DeterminingDirection: Queens Museum of Art’s executive director has vision

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At the opening of the Salvador Dali “Dreams of Venus” exhibit at the Queens Museum of Art in June, Executive Director Tom Finkelpearl, who has headed the museum for about a year, was beaming with excitement.

The Dali exhibit is only the latest one that highlights the cultural and ethnic diversity of Queens. Press representatives from Spain were on hand for the opening, and they were delighted to hear of the many dining options in the borough they could later attend with cuisines from Colombia, Ecuador, Guatemala, Brazil and every other South- and Central-American country.

The diversity that makes Queens so strong is also the glue that binds the exhibits at the Queens Museum of Art.

“We’re trying to figure what we can do better than anybody else,” Finkelpearl said. “We have a fantastic World’s Fair collection. No other place can do that.”

The World’s Fair collection is running as a tangent to the “Dreams of Venus” exhibit, which features photographs and sketches of Dali’s work preparing for the 1939 New York World’s Fair, where he had a building in the Adventure Zone called “Dreams of Venus.”

“We’re in a difficult location, but did you ever hear anybody say, ‘I didn’t go to the U.S. Open because it’s too far away,’” Finkelpearl said. “It’s the product. If the product is unique, then people are going to come. Here we have Dali. How can we let that slip thorough our fingers. Yeah, it’s kind of racy and sexy, but that’s okay. If you could do it in 1939, you can do it in 2003.”

Taking stock of the museum’s strengths and acknowledging its shortcomings is how Finkelpearl plans to boots the museum’s image.

“We can’t do a show like MoMA with Picasso. We just can’t do it. We don’t have the resources,” he said. “What we have is a place.”

“There are two or three things we can do,” he continued. “First of all, we have a place. The UN met here. The partition of Palestine happened in this room. So did the partition of Korea. UNICEF was born here. It was an amazing historical place, even before the Panorama was here.”

“We’re going to hold a Ralph Bunche show next year,” Finkelpearl said, referring to the Queens-based Nobel Peace Prize winner. “He was the most important insider African-American politician before Colin Powell. It’s a cultural history show. We can do that better than anybody else.”

Using the museum’s location within Flushing Meadows Corona Park, and its proximity to the Queens Botanical Garden, another uniquely Queens show is on the horizon.

“We’re going to do a show about artists’ gardens, and we’re going to commission gardens in the park and in the Botanical Garden. We’ve got this fabulous location. We’ve got to take advantage of it,” Finkelpearl said.

But the exhibits the museum displays are only half of the equation when it comes to the continued success of the Queens Museum of Art. Attendance and reaching the widest audience possible are other keys to success.

“In the summer there are these festivals. It could be the Colombian Independence festival, and there could be 300,000 or 400,000 people in the park,” Finkelpearl explained. “What we need to do is invite those people into the museum. Now maybe you say that people aren’t there for the museum experience, but even if maybe 1 percent were interested in coming to a cultural event, that’s 3,000 or 4,000 people in that day.”

He relayed the story of a day last summer that proved him right.

“We have a guard from Colombia, and we had him speaking Spanish and welcoming people to the museum. When they said, ‘I’ve come to go to the bathroom,’ instead of telling them it’s right down the hall and having them come right out, we sent them through the Panorama to the second floor bathroom. That’s the thing. You don’t have to speak English. You don’t have to love art. We have got something for everybody.

“I was there that day. We had 900 to 1,000 people there that day and they were loving it. They didn’t run out after they had gone to the bathroom. We held bilingual workshops. That’s the kind of thing we have to do. We have to do what we can do based on the advantages we have from this site, not the disadvanta­ges.”

The Queens Museum of Art has changed its hours, for July and August, to 1 p.m. to 8 p.m. Wednesday through Sunday. For more information, call 718-592-9700 or go to

Posted 7:16 pm, October 10, 2011
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