Conversation with The Holland Society’s 132nd Dinner Dance Honoree, Whitney Donhauser

Whitney Donhauser, President and Ronay Menschel Director of the Museum of the City of New York, will be the recipient of the 2022 Gold Medal for Distinguished Contributions to the City of New York at the Holland Society of New York’s 132nd Dinner Dance.

Whitney W. Donhauser joined the Museum of the City of New York as President and Ronay Menschel Director in January 2016. Her appointment follows a 23-year career in museum management at the Metropolitan Museum of Art including policy and Masterplan development, capital projects such as the Fifth Avenue Plaza and MET Breuer, and fundraising.

At MCNY Donhauser has overseen the final phases of New York at Its Core, a permanent exhibition, that opened on November 18, 2016 on the four-century history of New York City with a Future City Lab that explores the city’s ongoing challenges of housing, population growth, embracing diversity, transportation, and climate change. Historic highs in museum and education program attendance and numbers of online followers were recorded in 2017. The first ever and ongoing multi-lingual advertising campaign has drawn even more and more diverse visitors.

Executive Director, Sarah Bogart Cooney sat down with Whitney Donhauser.  Read her conversation with Whitney Donhauser here:

Sarah Bogart Cooney: Tell me a little bit about yourself!

Whitney Donhauser: I have been in this position for six and a half years as the Director of the Museum of the City of New York (MCNY); for twenty-three years prior to that, I worked at the Metropolitan Museum. I came up in the Development Office, and ultimately, the last ten years I was there, I worked for the Museum’s President, Emily Rafferty.

SBC: I love both MCNY and the Met; they’re both great museums.

WD: Yes, they are.

SBC: When did you first come to New York?

WD: Growing up in suburban Connecticut, my mother started bringing me in from a pretty early age, so I definitely have pretty vivid memories of coming to the Museum of the City of New York to see the dollhouses as a child. I also have strong memories of going to the Metropolitan Museum. I vividly remember when the Treasures of Tutankhamun was on view; I was in fourth grade and I loved that exhibition. So I think that by the time I was thirteen, I had a pretty strong sense that New York had a great allure to it, and that I would love someday to be a New Yorker.

SBC: That’s great. I always love to hear how people came to New York. I grew up in the East Village, so it’s always interesting to me to see how people come here.

WD: Something we think about here at the Museum, that there is the possibility of an egalitarian process, where one could become a New Yorker pretty quickly. And part of it comes from the grid, and the fact that you can master the map of New York pretty easily. Within a short period of time, you can by and large know most places and navigate your own trail through the city…

SBC: I think so too. It’s really interesting to see how accessible New York is compared with other cities. I lived in D.C. for five years and it’s impossible to get around in D.C.: the four different quadrants, the diagonal streets, no Metro stops in huge portions of the city… it’s not an accessible city. There’s a whole part of the city that just isn’t accessible to regular people. In New York, it’s different. Whoever you are, whatever economic power you have, you can live in the same three blocks as someone on the opposite end of that spectrum.

WD: Yes, and that’s an amazing thing. I live on the Upper West Side, and even here at the Museum, we’re surrounded by all varieties of lifestyles and you can have kids and families and people with a tremendous range of economic backgrounds going to the same grocery stores. It’s interesting too. It’s one of those great things about New York, you realize that we all share the same aspirations; we want a better world for our kids; we want the elderly in our lives to be loved and well taken care of; and those things are just so universal. When you’re exposed to people who might have different cultural backgrounds, different economic opportunities, you realize that there’s a lot of common, core values. People want to be safe; have access to good health coverage; and these are things that everybody wants and that we all share for ourselves.

SBC: I agree. And living here, I used to live in this neighborhood specifically, it was amazing to see everyone enjoying the Conservatory Gardens, the Museum, the Museo del Barrio. It’s nice to have a museum that doesn’t feel so pretentious. The Museum of the City of New York has always felt to me like a really accessible museum. Every part of New York City’s history is shared. Obviously, parts of the city’s history–parts of any history–aren’t great, but everything is recorded and shared, which I really like.

