Deborah Schwartz, President of the Brooklyn Historical Society, talks to us about her love of museums and lets us in on some of the city's secrets. Her career has spanned some of New York's finest establishments and has landed her in the highly regarded position she is in today.
What led you to New York?
I grew up in Evanston, Illinois, which is just outside of Chicago. I also went to college there, at Northwestern University, and studied art history. After I graduated, I briefly worked at the Museum of Contemporary Art in Chicago. That was my first museum job and it made me realize that what I really wanted to do was museum education. I thought that if I wanted to work seriously in the museum world I should move to a place where the museum scene was the most dynamic, so I packed my bags and moved to New York.
What year was that?
That was in 1978.
Wow! New York must have been a completely different place then.
Very, very different! I originally moved to the Upper East Side. I was a single woman and that area was a comfortable place for me to be. Everything was open late, and there were always a lot of people around. I felt like I could come and go as I pleased. I met my husband and we moved together to Washington Heights. By the time we had our first child, I was working at the Brooklyn Museum and the commute from Washington Heights was too long.
That’s a long trip to take every day.
I was commuting to Brooklyn and my husband was commuting to New Jersey and we said, "This is ridiculous, something has to give.” So we moved to Brooklyn in 1989.
What area in Brooklyn did you live in?
The south end of Park Slope. We still live in the same place now.
Such a beautiful area. But I imagine it’s changed a lot?
It's changed an enormous amount, even within the first few years of us living there. When we first moved, there were crack vials everywhere. Which, to be honest, we didn't really even realize. Then, within a couple of years that was all gone.
It was astonishing. To this day I don't really understand what happened. It was a very strange phenomenon. But, in any event, we ended up staying. We bought a lovely house with a garden and we've been there ever since.
Were you always interested in history and art?
I was always interested in art. My mother's father was a very talented amateur artist. He spent his days at the stock exchange in New York and on the weekends he painted. I think he instilled in my mother and her sister an enormous love for art and art history. As a child, I went to museums all the time. It was something that was very powerful for me and called me back over and over again. Art history was a wonderful framing device for me to understand history and society in general.
That’s such an interesting perspective, to view the art of each time period as a way to understand its history.
Art opens up new ways of understanding the world for me! I’m a visual learner. I've spent most of my professional life in art museums. So it was a big leap for me to move from art museums to a history museum.
How long did you work for the Brooklyn Museum?
I worked at the Brooklyn Museum for many, many years. I started there as an intern and worked there for 27 years. I was the Deputy Director for Education there.
Then I got a call from the Museum of Modern Art asking me to be the Deputy Director for Education there, which I just simply couldn't resist. It’s one of the greatest museums in the world and one of my favorite places. I was there for a number of years, but I became restless. I had gotten to a point in my life where I was ready to run an institution. I had done some consulting work for the Brooklyn Historical Society, so when the position of President came up I thought, “Okay this is it; this is my moment.”
I imagine that position doesn't come up very often.
Exactly. I loved everything about it. I loved the mission of the institution, which was to explore and understand and make accessible the history of Brooklyn. I loved the collection, which is a mixture of visual material, paintings, photographs and maps, books and archival documents. This is the place for me!
And how many years have you been here now?
I've been here for ten years.
You must be an expert on Brooklyn history now!
[Laughs] Well, I'm very grateful for the people on my staff who know a great deal more about history than I do, but I have learned a huge amount. It’s been a wonderful place to bring my experience in visual art and material culture.
Let’s go back a little bit. When you first moved to New York, did you already have a job lined up?
I didn’t have a job lined up. I got a job working at the Institute of Fine Arts, which is NYU's graduate program in art history. It was an administrative assistant job. While I was doing that job, I started working on my masters degree at Queen's College and that’s when I got the internship at the Brooklyn Museum. That was a wonderful starting place for me because the Brooklyn Museum has one of the best education departments in any art museum.
Was your masters in art education?
In art history, actually—although I never actually completed the MA. The education side of things was something I just have a really strong feel for. I love talking to people about art. I love a public sense of sharing. I wasn't cut out to be an academic.
I imagine that would be quite an isolated career.
Yes. My excitement about museums was much more about the museum as a place where people connect to the broader world. Interestingly, years later I was invited to teach a course in museum education at Bank Street College, which is famous for its graduate program in education. I realized that my practice was what interested people in my work as a museum educator, as opposed to my academic training. So to be able to teach was just fantastic. It was a great way to affirm my work as a practitioner, connecting my intellectual curiosity to theoretical ideas of education.
Even now, education continues to be fundamentally part of who I am. I think like an educator. In my job now I spend a lot of my time raising money and thinking about keeping this institution in good shape, physically and intellectually. What do we need to grow and to make history accessible to people?
