Founded in 1972 through the efforts of a group of community activists, the Queens Museum occupies the former home of the United Nations General Assembly, a building originally constructed for the 1939 New York World’s Fair. As well as housing art and historical collections, the museum has a strong programme of in-community activities designed to support the diverse population around its Flushing Meadows-Corona Park site. Its annual turnover is approximately $5.4m, of which roughly 17% is received via City of New York funding and the rest through corporate and private donations. Laura Raicovich, who was interviewed for this case study, was president and executive director of the museum from 2015 until January 2018: the case study is thus the record of a particular moment in the leadership of the museum, articulated by a specific voice. The text was approved for publication by interim director Debra Wimpfheimer, who joined Queens in 2002 and has held a number of administrative roles within the organisation. Queens has a staff of roughly 40 full time.
Mission: providing community-minded arts and cultural services to the people of Queens, New York, and beyond
How the Queens Museum operates today is as much a reflection of local and global history as of the actions of its most recent directors. Between 1946 and 1950 its building housed the United Nations General Assembly; as such, it bore witness to many historical events whose impact is still unfolding, including the partition of Pakistan and India, the partition of Korea, the partition of Palestine, and the creation of Israel. In both the 2000 and 2010 censuses, Queens emerged as one of the most diverse areas in the entire US – and, as its former executive director Laura Raicovich points out: “Many of the people who live in Queens come from those areas of the world, so the history of the building is deeply embedded in the contemporary nature of the audiences that we have.”
This raises a question and a challenge – one that has guided the work at Queens for more than 15 years. As Raicovich puts it: “How does one think about the museum as a potential commons when you are in a borough where 165 different languages are spoken and when you’re attempting to engage very broad populations, all with different experiences of what they feel like when they go inside a museum, or what that means, if they would even go?”
“How does one think about the museum as a potential commons when you are in a borough where 165 different languages are spoken and when you’re attempting to engage very broad populations, all with different experiences of what they feel like when they go inside a museum, or what that means, if they would even go?”
The distinctive ways in which Queens Museum has responded to this were initially shaped by Tom Finkelpearl, the museum’s director from 2002 until 2014. He began by diversifying internally (current interim director Debra Wimpfheimer was one of his first new employees), and in 2006 brought a community organiser on staff, to support changes to the in-house programme that would reflect the shifting mix of established and new immigrant groups in the local population, but in particular to build meaningful community relationships with them. With Finkelpearl as her informal mentor, and now four full-time community organisers on staff, Raicovich continued the museum on this path, building on the priorities and approaches already established, not least of dissolving “the glass wall that’s between the park and the museum”.
The realm of the real
Raicovich argues that the distance of the Queens Museum both geographically and in terms of the prestige of its collections from the major institutions of Manhattan creates a “freedom to invite artists to contend with the really challenging or difficult questions of our times. That’s important when you’re running a programme that has to connect in some way to people’s daily life – to what I call the realm of the real.” She points to a recent retrospective of the work of Mierle Ukeles as an instance: “She has a beautiful and complex conceptual practice but she’s also been the artist in residence for the Department of Sanitation for 40 years: we all know about trash, we all take it out, we all make it, and as Mierle says, trash is just something that we once wanted but we don’t want any longer. So it’s this strange portrait of who we are as individuals or as a society that pulls in issues of feminism, labour, community, consumerism: questions that could be hard to get at, but when you talk about such a common thing as trash, it becomes easier to break that stuff down.”
