Last year the Queens Museum found itself in need of a new director. The search went global and the institution found the perfect match in a special candidate from across the pond. Sally Tallant, a transplant from the United Kingdom who now lives in Long Island City, stepped into the role this spring. Over the past few months Tallant and her team have been hard at work envisioning the future of the Queens Museum, a unique institution which stands as the only structure left from the 1939 World’s Fair in Flushing Meadows-Corona Park. Untapped Cities sat down with Tallant to talk about her new life in New York City and what her goals are for the museum in our latest NYC Makers profile.
If you are an Untapped Cities Insider, you can join a special upcoming visit to the Queens Museum where we will hear from resident World’s Fair expert Louise Weinberg and tour the Panorama of the City of New York. Learn more about the event and book your free spot here!
Nicole Saraniero, Untapped Cities: Can you give us an overview of your career and how you wound up here at the Queens Museum?
Sally Tallant: I’ve been working in the UK, pretty much all my professional life and I’ve worked for many years as the head of programs which means I was in charge of exhibitions, education and architecture public programs at the Serpentine Gallery in London which is a gallery in the park in Kensington Gardens. When I was there, I was developing innovative approaches to working in museums and galleries that got rid of hierarchies between departments, so I’m very interested in how we connect with communities and how we develop new strategies of embedding education into the heart of institutions. I became aware of the Queens Museum when I was doing this work and I was always kind of working in parallel.
After that I went to the Liverpool Biennial where I worked for eight years. Liverpool Biennial is a citywide project. Liverpool is a very working class city in the north of England and has no market infrastructure for the arts. So I really had to ask questions around what does art mean in people’s everyday lives? It’s a port city. So somehow combining the experience of doing a large scale citywide project and working a gallery in a park and having always run parallel to the Queens Museum, when this opportunity arose I felt like it would be a really exciting thing for me to do, so I came here. I wasn’t really looking to move to New York, it wasn’t that. The Queens Museum I really think is a unique institution. The combination of being left over from the World’s Fair, having the UN history, hosting the Panorama of the city of New York, being where we are in Queens which is so diverse and benefiting from that diversity, and having the opportunity to work in such and international way, that’s exciting to me.
Untapped Cities: Have you ever lived in New York or the United States before?
Sally Tallant: No, never.
Untapped Cities: In your short time here, have you found a favorite Untapped spot in New York City?
Sally Tallant: I spend a lot of time on the ferries going up and down on the water which I like doing. I really love the Queens Zoo. There’s an amazing Buckminster Fuller-designed aviary at the Queens Zoo which is very close to here in fact. I walk past it everyday on my way to work and that’s a really nice place to go. I think that things I really love about New York are its parks. Having that respite from the city is really important. The other place I really like is the outdoor swimming pool in Astoria. It’s an Olympic sized outdoor swimming pool and it’s free. So that is another place I love as well and if you go in the mornings it’s not so busy. You can cool off in the city which is a relief. And also just because I think it’s great swimming outdoors. Obviously not in the winter, but in the summer.
Untapped Cities: You have to find an Untapped indoor pool for the winter! What places are on your NYC bucket list?
Sally Tallant: I’ve done a lot of the museums and a lot of the galleries and that’s something I’ve done over many years. I haven’t been to Staten Island, not yet. I haven’t yet been to the botanical gardens which I would really like to go to. I wasn’t here for the cherry blossoms but I think that’s something I would like to do. The cherry blossoms are pretty spectacular in New York.
Untapped Cities: Were the cherry blossoms in bloom here in Flushing-Meadows when you got here?
Sally Tallant: I just missed them. I think next year I’ll have the chance to see that.
Untapped Cities: What makes New York City great to you?
Sally Tallant: The people. You know it’s a city full of so much diversity and I think that’s so beneficial to any place, that you have a global experience in one place. People come here from all over the world to live and then they define what’s possible in the city because they bring with them expertise, knowledge, culture from other places and the city benefits from that and it’s richer because of it. You can see great theater, music, food, just the kind of rich language experience you have when you travel around New York when you hear everyone talking. I come on the 7 sometimes or I cycle from Long Island City. In Queens there’s 170 languages spoken which is amazing. I think this place which is defined through its interaction with many immigrant communities over generations is amazing.
Of course the architecture of the city is great. You feel familiar with New York even if you’re not from New York because you know it from films and books. You feel you know the place. People are pretty friendly here.
