrish exhibitions over the years at both locations included “Malcolm Morley: Painting, Paper, Process” (2012), “Dorothea Rockburne: In My Mind’s Eye,” (2011) and “North Fork/South Fork: East End Art Now” (2004). Longwell also curated solo exhibitions on the work of artists Barbara Bloom, Marsden Hartley, Frederick Kiesler, Alan Shields, Esteban Vicente and Jack Youngerman, among others. Along the way, she mined the Parrish collection of 3,500 works to curate over 100 thematic exhibitions, often augmented by key loans.

While working at the Parrish, Longwell also earned her doctorate degree in 2007 from the Graduate Center, City University of New York, where her dissertation topic was artist John Graham. In 2017, the artist would became the subject of “John Graham: Maverick Modernist,” a show spanning his four-decade career featuring 65 paintings and a selection of works on paper. It was the first comprehensive retrospective of Graham’s work in 30 years.

“I would have to say, the John Graham show was my favorite,” Longwell said. “He was an artist who popped up Zelig-like in mid-century art. He was extraordinarily charismatic, born in the 1880s in Russia, but knew Pollock and had all these connections. I thought this guy is amazing and I was surprised he hadn’t been written about in more depth.”

Now, with her retirement at hand and Longwell looking forward to what’s next, it would seem that her long tenure on the East End will also soon be coming to an end.

“Sadly, Dennis passed away last April,” she said. “Ultimately, it was a graceful exit at the end. I’m turning 75, I’m thinking how many more years do I have to travel and take my daughter to Paris?

“Dennis would want me to get busy. We had 50 years together. I was here 40 years and they were wonderful times,” Longwell added. “But I’m selling the house in Sag Harbor. My son has a new baby girl in Oregon and I might go down to Florida to be with my daughter.”

And although Longwell has left the Parrish and will soon be leaving the area as well, don’t think for a minute that she is leaving the field of art totally.

“I recently ran across some of those old clip files,” she said. “I’m in the process of applying to a residency. I thought I might work on this little project for fun.”

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