At Queens Museum, the Director Is as Political as the Art

At Queens Museum, the Director Is as Political as the Art

But Ms. Raicovich, 44, almost three years into her tenure at the Queens Museum, has been notably outspoken on various hot-button topics, particularly immigration and DACA. It’s an issue that hits close to home. Five percent of her staff members are DACA recipients, or Dreamers, as they are known, and the museum is operating in a borough where about 91,000 undocumented immigrants are eligible for DACA, the highest of New York City’s five boroughs.

National politics is sensitive territory that arts organizations all over the country are trying to navigate during this polarized era, and some are asking whether it is appropriate for museum directors to also be public advocates.

“It’s hard to put one’s own politics aside when we represent public institutions that welcome all viewpoints,” said Anne Pasternak, the director of the Brooklyn Museum. “This is a moment when cultural leaders are asking themselves, do I want to be on the right side of history?”

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In addition to exhibitions, the museum has a community storefront space that provides free educational, health and legal services.

Credit
Byron Smith for The New York Times

Traditionally, museum directors have remained behind the scenes, allowing the art they show to speak for itself. But increasingly they have been forced to defend and — in two recent cases, at the Guggenheim and the Louvre — remove controversial exhibitions. Many see the withdrawal of artwork as a troubling development for cultural institutions that are supposed to champion free expression.

When the Trump era of fast-moving political developments headed toward cultural institutions this year — specifically the president’s proposed defunding of the National Endowment for the Arts — at least two museum directors in New York felt compelled to jump into the fray.

Some museums have also responded by quickly staging politically relevant exhibitions. To protest Mr. Trump’s executive order on immigration, the Museum of Modern Art in February rehung part of its permanent collection with works by artists from some of the majority-Muslim nations whose citizens were blocked from entering the United States. And the Brooklyn Museum organized its recent show, “The Legacy of Lynching: Confronting Racial Terror in America,” in just five weeks.

But in Queens, where 165 different languages are spoken, Ms. Raicovich seems to be charting her own community-focused path, with an emphasis on making the museum a safe haven for the borough’s large immigrant population.

“I take my leadership very seriously — not just in a physical and managerial sense,” Ms. Raicovich said in a recent interview at her museum office. “Care and equity has to be part of what I bring to my position.

“This isn’t an abstraction; this is real,” she added. “It’s people that I work with every day. This museum is interacting with immigrants.”

On Mr. Trump’s Inauguration Day in January, the Queens Museum closed its galleries in solidarity with an art strike called by hundreds of artists — including Cindy Sherman, Richard Serra and Louise Lawler — to combat, as the organizers put, it “the normalization of Trumpism — a toxic mix of white supremacy, misogyny, xenophobia, militarism, and oligarchic rule.” The museum invited the community to come make protest posters, buttons and banners (materials provided for free).

And, since some immigrant residents have been newly wary of going out in public — Ms. Raicovich said attendance noticeably dropped after the election — the museum has been holding events in people’s homes and on their blocks. “Xenophobia is not a new thing,” Ms. Raicovich said. “Our work has just intensified.”

A politically outspoken museum director could run the risk of alienating trustees, donors and potential future employers, who may disagree with her views or deem such advocacy inappropriate. But so far, the Queens Museum board has supported Ms. Raicovich. “This is an engaged time, and she is an engaged leader who has placed values of difference and multiplicity at the center of her leadership,” Mark J. Coleman, the museum’s chairman, said.

Artists also say they appreciate Ms. Raicovich’s bold stances. “Having a young director brave enough to talk about issues that are directly affecting Americans — especially people born Dreamers — is so worthy,” said the conceptual visual artist Mel Chin, who will have a retrospective at the museum in April. “Someone in a position to speak out on behalf of people who don’t have voices is what it’s all about.”

To help New York’s cultural institutions through this thicket, the city’s Department of Cultural Affairs and the Ford Foundation last spring invited arts leaders to a discussion with legal experts on what is permissible for nonprofits in lobbying and political activity. Nonprofit laws bar institutions from engaging in electoral politics and holding political fund-raisers, a hornet’s nest the Queens Museum ran into this past summer when it appeared to cancel and then reinstate an Israel-sponsored event after accusations of anti-Semitism.

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An installation for the “Never Built” exhibition currently on view at the museum.

Credit
Hai Zhang/The Queens Museum

Two city officials in August called for Ms. Raicovich’s removal, and one of them, Councilman Rory I. Lancman, said in an interview this month that he is still awaiting the results of museum’s investigation into the matter.

“The museum discriminated against a Jewish organization in a way that I think makes it impossible for her to serve as the head of the museum,” he said. “I have given the board of the museum the opportunity to conduct a thorough investigation and present me with facts showing me she’s not at fault, and she should not be removed, but they haven’t done so yet.”

Mr. Coleman said the museum’s board could not elaborate on its ongoing investigation, but he expected it to be concluded by the end of November.

Ms. Raicovich said the decision regarding the Israel event, which was made by the board, simply had to do with an application of the museum’s space rental practice, which has not permitted art fund-raisers, auctions or political events. The board then decided to overrule its initial decision and allow the event upon realizing that a museum official had led the Israeli Ambassador to believe the rental would proceed.

“The decision was not anti-Semitic,” Ms. Raicovich said. “The accusation is very painful. This is not who I am. My grandmother helped young Jewish men escape across the border out of fascist Italy during the war. My husband is the grandson of Holocaust survivors. I have dedicated my career to freedom of expression, inclusiveness and civic discourse.”

For Ms. Raicovich, immigration issues are also personal. Her father is Italian; her mother, Italian-American. Raised mostly in Roslyn, N.Y., she also spent years in Milan and Bucharest as a child when her father worked as a banker there.

The Queens Museum — built as a pavilion for the 1939 World’s Fair and then home to the United Nations General Assembly before becoming a museum in 1972 — was physically in her life at an early age; she learned to drive a stick shift nearby, often stalling in front of its entrance.

After a brief stint at the Guggenheim, she spent 10 years at Dia Art Foundation, before joining the nonprofit Creative Time in 2012 to expand the organization’s international presence.

Because the Queens Museum has a collaborative quality and loyal staff similar to that of Dia and Creative Time, Ms. Raicovich said she felt “at home” in becoming director. Nevertheless, she said there has been a learning curve in “understanding what it means to be in Queens.”

“What is hyper local here is intrinsically linked to what is international,” she said.

In addition to mounting exhibitions like the artist Patty Chang’s multimediaWandering Lake” or “Never Built New York,” about unrealized architectural plans, the museum offers Immigrant Movement International, a community storefront space on Roosevelt Avenue that provides free educational, health and legal services. And the museum will in the next few years house a branch of the Queens Public Library.

“The highest-level curatorial program also has to be rooted in the realm of the real,” Ms. Raicovich said.

“To be a responsible citizen in a democracy, one has to be involved in a kind of civic engagement,” she added. “Culture has a huge role to play in that. And museums have a huge role to play in that.”

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