One of my questions has to do with the two very different museums you’ve worked at. You started at the Metropolitan Museum, with its renowned fine-arts collection, and now you’re at the Museum of the City of New York, whose collection focuses on more history and historical artifacts. How have you navigated that shift in focus?

WD: It’s definitely different in the sense that the relationship between the objects are very different. We use objects for storytelling, and the most important aspects are the stories that we tell about the City. I think it’s interesting that it’s not just about the preciousness of the objects, or the value of what’s on the walls, but it’s about the value and richness of the stories. And so it’s been interesting to think about programming–public programming, educational programs, and our exhibitions together. In this environment, we have to think about what gets people off their couch. We’re sort of fighting against limited time for leisure and for people’s entertainment, so how can we tell them something about New York, even if they’re not New Yorkers, if they’re tourists, domestic or international; or how can we tell stories about New York for New Yorkers, that are going to shed a light on this city and this urban environment, and the nature of this urban existence that will give them a better understanding. And so the great thing is that to be able to tell historical stories that have relevance today is really a great privilege for us, and I think being able to just celebrate the city and sometimes critique it, or provide some critical thought about it, is really important to us. There’s no shortage of topics about covering New York, which is one of the challenges. There’s also more participation in our programming from our entire staff, so unlike an art museum, where one often looks to a curator, who is typically the expert on an artwork, we bring in our entire staff. Our curators come up with the ideas collaboratively, and we have a huge array of ideas, more than we could ever actually do in anyone’s lifetime, and we also regularly pull in even junior staff members, and people from all different lived experiences, and ask them whether or not the exhibition topic is appealing or interesting, and if friends and family members would be interested in coming out to see an exhibition on a certain subject matter.

SBC: I really love the “telling stories” aspect of exhibitions. One of the things I enjoy most about working at the Holland Society is that we are telling the story of New York City and New York State and the other areas that made up New Netherland. It is really fascinating to see what people have kept in the four hundred years since New Netherland was founded–family Bible records, furniture… one of the pieces in the Museum of the City of New York’s collection is a chair that belonged to the woman I was named after, Sarah Rapalje, the first child of European descent born in New Netherland. But then there are other aspects too. In our most recent issue of our magazine, one of our members talks about a chair that her family owns that belonged to one of her ancestors, who was in some ways very progressive, but also heavily invested in the slave trade and owned slaves himself. So part of the article talks about that–what do you do with the chair? And what do you do with that ancestor? Do you venerate the good parts of his character… but what about the rest of him? It’s really interesting to me to look at all aspects of history.

WD: Yeah. You have to embrace both the complicated, negative stories, as well as the good, celebratory ones. They can’t all be positive.

SBC: Exactly. And if you have no negative, the positive has no meaning.

WD: That’s right. It doesn’t have any depth to it.

SBC: The Museum is celebrating its centennial next year, which is really exciting.

WD: Yes, and we’re thinking about the four hundredth anniversary of New Netherland too.

SBC: Yes, we are too! So, first things first, what are your plans for the centennial?

WD: Our plans for the centennial are very much based on thinking about our own strengths and the stories that we tell well. We will certainly acknowledge our history, and where we come from, but really we are thinking about the stories we are telling and what is not on our walls right now. In 2016 in November, we opened “New York at Its Core,” and that’s a great historical overview of four hundred years of New York City, and a really good analysis of what’s in New York’s DNA. But we realized that what is not there is how New York is perceived and depicted by both New Yorkers and people outside of New York as this creative capital, and that New York is a muse for people all over the globe. While there are eight million people here, in New York City, there are hundreds of millions of people who know something about New York, and it comes from either film, television, literature, poetry, music, dance–and they have an opinion about New York, and a preconceived notion of it. We don’t have that depicted here on our walls. What we hope to do in the spring of 2023 is open an exhibition called “The New York Century,” which starts in 1923 through 2023, really looking at how New York at that point eclipses London, population-wise, and starts to vie with Paris as a creative and cultural capital. And, of course how the city changes with subway lines being added, how the city builds up with the evolution of skyscrapers. You get the Harlem Renaissance, the Jazz Age, and then moving into the city that we have today. We know that New York is a muse for all these creative individuals–and how do we put that on our wall. When people arrive here, we have to compete with that image they have in their heads. Sometimes it’s negative, and it can be very critical; but it can also be a highly sanitized glorification. We want to show that on our walls and be able to celebrate that.