Untapped Cities: Which is contrary to popular belief.
Sally Tallant: I think it’s a very friendly city. I think in general if you stand still for a little bit of time looking as if you’re lost someone will come ask if you need help. And on the subway people actually smile at you which is not something I’m used to in the UK. Nobody looks at anybody.
Untapped Cities: I’ve been to London a few times and I feel like if you talk on the Tube you get looks.
Sally Tallant: Well, you don’t talk to people. Where as here, people will strike up a conversation with you so I like that. I’ve went around Flushing eating amazing food. I went on a food tour of Flushing so I’m enjoying that diversity. The other thing is that you have fantastic contemporary dance here. I’ve been going to see amazing performances. Also spoken word is very powerful here. Places like St. Mark’s Church in the Bowery. That would be another hidden gem. St. Mark’s Church is this incredible place in the East Village, it’s been there forever, hosts a number of projects, one is the Danspace Project which supports contemporary dance in New York and another is the Poetry Project. They’re both amazing and incomparable. Things like that are great to be around.
Untapped Cities: On the flip side, what would you change about New York City?
Sally Tallant: You know it’s funny to move here from Europe, because things like free healthcare, free education, those things, it would be amazing if it was possible [to have that here] for people to live well, for all people to live well. New York has a green plan, is supporting kind of a progressive approach to including people, but still this is a place unfortunately that isn’t equitable for many people. So that’s obviously what I would change, that people could live here, live well here, live freely, have an education here and have healthcare.
Untapped Cities: That would be nice. You definitely have to hustle in New York. You mentioned the green plan, and I feel like New York is a little behind compared to other cities in that regard, especially in Europe. I noticed that most places I’ve visited there had a trash, recycle and compost bin and here I never see that.
Sally Tallant: Hopefully it can change. The plastic bag ban has been brought in but I don’t see any evidence of it in my local supermarket. They think I’m insane when I go in with all my bags. But change is a process so it takes time. I think it’s very heartening that that’s a plan that’s been agreed and signed up to. We actually have to take these issues very seriously. Look at the weather we just had, the flash flooding. This is going to become more and more normal. We have to think differently, as coastal dwellers. We’re going under. Not to be depressing, but we do have to take action. We are subjected to water in whatever form it comes. It’s at our peril to ignore the pressing urgency of addressing real climate issues as they arise around us.
Untapped Cities: What projects are you working on right now?
Sally Tallant: I am working with my team to re-think what the Queens Museum can mean to people. We are working towards presenting a strategy for the next five years where we can ask questions around what does it mean to be the Queens Museum? How do we work with the people of Queens? What do people want the museum for? Instead of thinking about the audience as an audience of the museum if we think about people as users of the museum, as constituents, what do they want from us? We are trying to understand that better and think about how we can put art and culture where it should be, at the center of people’s lives, so we can have a healthy thoughtful, entrepreneurial society in the further. We are trying to do that.
I’m thinking a lot about as well, how we are the custodians of the Panorama of New York City, and if you go and take a look at that you’ll see it hasn’t been updated since the 1990s. So what does that mean to look after that and to think about bringing it into the present and the future. That’s an interesting challenge that we have.
Untapped Cities: Are there any specific exhibits or projects that you are particularly excited about?
Sally Tallant: We have a new season of exhibitions opening up in October and we are presenting work for the first time by a number of artists in New York so that’s going to be exciting. Nicholas Moufarrege who is a Lebanese American artist who was actually one of the first people to die from HIV and AIDS related illness in the 80s and who has not been seen in New York, we are very excited to bring that work to the fore. We are also working with a relatively young Mexican artist Pia Camil to do a new commission that will use the space in a very interesting way and look at the idea of import and export which also feels important. Particularly to talk about that border between Mexico and the U.S. because it is a reality and it’s a contested border now, and those issues around labor and the cost of labor and where things are made and where things are from, it’s important for us to understand that.
Untapped Cities: I loved the Mundos exhibit. I like how it came out around the anniversary of the moon landing. I’m very into space and to see those ideas from a different perspective that I never thought of before was very interesting.
Sally Tallant: Well of course, because you forget everything is about national expansion. So the moon landings are actually political. They’re about land grabs. You start to question those events and also the stories that are told and what it means to tell those stories. It’s interesting — I was talking to a researcher recently who is doing research about land ownership under the sea. That land is also contested and so that’s where you get people building fake islands because they can own the land underneath and the rich resources under the sea. It’s interesting I think to think about those issues.
