Curator at the Queens Museum, 1985-1994
1985 was a busy year for me. I worked on ART/new york, an educational videotape series about contemporary art; wrote monthly columns for the East Village Eye; co-edited the book ABC No Rio Dinero: The Story of a Lower East Side Art Gallery; exhibited my own art; and taught art history at St. John's University. All of these activities, together with my PhD from New York University's Institute of Fine Arts, made me the winning candidate for the curator position at the Queens Museum that I spotted in the want-ads section of the New York Times.
The Queens Museum was located in Flushing Meadows-Corona Park, the historic site of both the 1939 and the 1964 World’s Fairs. The building, the former New York City pavilion, still featured as its main attraction the Panorama of the City of New York, a giant architectural model of New York built by Robert Moses for the 1964 fair. The museum looked out onto the spectacular Unisphere, the giant steel globe that had been the symbol of the 1964 fair’s theme.
The museum had great ambitions thanks to its energetic director, Janet Schneider, and its principal patron, Queens Borough President Claire Schulman, who generously supported all of the borough's cultural institutions. I've often compared being curator at the Queens Museum to the episode of "I Love Lucy" where the conveyor belt at the chocolate factory moves a little too fast. Each of the museum's curators worked on three or four exhibitions at a time, wrote catalogs, and helped plan public events. I continued to work with many of the downtown artists I knew from the Bowery, but also began expanding my reach into other areas. Increasingly, I was attracted to the richness of the museum's Flushing Meadow Park site, formulating exhibitions around the Panorama and the two World's Fairs. For the French Bicentennial in 1989, Jan encouraged me to put together an exhibition based on my doctoral dissertation about the art connected to Lafayette's 1824 tour of America. I was also able to organize a large exhibition about one of Queens' most illustrious residents, the jazz musician Louis Armstrong.
Thanks to assistant curator Phyllis Bilick who doubled as staff photographer, there are many photographs from my years at the museum.
The Panorama of New York City
By any standard, the biggest attraction at the Queens Museum is the Panorama of the City of New York, a giant three-dimensional model showing every building in the city at a scale of 1 inch to 100 feet. Originally constructed for the 1964–65 New York World's Fair, the Panorama takes up more than 9,000 square feet at the heart of the museum.
As a curator at the Queens Museum the Panorama became one of my responsibilities. The vast model was originally conceived by legendary urban planner Robert Moses who saw it not just as a fair attraction but also as a tool for urban planning. He did not intend it to remain stuck in 1964, but wanted it to be continually updated—an easy task for New York City's biggest builder, but an impossible challenge for a small museum with a limited budget. By the mid-'80s, the Panorama was twenty years out of date. Janet Schneider, the museum's director, was seeking to fund an update, and I was asked to come up with exhibitions that would bring attention to the model.
My 1987 exhibition New New York was a survey of recent New York buildings not on the Panorama, all represented by the finely crafted models/maquettes that architects and developers created for city review boards and potential tenants. We had access to all the blue-chip firms leading the wave of new construction thanks to architect and author Robert A.M. Stern who was an exhibition advisor. For the Panorama's twenty-fifth anniversary in 1990, the museum solicited new models sized for the Panorama from developers, architects, and model-makers. We ultimately gathered models of more than 125 buildings. Also at this time I put together a catalog chronicling the Panorama's history. Viewable here in PDF format, the catalog traces the tradition of models exhibited at world's fairs, as well as their use by architects, developers, and urban planners.
After I left the museum the city and the borough funded a complete update of the Panorama. My time working with the Panorama instilled in me an interest in maps. After leaving the museum, I set up a company, Ephemera Press, and published a series of pictorial maps exploring New York City culture.
New York World’s Fair
The Queens Museum sits in a historic location: Flushing Meadows Park, site of the two New York World's Fairs, in 1939–40 and in 1964–65. The impact that these two mega-exhibitions had on two generations of attendees numbering in the tens of millions is impossible to exaggerate. Not a day went by during my tenure as curator without nostalgic park visitors showing up at the museum to ask about the World's Fairs. Interest was especially high since the year 1989 marked the fiftieth anniversary of the first New York World's Fair and the twenty-fifth anniversary of the second. Much of my time at the museum was taken up by World's Fair activities.
Starting in 1988 we sponsored a series of World's Fair weekends that drew huge, enthusiastic crowds for talks, films, tours of the park, and even a flea market with World's Fair collectibles. Our most ambitious enterprise was the giant exhibition “Remembering the Future: The New York World's Fair from 1939 to 1964,” which I co-curated with project director Ileen Sheppard. I contributed to the exhibition catalog and also to the museum's New York World's Fair Association newsletter. The six newsletter issues available here in PDF format provide a vivid record of the activities and excitement that surrounded the anniversaries.
My reputation as a World’s Fair historian persisted after I left the Queens Museum. In 1994, Jo-Ann Jones, the director of Flushing Town Hall, received major funding for a thirtieth-anniversary exhibition of the 1964 World's Fair, and hired me as curator. The Something for Everyone catalog in PDF format here is particularly well illustrated. I also served as a consultant and on-screen commentator for Peace through Understanding, an ambitious documentary by Curtis Cates and Terri Marlowe released in 2003.