SBC: That’s great. That sounds like a truly fitting tribute to New York City.

WD: We’re very excited. We’re really in the thick of planning right now. We will also have an immersive film room on one end of the third floor that will show on three walls how New York is depicted in documentaries, major motion pictures, and television, and have a compilation of different aspects of New York in that room, too.

SBC: We can’t wait to see it! What are your plans for the four hundredth anniversary of New Netherland?

WD: For the four hundredth anniversary, we have been in discussions with the Amsterdam Museum, and some various other nonprofits, talking about what year we use, and how we mark this period. At this point, we’ve been talking to the Amsterdam Museum for several years about the Netherlands and New Netherland, and what’s the appropriate way to approach this anniversary. We’ve also had some preliminary discussions with some indigenous nations too, to see how they feel about this anniversary and what’s the appropriate tone to set. We’re thinking about the relationship between Amsterdam and some of the things the Museum has done recently–themes of tolerance and inclusion–and how to think critically about the early populations and their relationships to indigenous cultures, and if there are ways to mark it in a way that is thoughtful and respectful and doesn’t omit the uglier truths of the colony.

SBC: That’s something that we have been considering too–how to mark this anniversary while being thoughtful, and considering all sides and everyone who is affected by it while still celebrating the good parts.

I really loved “New York at Its Core,” and remember the first time I came through and thought “this is it! Finally New Netherland is being represented in a historical collection!” I loved that New Netherland was being mentioned and talked about in an exhibit. When you and your team were putting the exhibit together, what were you most excited and interested to learn about New Netherland?

WD: I came in in January 2016 and the exhibition opened in November 2016. A lot of the digital work had been done, and the key themes about what makes New York New York were set–money, creativity, diversity, density. The look and feel of the galleries had not been set, nor had how we presented the objects. So, for me, there is a case that shows a woman who was Dutch who was a translator in New Netherland, and all the different languages that she spoke. Thinking about a female who had a profession at that point, who was well-versed in all these languages, was interesting and exciting. The fact that it was documented, and to be able to highlight that in one of our cases, was very exciting to me.

SBC: That is one of the great things about New Netherland–women could have professions, they could own land, they could participate. Even people with historically fewer rights had legal protection and recourse, which is something that is unique among European-founded American colonies.

The “money” thing is really what makes New York New York, though–the beaver trapping.

WD: Yes, of course. But that’s interesting too. Our chief curator often says, while New York celebrates diversity, it’s because it needed to–because the city and the colony were founded on making money.

SBC: Exactly. And if that’s your goal, then everyone can be an equal, or at least more equal, participant.

WD: Sure. And, quite honestly, to me it’s quite relevant in today’s world. In New Netherland, they needed everyone to work–that’s true today too.

SBC: Yes. And access to childcare, and preventative healthcare–the infrastructure that supports workers. It is interesting. The truism is that money is the root of all evil, and certainly in many cases it is, but it does allow for a more even playing field.

WD: It does. And economic freedom is important for everyone–and access to that, and what does access to economic freedom mean. The Dutch certainly think about these things, what makes a better quality of life.

SBC: That was very interesting to me. And having “money” as one of the four pillars of what makes New York itself was exactly right.

WD: And that’s funny, we did debate–this was before I started, but I have heard many times, there was a lot of debate about whether or not a different word should be used. But at the end of the day, it is money–not finances, not economic strength, it is money, and that’s how we very clearly landed on that.