Untapped Cities: What projects from the past are you must proud of?
Sally Tallant: You know I think it’s not specific projects, but when I was at the Serpentine Gallery I was able to develop a way of working that really did collapse the idea of having exhibitions only at the heart of institutions but to really push education more deeply into the program. I worked on some very long term projects that unfolded over many years. Now because it’s a long time ago, I left in 2011, now people from my team are all like directors of institutions or they’ve grown into senior roles. So I suppose I’m most proud of the people I’ve had the opportunity to work closely with and what they are doing now. I could talk about specific projects but honestly I think it’s the people.
Untapped Cities: That’s great! What other projects going on around New York City are you excited about?
Sally Tallant: I love Danspace and the Poetry Project which I mentioned and Performance Space. What’s interesting for me is to be able to do studio visits with a lot of artists who used to be far away from me but now they’re not. Because I used to have to come to New York to see them and now I’m like, “Oh! They’re actually here.” So now I can just nip out and see them and it’s more complicated to see people back in Europe. I have a tilted axis now since I’ve moved to a different place.
I’m excited about the green plan and what that might mean for us all. We have the CreativeTime Summit coming up. Do you know CreativeTime?
Untapped Cities: Yes, they did the exhibits inside the Brooklyn Bridge anchorage right?
Sally Tallant: Yea, exactly, so they’re doing a summit which happens every year and that’s coming relatively soon. That’s nice because it brings together international debate around certain issues. I’m looking forward to going to that. I was just at the High Line. That was great, for a performance.
There’s a conference happening called Death Matters. I’m kind of interested in that. It’s going to be a citywide focus on the idea on death and dying, something we all manage to do but don’t talk about very easily. I’m curious to see what comes out of that.
Untapped Cities: What advice would you give to people starting their careers?
Sally Tallant: You always have to seize opportunities when they show themselves. You can try to plan, but honestly I think it’s about being ready and knowing how to catch a ball and run with it. That’s the advice I’d give. Always be ready and don’t be scared and always be courageous. Take an opportunity when it comes. Always do something that makes you nervous like, “Oh I can’t really do that.” That’s the best feeling to have.
Untapped Cities: Could you tell us something surprising about yourself?
Sally Tallant: I cycle to work from Long Island City and it’s interesting because I get lost in New York. I often get lost because I have a terrible sense of direction. Awful. I remember everything about people and exhibitions and details of things but I can not find my way around. I spend quite a bit of time cycling around Queens slightly lost.
I like meeting people so I travel. Last year I was in Bangladesh and Pakistan. I love those conversations with people that I get to have. I like being lost and on a constant detour.
Untapped Cities: What book are you reading right now?
Sally Tallant: I’m actually reading a book at the moment which is a kind of theory book. It’s by someone called Paul Chaat Smith and it’s called Everything You Know About Indians is Wrong. It’s looking at Native American histories here in the U.S. It’s brilliant. It’s really great. I’m reading some poetry at the moment by a brilliant poet who lived in Brooklyn (I think). Now she’s gone and moved to California which is very annoying because I would have liked her to be here: Morgan Parker. She’s written a really fantastic book of poetry which is called There are More Beautiful Things Than Beyonce. You should read it, it’s a really great read.
Untapped Cities: Those both sound really interesting.
Sally Tallant: They’re great and she actually has a followup book called Magical Negro which is also short. I have’t finished reading it but, you should read There are More Beautiful Things than Beyonce.
Untapped Cities: I’ll look it up for sure! Those are all the questions I have but I have to ask about this amazing World’ Fair sign behind us here in your office.
Sally Tallant: That’s the original map that was in the park which is why it’s so damaged, you know like the way finding map outside, from the 1939 World’s Fair. I had one from 1964 as well but it was so dirty we had to take it out of the room. But this one I like having so I can remember the scale of the fair and what was here. I like seeing the titles of things like the Court of Communications, the Court of Power, the Court of Peace. I think it’s quite fun to look at now. Children’s World is over there. We have some amazing things here. I’m trying to work out what we’ve got.
Untapped Cities: That must be fun, digging through the archives.
Sally Tallant: Yea we have a lot of stuff A lot of amazing drawings and prints and ephemera as well as collections.