Bringing Art to the People

When the Queens Museum reopens this month things will be different. For one, executive director Tom Finkelpearl will be at the helm of a museum that’s more than twice its original size and able to present more art to the community.

After a two-and-a-half year, $60 million-plus renovation the Queens Museum has transformed from an earnest, hardworking institution to a gorgeous, expansive exhibition space. Visitors will be greeted by a completely new façade leading to a soaring, 45-foot high atrium crowned by enormous skylights that bathe the space with natural light. This month, the Queens Museum becomes Long Island’s newest great public space.

The 105,000 square-foot building has new galleries and entrances, a transformed museum shop, a café, nine artist’s studios and enough space for several special exhibitions, as well as the permanent collection.

Finkelpearl, the driving force behind the museum’s renovation, described the mission of the Queens Museum in a single word: Openness. “We’re open to a lot of different audiences. We’re open to people who speak different languages. We’re open to the insider art world and the community. But we’re now going to have a building that expresses that idea of openness.”

Finkelpearl has spent his career in the New York art world, previously at P.S.1 Contemporary Art Center, and before that as Director of New York City’s Percent for Art public art program. When he joined the Queens Museum in 2002, he understood how to captivate audiences as well as where he wanted to take the museum. “I think that there’s a really interesting new set of artists who are engaged in art that crosses all kinds of borders. It’s sort of halfway between… doing community activism and doing conceptual art or performance art. It’s an amazing, interesting, fascinating new genre of art that’s extremely important.”

In addition to contemporary art, the museum has unique permanent exhibitions that feature memorabilia from the World’s Fairs, selections from the Neustadt Collection of Tiffany glass and—what it’s probably best known for—the Panorama of the City of New York, a scale model replica of the entire city with over 890,000 pieces, building by building, street by street. “It’s the largest architectural model in the world. It took 100 people three years to build it. And you don’t have to be a New Yorker to love that kind of crazy and amazing scale. It elicits actual shouts of amazement.”

When the doors re-open, Finkelpearl intends to make a splash with a show of larger than life sculptures by Peter Schumann, founder of the Bread and Puppet Theater in Glover, Vermont. “It will be a really dramatic, immersive installation. You’ll walk into this beautiful gallery filled with stark black and white puppet-like creations,” Finkelpearl said. “It’s very political at a certain level, but spiritual at the same time.” The installation will include a 40×150-foot mural the artist will create during the first week of the exhibition, as well as several performances.

A performance piece by Mexican artist, Pedro Reyes, is also scheduled. To address multicultural issues, and the museum’s historic connection to the UN (the General Assembly met in the building between 1946 and 1950), Reyes will be presenting what he calls The People’s United Nations p(UN). “Reyes plans to reconvene the UN here,” Finkelpearl explained, “not with diplomats, but with representatives from all over the world, to try to solve the world’s problems, but through art therapy and theater games…to get people to talk to each other.”

Other exhibitions on view will be a focus on contemporary Cuban art, images by local photographer Jeff Chien-Hsing Liao who recorded the museum’s construction for a 37-piece show and the museum’s biennial, the Queens International, which Finkelpearl founded when he first came on board. “I thought, ‘I want to do something to show how excited I am to be in Queens…’ It’ll be the sixth time we’ve done it. It’s our biennial of artists from Queens and…showcases the cultural diversity.” For the first time, this year’s exhibition was open to not just visual artists, but all disciplines and will include a guest co-curator, Meiya Cheng, from Taiwan. Three days of celebrations, from November 9th through the 11th, are also part of the inaugural program.

Like many in the arts, Finkelpearl started out as an artist himself—a sculptor. “I can date the end of my art career very easily, which was the week my son was born…at a certain point, I had to look in the mirror and say, ‘you know something, I’m better at being an administrator than an artist…’ I eventually turned a corner, as many artists do, and used that creativity in a different way.”

As the executive director, Finkelpearl brings this vision and passion to the nuts and bolts of administration. “The most important thing about a museum director is the creative side,” he said. “You can be a serious museum that shows Andy Warhols or Tiffany glass or great masters of American art at the same time as multi-cultural artists from all over the world and from our own community—taking art seriously and taking the community seriously at the same time.”

The museum sits in an incredibly multi-cultural spot as Queens is home to over 130 languages, more than anywhere else in the country. Finkelpearl’s job is to bring art to this wide swath of people, not just the avant-garde. “I believe that art should be part of everyday life. It shouldn’t be separated. This is the whole idea of openness…that people don’t feel intimidated, that they feel that this is for them.”

Queens Museum’s reopening celebration, November 9th-11th. Peter Schumann’s “Fiddle Sermon” musical/oratorical performance (with artist-made bread), November 11th, 7-9 pm.