SBC: And I very much appreciated that, instead of hedging around, the exhibit just came out and said it. And I think that’s very New York too, just being up-front, straight-talking.

WD: Yes, which is different from other capitals of the world.

SBC: Yes. You take it, you leave it, but you’re here.

WD: Exactly.

SBC: You mentioned when we spoke initially that you have a deep love of history. What is the period of New York history that has most captured your imagination?

WD: That’s a very hard question. When I was in college, seventeenth-century Dutch culture and Dutch painting, so of course early New York history tied into that. But then the turn of the twentieth century such an amazing time period. I love New York City architecture, so thinking of that, the “Gilded Age” architecture that you see so much of around the city–but then you see the skyscrapers, Art Deco buildings… for me, it’s one of the amazing things about New York, to see the rich array of the built environment, and to learn quirky stories about things that are preserved. There’s a richness there. Having come to the New York area in 1972, I have very strong, vivid memories of the city as a kid, and I love the story of New York’s resilience–coming out of the ’70s and the economic challenges, and New York’s ability to bounce back. What’s amazing to me is that time and time again, people predict that New York is dead, but in those periods of dark times, New York’s resilience and the creative factors that go on here are always amazing aspects to the city’s history. For us here, at the Museum, one of the fantastic things during COVID, when New York was the epicenter, so many people were quick to jump on the thought that New York was never going to be the same, or come out of this period, was to see how New Yorkers loved the city and how the city is emerging from this. It will be fascinating–we’re too close to this right now–but to see where the creative forces learned from this experience. It will be amazing to see this moment.

SBC: Yes, and when New York does go into its quiet hibernation periods, it gives more space for creative people to move here and flourish because they can afford to do it.

WD: Exactly.

SBC: And you can afford to live here again and tap into this huge creative center.

WD: Yes. Right now we have this exhibition called “New York, New Music,” and part of the exhibition, from 1980 to 1996, highlights that because the city was very affordable, people could live in the East Village, they could rent rooms and space. That’s where you get these amazing creative forces–when New York is accessible, it’s so dense that you really get this incredible power and energy level. So yes, those supposedly “dark” periods have this incredible exposure to creativity.

SBC: Yes, and the pandemic really leveled the playing field. People could afford to live here, to fulfill their dreams.

WD: Yes. And now that rents are going back up, what is going to happen to those people? Where is the challenge or the ask for landlords to change, or more affordable housing? We are waiting and watching to see what the next step is. And one of the exciting things is that with all these corporations leaving midtown, how does that space get repurposed? I don’t think we’re going to see office spaces returning in the same levels as they were pre-pandemic. We know, because New York is so dense, what happens when there is an opening, and what comes in to fill that space, and what comes in next–does that become affordable housing, or a conversion of midtown office spaces. What happens to the sidewalk retail spaces? Something will move in there, it won’t just stay empty for too long of a period of time, because in this environment, someone is going to grab it.

SBC: Other than MCNY, what would you say your favorite place in the city is?

WD: Oh, definitely Central Park, and certainly during the pandemic. Being able to have access to the incredible greenery and landscape and being able to discover parts of the Park I hadn’t before–I feel really fortunate to be able to explore it, and the riches that it offers to people, is just an incredible gift.

SBC: That’s right. There’s just so much here, and that’s the best thing about New York.

WD: I think also, for me–I’m always reminded of the great humanity of New Yorkers. Oftentimes people don’t give New Yorkers enough credit for their generosity of spirit. What is amazing is the number of times in New York, unexpectedly, someone will give a pregnant woman a seat on the subway, or someone will ask if you’re okay. The acts of kindness–just from the interaction we have with strangers, and the shared values you have in this environment when you’re pushed together with people, and even sometimes someone you know who you don’t think you have anything in common with–they’ll show you an act of kindness that is just amazing. And that, is also, one of the amazing stories. People think of New York as a cold, unfriendly place, but there are times when people stop and show a gesture of empathy, which is also one of the greatest things about the City.

SBC: Thank you so much, Whitney.

WD: Thank you.

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