Serving a neighbourhood
More characteristic still of Queens Museum’s approach to political questions is its multi-strand In the Community programme, again begun by Finkelpearl and continued by Raicovich. The in-staff community organisers are vital to this programme, which Raicovich describes as: “leading from behind – in the sense that most museums don’t do this work as deeply as Queens does, but also because we don’t take the lead within the communities, we do the structural support work so that communities are able to express all of the things that they really want to focus on”. Within this programme are four key elements:
- IMI Corona
Immigrant Movement International (IMI) Corona began in 2011 as a collaboration with Cuban artist Tania Bruguera. Based in a shop a short walk from the museum – “because you need to go outside the museum and be in other people’s spaces to actually be active, and respectful” – IMI Corona is “dedicated to providing needed services, whether they be artistic or otherwise. We provide language courses there, Occupational Safety and Health Administraton certifications, legal aid, legal systems, but also book-making projects, dance, screenprinting – all multi-lingual.” As well as offering public education, IMI Corona set out to “work in a very grassroots way to understand what recent immigrants who live in Corona might be interested in pursuing, and where they felt they needed to perform advocacy”. Initially the project was led by Bruguera, who lived upstairs from the community space, but as part of her sustainability and exit strategy instituted a leadership development programme through which “an intergenerational council that is comprised of a group of immigrants who have been very involved for a long time” could take over the running of the project, “supported by our community organisers”.
- Community partnership gallery
Within the museum, the community partnership gallery opens applications annually to any community organisation – who may or may not be a partner of the museum – who would like to propose a project. Recent exhibitions have ranged from images of the lives of immigrant workers in restaurants across Queens to a collaboration with grassroots group New Women New Yorkers documenting the experiences of young immigrant women.
- Corona Plaza
A public space close to the museum, Corona Plaza was effectively derelict – “a concrete triangle that wasn’t user-friendly” – when Finkelpearl began programming cultural events there. It was already being used by a number of small local cultural organisations, “but they didn’t have things like a PA system or chairs readily accessible, and so we would lend ours out”. This led to “using our political capital with our local elected officials to draw attention to Corona Plaza, who became partners with us and with the smaller community organisations to convince the Department of Transportation to renovate the Plaza”. That renovation is almost complete, and “this has been seen by the Department of Transportation as a model programme of community engagement in the planning of a plaza redevelopment”.
- The World’s Park
The museum has since turned its attention to Corona Park; in 2014 the staff community organisers began a collaboration with the Design Trust for Public Space, through which local people were invited to share “ideas about how the park could be more useful to the various communities around it, and contribute to a wider conversation about improvements to the park in a meaningful way. Volunteer members from the public met for a number of in-depth sessions, to understand capital projects and the park’s department budgets, so that when it came to the moment where community leaders were asked to be a part of the decision-making process around the park, there would be people who could speak that language, enter into the conversation with knowledge, and bring their own ideas to the table.”
Even though its community programming is well-established, Raicovich notes that the museum faces challenges on two fronts: “On the one hand, we’re still confronted with questions of trust, you have to constantly be building community trust; on the other, it’s convincing funders or more traditional art people that this is really valid work for a cultural institution to be doing.”
“On the one hand, we’re still confronted with questions of trust, you have to constantly be building community trust; on the other, it’s convincing funders or more traditional art people that this is really valid work for a cultural institution to be doing.”
And for all its forward-thinking, Raicovich recognises ways in which Queens Museum retains a traditionalism that could be further challenged. “We’re in a borough that’s so multi-lingual, yet our website is only in English, our wall texts generally are in English, we have some culturally specific programme that’s produced in Mandarin or Spanish, but for the most part everything is in English.” Her initial impulse was to provide translations – but “even if I translated a curatorial text into Spanish”, she points out, it wouldn’t make a difference to those who “don’t speak curatorial Spanish. If it’s not about language, but about different registers, then we can provide different registers in different languages, it doesn’t have to be duplicative.”
With Raicovich’s departure, the Queens Museum is temporarily in flux until a new director is appointed. And yet, as interim director Wimpfheimer remarks, what’s distinctive about Queens in terms of its emphasis on collaboration with community, has been distinctive – albeit with lower profile – for 15 years. There remain two full-time art therapists and four community organisers on staff, and that level of engagement will remain core to its work.
And there are other elements of its future are also fixed: in particular, the plan to move the Queens public library into the museum building, offering, as Raicovich puts it, “an incredibly powerful conjunction of thinking, of activities, of ideas. The Queens library system is the largest library system in the US: every resident of Queens lives within one mile of a branch library, and they are utilised because they have really adapted to what people want to find. Especially among immigrant populations libraries feel like a very accessible public place – so how can we get that feeling to happen around the museum?”
Image: Corona Plaza, courtesy Queens Museum