Queens Bees

Left: Tom Finkelpearl, president and executive director of the Queens Museum, with curator Eugenie Tsai of the Brooklyn Museum. Right: The Unisphere on opening day. (All photos: Kaelen Wilson-Goldie)

OF ALL THE GREAT MUSEUMS set inside New York City’s vast and uneven network of thriving or threadbare public parks, the entrance to the Queens Museum might be the most dramatic. From the second-to-last stop on the 7 train, one takes a long stroll down an eerily empty boardwalk, slips into Flushing Meadows-Corona Park, and turns onto the wide, leafy boulevard that leads to the Unisphere. An enormous stainless-steel orb that stands twelve stories high and weighs more than three hundred tons, the Unisphere is the ultimate in triumphant old-school spectacle, surrounded when occasion demands by surging water fountains. Behind it are the remaining industrial relics of the world’s fairs for which this park was built, in 1939, and revamped, in 1964. From that approach, the museum sits off to the right, a quiet concrete structure that reopened earlier this month after a $69 million expansion, which took seven years to complete.

On a dank Wednesday evening that felt like the dead of winter, the museum was just about ready to show off its new digs—double the space, six new galleries, a wing of artists’ studios, and a majestic new atrium replete with skylights, louvers, and a lantern of shadowed glass hanging over a recessed exhibition space, which the critic Holland Cotter likened (quite nicely) to “a community commons.” Some of the details were rough—a bus belonging to Peter Schumann’s Bread and Puppet Theater looked abandoned outside the building, much of the signage was still missing, and a branch of the Queens public library would need another eighteen months to move in—but overall the space felt open, lively, welcoming. And so, coming by car and by train, people streamed into the museum for a very professional preview. Impressively, the museum had only been closed to the public for five months, but in addition to the new architecture, there were eight new exhibitions to unveil, including a small but powerful survey of contemporary art from Cuba and the sixth edition of the Queens International.

Inside the building, I climbed a theatrical glass staircase and caught up with David Strauss, the museum’s director of external affairs, who was surveying the scene with Mark Husser, an architect from the design studio Grimshaw who had overseen the expansion. Husser seemed relieved. Strauss, for his part, said: “I can only see the mistakes, and I can only hope no one else sees them. But there’s still so much more to come. We have to build out our library. We have to build out our reputation.”

Left: Architect Mark Husser with David Strauss, director of external affairs at the Queens Museum. Right: Nung-Hsin Hu, coordinator of the Queens Museum's new studio residency program, with artist Juan Betancurth.

In the atrium, a crowd swelled around food and drink. Stragglers hung back in the elaborate stage that had been set for Pedro Reyes’s People’s United Nations, the much-anticipated follow-up to the artist’s sanatorium for Documenta 13. Reyes’s work begins this weekend with local representatives from all of the United Nations’ 195 member and observer states. I drifted into the artists’ studios, part of the museum’s new residency program. Such are the pressures and trends of the real estate market that all of the participants I met who were from New York told me they were grateful to get out of Bushwick. “I had a studio there and it was fine,” said Juan Betancurth, pulling me toward a sound installation he’d made in collaboration with the artist Daniel Neumann. “But I wasn’t challenged. When I came to the Queens Museum, I was lost. I had to find a way to create a relationship with the space. I had to conquer the space.”

Standing next to him, Nung-Hsin Hu smiled. Coordinator of the new studios, she also works on the museum’s New New Yorkers program, a range of classes for immigrant communities that have been taught in a dozen different languages. “He changed his life because of the space,” she said. Wondering if that was hyperbolic or sincere, I circled back to the lobby. Weaving through the crowd were Visionaire’s Cecilia Dean and restaurateur David Selig, Thelma Golden of the Studio Museum in Harlem, and Tom Eccles of the Center for Curatorial Studies at Bard. At a nearby café table, the artist Mierle Laderman Ukeles was having a chat with Tom Finkelpearl’s mom.

Dynamic, affable, and generous with his time, Finkelpearl has been director of the Queens Museum for eleven years. He came to the position as an artist, an advocate for public art (former director of Percent for Art), and an ace programmer (MoMA PS1). “The Queens International was the first show I put on the books when I arrived,” Finkelpearl told me when I dropped by to see him on a Friday afternoon, after the preview and before the public opening—a high ceremonial mix of multicultural blessings and a Mexican brass band—which was scheduled to start the next day. “It was about embracing this place and getting to know it. I wanted to show people that we were glad to be here. Each one is different. It’s important for our curators, every two years, to do a hundred studio visits. I mean, Ridgewood? There were no artists in Ridgewood when I arrived. Flushing? It’s not yet a place where art-school graduates are moving to, but there are enclaves.”

