Thomas Sokolowski, director of Rutgers University’s Jane Voorhees Zimmerli Art Museum, signs a recent letter, “the New Guy.” Master of the direct approach, Sokolowski arrived in late October and describes his technique for getting to know the museum as, “I just listen.”
Sokolowski comes to Rutgers after a 14-year stint at Pittsburgh’s Andy Warhol Museum. He gave up his involvement with Warhol, his depictions of cans of soup, and portraits of Marilyn Monroe, to serve as an independent art consultant in 2010. What he learned during that interlude was that he prefers working for a single institution.
“I missed the single institutional connection,” Sokolowski says. “I was not satisfied with getting paid for a consultation and never finding out what happened. I wanted to see the effects of my work six months later. I wanted to see the success of my work and tweak it if necessary.”
The Zimmerli Art Museum was founded in 1966 as the Rutgers University Art Gallery to celebrate the university’s bicentennial.
Haven for more than 60,000 artworks — ranging from Russian icons to 19th-century French posters to American prints and children’s books — it also houses the world’s most significant collection of Soviet nonconformist art, the Dodge Collection: nearly 10,000 works smuggled from the USSR to the U.S. during the cold war by economist Norton Dodge and his wife, Nancy.
The gallery was expanded in 1983 and renamed the Jane Voorhees Zimmerli Art Museum in honor of the mother of two major donors.
Many area residents, like me, remember Jane Voorhees Zimmerli as a resident of Highland Park rather than as the name of a museum. She was the wife of Adolf Zimmerli, a member of the Rutgers chemistry department. At the end of her life she lived on my street in Highland Park. Her grandson, Alan, was one of my most innovative piano pupils.
As Zimmerli director, Sokolowski immediately plunged into all aspects of the museum. In addition to getting to know its personnel and collections, he immersed himself in the pool of public concerts, lectures, and events that take place in its space. If an event was scheduled at the museum, Sokolowski went. That includes the monthly first Tuesday evening “Art After Hours” series that includes exhibition tours, in-depth examinations of individual artworks, and music and refreshments.
We meet at a small round conference table in Sokolowski’s modest office with its as-yet undecorated walls. The New Guy, who has decades of experience in arts management, shares what he has learned about taking over an institution. “It’s important to avoid an abrupt transition when you’re the new leader,” he says. “There’s nothing worse than change at the beginning. Forget about the idea of a new broom sweeping clean. For instance, changing a logo when you start is a big mistake. Why would you change something that’s working? If it ain’t broke don’t fix it.”
Sokolowski’s management style is an amalgam of leadership and tact, bathed in self-knowledge. “When you’re in charge you can do what you want,” he declares. “I haven’t found that people are averse to change. But you have to manage people tactfully so they don’t notice it. Everyone has a pet project, but it’s not necessarily relevant. My business as the person in charge is to decide what to pursue. I often say, ‘That’s a new idea; I think we might manage it.’” He keeps a firm hold on his critical abilities, while engaging his diplomacy. Then he turns editor in order to fine tune new ideas.
Realism is part of Sokolowski’s arsenal. He is more interested in results than in making judgments. “Some people are flawless, and some people are clueless,” he observes. “Sometimes you nudge people forward. I devise ways to get people to do things they didn’t know they could do.”
An advocate of getting to work immediately, Sokolowski sees no need for a warm-up period with a new staff. “I talk to my staff in the first week and find out about problems,” he says. “I see how people do their jobs.” He draws on what he calls a “psychiatrist’s discovery” that most apparently complex problems can be reduced to common situations. When the seemingly complex problem is solved the result is what Sokolowski calls “An ‘aha!’ moment.” You might as well start collecting those moments at the very beginning, he believes.
One of Sokolowski’s responsibilities is, as he puts it, “to accept or fail to accept gifts.” He confronts the possibility of receiving a gift with skepticism and caution. “I’m wary of artists saying, ‘My work is in this and that collection.’ I want to know, do they ever show it?”
Sokolowski leans toward allowing students to hang works owned by their institution and calls the experience of the Massachusetts Institute of Technology “an ingenious idea”: Available works are displayed and students select what they want; if there are multiple selections, a lottery is held. “MIT never lost anything,” he notes. “Living with art is a salubrious thing to do. It’s good for the mind and the soul.”
Provocative titles for shows appeal to Sokolowski. He singles out “Set in Stone,” curated and named by curator Christine Giviskos. Opened in January, the show is a history of 19th-century French lithography, a process calling for drawing with a greasy crayon on stone. To verify the spelling of Giviskos’ name, Sokolowski calls out through his open door of his office to a couple of Zimmerli staff members whom he spots in the corridor.
Pursuing elegant efficiency, Sokolowski would like to organize the flow of traffic through the museum without the backtracking necessary because of additions to the building. “I would like to give viewers the best possible experience without backtracking,” he says.
Succumbing to the appeal of the Internet, Sokolowski envisions an increased digital presence for the museum. “The first place people today look is the Internet,” he says, “not the newspaper or the radio.”
Sokolowski would like to forge a presence for the Zimmerli outside of the museum. Admitting that he was known as “the energizer bunny” in Pittsburgh, he would like to see the impact of his work outside the museum. “I wrote op-ed pieces in Pittsburgh newspapers and got interviewed on the radio,” he says. “I liked that.”
Born in 1950 in Chicago, Sokolowski earned a bachelor’s degree in art history from the University of Chicago in 1972. An master of arts and further graduate work at New York University followed.
His parents — a house painter father and an executive secretary mother — are deceased. His mother became treasurer of the Polish Women’s Alliance of America, a nationwide organization.
Sokolowski lives in New Brunswick in a spot where he can walk both to the museum and to transportation to New York. “I walk more here than I did in Pittsburgh,” he says. “I consider that beneficial.” Besides reading, he enjoys movies, theater, and concerts.
Sokolowski, a lyric baritone, sang in high school, college, and graduate school. “That’s now long gone,” he says. “I’m not interested in joining a chorus. I think of myself as a soloist. I’m a soloist, even if I can’t do it anymore.”
Involved in the AIDS crisis of the 1980s, Sokolowski participated in setting up the Fort Lauderdale, Florida, World Aids Museum in 2013.
Sokolowski considers himself as easily approachable. “Some people say I have an open door policy,” he observes, “but I say I have an open mind policy.”
Zimmerli Museum, 71 Hamilton Street, New Brunswick. Tuesdays through Fridays, 10 a.m. to 4:30 p.m., and Saturdays and Sundays, noon to 5 p.m.
Art After Hours, first Tuesdays of the month: March 6, April 3, and June 5, 5 to 9 p.m. Free. 848-932-7237 or www.zimmerli.rutgers.edu.