If the race for most beloved borough were a competition, Queens would be the underdog, cast as suffering from “third borough syndrome” to the likes of shiny Manhattan and indie Brooklyn. The reopening of the Queens Museum, after a two-year deep renovation, could be a game changer.
The space inside the New York City Building, which has housed the museum since its establishment in 1972, resumed its services on Saturday, Nov. 9, completely revitalized in artistic and social philosophy. According to Queens Museum Executive Director Tom Finkelpearl, these are both accurately summed up by the most physical change made to the museum: its openness.
The history of the building itself reflects Queens’ rich multicultural identity. Situated between Flushing Meadows Corona Park and Grand Central Parkway, the New York City Building was the site of two World’s Fairs in 1939 and 1964. It was also the first location of the United Nations General Assembly from 1946 to 1950 during the construction of its current premises. The space in which delegates once joined and established the United Nations International Children’s Emergency Fund (currently known as UNICEF) has been transformed into an atrium where families gather to view museum exhibitions.
Finkelpearl noted that increased space and additional light inside the Queens Museum have been pivotal to the makeover. The front side of the building has been outfitted with floor-to-ceiling windows, allowing natural light to filter into the space and illuminate the works on display. The center of the museum, said Finkelpearl, is “almost a cathedral,” with its high, vaulted ceiling.
Sarah Kamboj recalls taking field trips to what was then known as the Queens Museum of Art when she was a student at Louis Armstrong Middle School. She also recalls the difference in space. She noted “It wasn’t very exciting because it didn’t seem like there was much to look at. I remember a lot of the kids didn’t want to go.”
A volunteer trip in the mountains of Malaysia gave Kamboj a newfound appreciation for the intersection of art and culture. When the 24-year-old returned, she left her job at a law firm and became one o f the museum’s newest staff members.
“I am amazed at how much it’s changed,” she said. “It’s a lot more modern now.”
The theme of openness is two-pronged. Not only is there now more room to roam the Queens Museum, but the values it promotes and explores through its public displays are intentionally wide-ranging. The first floor alone features larger-than-life sized black-and-white murals and sculptures by German artist Peter Schumann; a collection of iconic stained glass works from American designer Louis Tiffany; a proportionally measured panorama of the city of New York, complete with tiny airplanes gliding overhead from suspended cables; and an assortment of cross-generational, mixed media Cuban art.
Tucked inside the cafe is a glass-windowed gift shop, its shelves lined with greeting cards, children’s clothes and jewelry all made in Queens. This, said Finkelpearl, is a deliberate effort to promote a Queens identity among museum visitors—the majority of whom he expects to hail from the borough of 2.2 million.
While Finkelpearl will continue to promote the Queens Museum as a reflection of the borough’s diversity, he is also aware of the thin line between celebrating cultures and homogenizing them.
“We’re very interested in multiculturalism but try to be careful about not just calling on people to do something predictable,” he said.
This idea is reflected in one of the participants in the competitive Open Artist in Residency Program (Open AiR), Onyedika Chuke. A Nigerian-born artist and Cooper Union graduate, Chuke examines the human body, architecture and the preservation of history through his work with sculptures and installations. He has drawn inspiration from his travels to and research in such locations as Switzerland, Germany and Tunisia. He will spend his yearlong residency completing a column of sculpted human torsos, an assertive and calculated piece that explores the intersection of labor, aesthetics and the influence of empires on cultures.
Robert Johnson and his family were on vacation from their hometown in Senoia, Ga., last weekend. Unaware of the Queens Museum reopening, they followed the recommendation of their hotel concierge and paid the site a visit on Saturday afternoon.
“I think exposure is the greatest thing that a child needs, to see new and greater things,” Johnson said. “Our children are interested in art, and we want to make sure to expose it to them as much as possible.”
The hype surrounding the new museum shows no signs of waning any time soon, but Finkelpearl is already concentrated on its sustainability. He took frequent breaks from ping pong matches with visitors on Saturday to speak with families, asking them which exhibits they enjoyed and, most importantly, what they would like to see in the future. With a variety of programs for people with disabilities and full-time art therapists and community organizers on staff, the Queens Museum is prepared to become a space for what he calls social cooperation and interaction.
“The question is how to keep people coming back,” he said.
Judith Bertrand, a Queens native, had experienced the museum before its renovation and revisited it during Saturday’s opening ceremony. She paused while strolling through the Tiffany exhibit to express her excitement with its transformation.
“There are some beautiful things going on,” she said.