How do you acquire all the historical artifacts at the Brooklyn Historical Society?
Most of what we have in the collection is donated to us. This is a relatively small institution, so we don't have enormous amounts of money to acquire new artifacts, objects, or works of art. Every once in awhile we will purchase something that we feel is absolutely essential to some portion of the history we're trying to tell.
Do you feel a kinship to Brooklyn now, living here for so long and working here?
Absolutely. I'm a Brooklynite now. I feel very connected to everything that happens in this borough, watching the changes and the dramatic growth. The struggles people have here, the challenges, the schools. I have enormous passion for the other cultural institutions in Brooklyn. I use them all the time. There are only a few things that I go to Manhattan for at this point.
There is so much discussion about the gentrification of Brooklyn. I know you’ve seen it change….
I think the definition of the city is that it's constantly changing. So it's not that changing is the problem, or that nicer restaurants or more amenities is the issue. What you don’t want to happen is to have people pushed out of their homes or forced out of rental apartments because they can't afford to be here. What makes Brooklyn fantastic is the diversity of who we are. There is such a multiplicity of languages and cultures and people of all economic classes here. It would be a terrible thing to not have that. For people not to be able to move together in neighborhoods would be bad for the racial dynamics of the city. That's the part that I think needs to be solved. Everybody needs to participate in figuring out how we maintain the city’s vitality and diversity.
Do you have any favorite moments in Brooklyn history?
There really are so many incredible moments in Brooklyn history. Certainly the consolidation of Brooklyn and New York City in 1898 is very important. When Brooklyn and New York actually formally become one city. Before that Brooklyn was a separate city. So many of Brooklyn’s architectural and cultural anchors were created very much with the idea that this was a separate city, and in some ways they were created to compete with New York City. So the Brooklyn Museum was meant to be as great as the Metropolitan Museum. That was very deliberate. Even this place, which was formerly the Long Island Historical Society, was meant to represent the vastness of the city. Borough Hall, which is right around the corner, was city hall. That time period represents such a transition in Brooklyn's history.
There are so many other fascinating moments and episodes of history. We do a lot of work here with the Brooklyn Navy Yard….
I just went there for the first time recently. I was obsessed with the abandoned houses on Admiral Road.
There is an exhibition center in the Navy Yard called BLDG92. We helped to create that space. The Navy Yard has an amazing history that goes back to the American Revolution. Wallabout Bay, which is where the Navy Yard is built, was actually used by the British to keep their prison ships during the Revolutionary War. There were thousands of people who were kept prisoner on those ships; many of them died and their bodies were thrown into the bay.
Yes. They had been captured by the British and put on the ships. They were kept without food and in terrible conditions. Many decades later as the Navy Yard was developed, the bones of the bodies were exhumed and moved to a crypt in Fort Greene Park that is marked by a great monument designed by Stanford White. That is the memorial to the prisoners who died in the Revolutionary War.
I didn’t know that there were the bones under there!
There are so many amazing stories, and I have the privilege of learning more every day. The history of Brooklyn is also a kind of wonderful mirror to the history of the whole country. The stories that we bring out here are really national stories. Whether it's the American Revolution or the Civil Rights movement or any number of episodes about immigrants and labor, Brooklyn holds the essence of so many national stories.
What are some of your favorite museums to visit?
My husband and I often go to the Metropolitan Museum on Friday nights. We are incredibly lucky to live in New York, where so many museums are open on Friday evenings. What a great way to end the work week.
Then, of course, here at the Brooklyn Historical Society we have a free night on one Friday a month. So on those nights I stay here and enjoy having a beer with a large crowd of people who drop by.
Does that allow you to get back to your education roots and share information with people?
You know, I never thought of it that way, but I suppose it does. I do get a lot of pleasure seeing the mix of people who come in—what they are interested in and what they are curious about.
What is the best piece of advice you could give?
There are a few things that I think have always stayed with me as I grew in my career and in life. One of which is that the world is a very small place, so one should never misbehave if you are having a difficulty with a person or a situation. You never know when somebody could resurface in your life and where it will make a big difference to have been thoughtful, kind, and generous.
That's really good advice.
It's proven to be true over and over again, for me. Maybe the museum world is a particularly small world—literally, I know people in this profession from one end of the world to the other.
What does New York, and in particular Brooklyn, mean to you?
People joke about Brooklyn being the center of the universe. Well, it's almost more that Brooklyn allows you to have this incredibly expansive view of the world because there is so much here… the diversity, the potential for interaction and engagement with ideas, the people that you can get to know. Brooklyn feels like a small community and, at the same time, you feel as if you can never run out of new people to meet, new adventures to have, and new ways to make a difference in the world, all in a very remarkable, profoundly wonderful way.
Visit the Brooklyn Historical Society for more information.