Dreams of Grandeur at the Heckscher Museum

Dr. Michael W. Schantz has been making an impact in the arts since he was a young boy, winning an award for his first sculpture when he was in second grade. The Heckscher Museum’s executive director is the rare creative prodigy who also relishes artistic practicalities and mechanics. “My first job was as a hanger of paintings, and I enjoyed that immensely. I loved the nuts and bolts aspect,” said the Pennsylvania native of his gig at the Philadelphia Museum of Art.

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After earning his Ph.D. in art history from UCLA, he came back east and spent a quarter-century at Philadelphia’s Woodmere Art Museum, transforming a small institution in what he described as the “Addams family house on steroids” with a staff of exactly one, into a thriving, accredited museum and hub for the community. “I love the notion of being hands on in everything from the boiler room to the board room…I’m someone who has lived and breathed construction projects and expansion, and the associated fundraising. I happen to love that.” It was that particular set of skills that drew the attention of the Heckscher’s board, which brought him onboard in 2010 with an eye toward the future. Now at the helm of one of Long Island’s oldest and most beloved cultural institutions, Schantz is building every day. He’s building ties to the community, bridging regulatory hurdles and acting as architect of a financial overhaul that puts the museum in strong shape to remake itself.

Plans for a major expansion have been in the works for several years. Schantz hopes to break ground in 2020, the museum’s centennial, for additions that will more than triple its size, introducing four new galleries, an auditorium, enhanced educational facilities, a gift shop and a café. “The footprint is basically creating an ‘H,’” Schantz explained. “There’ll be the original building, and then out [of] each of the north and south ends will be a glazed passageway leading to two similar buildings.” His commitment to the project stems from a strong belief in both the museum and its patrons. “There is no reason this institution cannot gather the wherewithal to get this project done. We have the right people on management now. I want this to happen so badly because Long Island deserves a bigger footprint for this institution so we can do even more.”

Schantz has overseen aesthetic expansions as well. The Long Island Biennial, featuring Nassau and Suffolk artists, has blossomed in size and scope, and Long Island’s Best, the annual high school students’ exhibition is now in its 21st year. April’s schedule is characteristically ambitious, bringing the student show, jewels from the permanent collection in The Art of Narrative, a look at storytelling through imagery, celebrations of Earth Day and Henry David Thoreau’s 200th birthday. Earth Muse: Art and the Environment presents local artists’ responses to nature and photographer Thaddeus Holownia records America’s most famous pond in Walden Revisited.

Look to Schantz to keep championing for the Heckscher, for his adopted Island and for art.  “Art puts the civil in civilization…It’s part of the human psyche, part of our DNA. To the extent that we drift away from it, it’s a very dangerous thing.”