Left: Artists Bunny Rogers and Filip Olszewski in their studio at the Queens Museum. Right: Musicians Efrain Rozas and Joy Hanson of La Mecánica Popular.

Before it was a museum, this building—officially, the New York City Building—was used primarily as an ice skating rink. Before that, it was the municipal equivalent of a trade show pavilion. And before that, it was the place where the General Assembly of the United Nations met and decided on the partition of Palestine, among other fateful measures that came up for debate between 1946 and 1950. Outside of the art world, most people know the museum as the place where they’ve imagined their lives in miniature, leaning over the railings of the Panorama of the City of New York, wonder of wonders, toy-size planes sliding on threads to and from LaGuardia, which was built at the behest of Robert Moses and is said to be the largest scale model of a city anywhere in the world. “I used to come here when I was six,” said Joy Hanson, a singer with the band La Mecánica Popular (think psychedelic Peruvian-Colombian salsa by way of Laurelton, Queens), who was performing at the museum on Sunday. “My father would bring me and my siblings to see the Panorama. The museum didn’t have much more to offer back then. It’s amazing to see what they’ve done.”

A decade ago, the Queens Museum—which opened as the Queens Center for Art and Culture in 1972—already had a solid reputation for being tethered to the world and stitched into the surroundings. It is one of the few mainstream museums in American with a serious and sustained interest in modern and contemporary art from Asia (“Across the Pacific” in 1993–94, “Out of India” in 1997–98), and it takes an internationalist approach (à la “Global Conceptualism” in 1999) to the same art-historical narratives that are told and retold with stubborn provincialism on the island of Manhattan. In his tenure, Finkelpearl has turned the Queens Museum into an important incubator for ideas about social practice and community engagement—as troublesome as those terms may be—and for reflecting on the roles public institutions play amid an ever-shifting matrix of interests in art, culture, education, money, class, material history, and visual culture.

Left: David Selig and Cecilia Dean. Right: DJ Joro-Boro in an opening day performance for the 2013 Queens International.

“I definitely take the public service aspect of this museum seriously,” Finkelpearl said. “Part of that is that I’m idealistic. Part of that is that it works. As a side product of our community programs, our audience numbers are way up. We have community organizers on staff. We are the first museum in America to have art therapists working full time.”

Perhaps more so than any other museum director in the city, Finkelpearl is wholly caught up in what Stuart Hall, the Jamaican-born founder of cultural studies, terms “multicultural drift.” Not only is Queens the largest borough in New York, but it is the most diverse county in the United States and, probably, the world. Hall has long considered the Caribbean to be the great test case for multiculturalism, a place where everyone is from elsewhere. Finkelpearl could make a compelling counterargument that Queens is even greater. “I’m from the ’80s generation of multiculturalism on some basic level,” he said, “where it was all about crossing borders and creating coalitions within the city. The twentieth century was dominated by rupture and dissonance and pain, and incredible art was made under that banner. But I think there’s radical potential in cooperation. People always think it’s about conflict. This is my beef with Claire Bishop, my great friend and intellectual adversary. Her project is about antagonism. Mine is about cooperation. It’s a more pleasant way to work in the museum. You can have autonomy and community at the same time.”

Left: Writer Claire Barliant and curator Yasmil Raymond. Right: Artist Caitlin Keogh.

The atmosphere around the museum’s reopening grew younger, more festive, and familial as the weekend wore on. Baby strollers lined up alongside Pedro Reyes’s project. “I am so happy for the Queens Museum,” a curator murmured to me on Saturday night, wandering beneath the immersive work of Peter Schumann, anguished but playful in an explosion of charcoal-drawn puppets, texts, and portraits strung from the ceiling. “It doesn’t feel like we are in New York. It doesn’t even feel like we are in America. It feels like we are in Europe.” A compliment, that. Curators Yasmil Raymond, Manuel Cirauqui, Anthony Huberman, and Juana Berrío milled around with writers Claire Barliant and Catherine Foulkrod. Lauren Cornell, from the New Museum, dropped by with her parents, lifelong New Yorkers, who made a beeline for the Panorama.

“I’ve lived in the same apartment in Flushing for thirty-five years,” said Jack Eichenbaum, incumbent borough historian of Queens, resplendent in a turquoise turtleneck. “I used to bike down to Flushing Meadows. It wasn’t so safe in those days but there were always great musicians in the park, from all over the world. It was the beginning of the kind of multiculturalism we see in Queens today. And I am so taken with this space,” he added, gesturing broadly. “Queens is often called the most diverse place in the world. I take it a step further. Queens is the center of contemporary hybridization, and this museum is part of it.”

Left: Artists Cheon Pyo Lee and Shahab Fotouhi. Right: Curator Wassan al-Khudhairi with photographer Samar al-Khudhairi.