New director of Zimmerli Museum plans to bring activism to forefront of Rutgers art scene
Behind eyeglasses with a tortoiseshell frame and pink temples, museum professional and art historian Thomas Sokolowski detailed his statewide project as the Zimmerli Art Museum’s newest director.
In a museum that houses more than 60,000 works of art, Sokolowski said he will take on a greater activist role compared to past directors in how he will run operation and how the museum will respond to the world we live in.
“I would like us to be seen … as the activist art center of New Jersey,” Sokolowski said.
Sokolowski led the Andy Warhol Museum in Pittsburgh for 14 years as its director until 2010. Prior to that, he was the director of the Grey Art Gallery & Study Center at New York University from 1984 to 1996, chief curator at the Chrysler Museum in Norfolk, Virginia from 1982 to 1984 and founder of Visual AIDS, an organization that established the Dec. 1 “Day Without Art” to commemorate the AIDS crisis.
At his tenure at the Andy Warhol Museum, Sokolowski came into a town that suffered from a long history of severe racial stratification, he said.
“When I first got there, there was no place in the city that was welcoming,” Sokolowski said.
To help racial relations, Sokolowski was not afraid to touch on sensitive topics. In an exhibition, he played on Pittsburgh history where he took late-19th century to early-20th century photographs of lynching and drew a contrast to Pittsburgh publishing the first African-American newspaper in 1907, the Pittsburgh Courier. Then, a separate exhibition on Nazi’s use of eugenics drew a parallel to Andy Warhol’s thoughts on “what is perfect” in the terms of beauty, he said.
Another award-winning exhibition of Sokolowski's that was controversial showed printed photographs of Iraqi detainees being tortured by American soldiers at the Abu Ghraib military prison, and in order to be fair, he said it juxtaposed them with Middle-Eastern propaganda.
“Then, I said, what the museum can do, in addition to showing Andy Warhol’s art, was make to ourselves a vital center rather than just a museum,” Sokolowski said. “A place where people from all strides could come in and feel welcome.”
Sokolowski then introduced “Good Friday’s,” a weekly Friday night event where people could have a drink, see a movie, hear bands like Vampire Weekend, but most importantly, have a place to talk, he said.
With a strong LGBTQ community in Pittsburgh, some nights would be "drag nights," he said.
“But it wasn’t all drag queens with glamour, there were people that were transgender who would come in and feel welcome,” Sokolowski said. “They would not be ‘oddities’ there.”
Sokolowski commented on Rutgers' diverse community, and he hopes to bridge a gap between the rich history of social criticism in the Zimmerli’s collection with current issues that he would be open to starting a dialogue on today.
“I think museums of all strides, but particularly university museums, should be nimble,” Sokolowski said.
The Zimmerli Art Museum displays collections with a history of social commentary, including its 19th-century French prints and 20th-century Soviet nonconformist art, he said. Honoré Daumier, a 19th-century French artist exhibited at Zimmerli, was a “working class” caricaturist who commented on life in France, like the Soviet nonconformist artists who were tired of the Soviet empire.
Although New Jersey is home to the Newark Museum, Princeton University Art Museum and the Montclair Art Museum, none of those museums go far enough in programs in the community and do outreach like he plans to do in the state, Sokolowski said.
Sokolowski believes that students in all majors can take what artists do in exhibits and find a way to make them more creative in their discipline. With the Zimmerli Art Museum’s existing "Art After Hours" program that happens the first Tuesday of every month, he plans to invite different students like engineering majors or the football team for certain exhibits.
“I don’t think they’re antithetical,” Sokolowski said. “A lot of people, I wouldn’t, say, dislike art, but they’re confused by it. But if you give people a chance to come in, make them feel comfortable … I feel that a lot of people will say ‘hey, you know.’”
Zimmerli Art Museum Communications Coordinator Theresa C. Watson said in an email that the museum looks forward to working with Sokolowski on initiatives and programs that allow the museum to engage even more with the campus and community.
The plan for arts at the University extends beyond the Zimmerli Arts Museum for Sokolowski, and in a conversation with New Brunswick University Chancellor Debasish Dutta, he shared an idea of having a School of Design and Architecture down the road.
“This would not just look at how do we make a fancier phone, but how do you have social design? How do you, when you have different groups and (religions) in a university, how do you have them work collaboratively together?" Sokolowski said.
Daonne Huff, Mason Gross’ graduate program administrative assistant and a gallery coordinator, said that Sokolowski has impressive credentials.
" ... He has been involved in fantastic, thought-provoking exhibitions, so I’m hopeful in what he can bring to the New Brunswick art scene,” she said.
Huff said that Sokolowski attended this year’s Mason Gross Galleries' Undergraduate Annual Exhibition opening reception on Oct. 26 and was a good sign on his commitment to seeing artwork from students at the University. It is also an opportunity for a collaboration between Mason Gross visual artists to be activated in the Zimmerli Art Museum gallery space, she said.
“I feel like there’s this movement at Rutgers, in a multitude of departments,” Huff said. “And I think it’s exciting and important for our school to stay relevant, to continue having new energy and new ideas coming in.”