When a dilapidated Museum of the City of New York was in dire straits 13 years ago, Susan Henshaw Jones ’69 took the reins as director and led the institution to a renaissance—and a $97 million renovation. In the wake of Jones’ retirement in January, the museum has turned to another Vassar alumna, Whitney Donhauser ’89, to lead it into a successful future.
During the beginning of Jones’ tenure, the Fifth Avenue building was in dreadful condition and hadn’t been renovated since 1932. There was no climate control in the building, which meant collections were in urgent need of a modern means of preservation, she says. Since joining the museum in 2003, Jones had led the successful effort to raise the necessary funds and renovate the museum.
“What we’ve done over the last 13 years is to prove that it could not only survive, but it could thrive,” she says. “It’s a good platform for Whitney. I think she’s going to have a million challenges, but the ones that I faced will be over with.”
In addition to its building renovations, the museum has seen a renaissance in its exhibitions and public and school programs, Jones says. Three years ago, work started on developing a permanent exhibition, New York at Its Core, which will open in November 2016 and showcase 400 years of the city’s history. There are no exhibitions that celebrate the history of New York City as a city, Jones says, noting that New York at Its Core will analyze three chief characteristics of the city: money, diversity, and density.
“We thought it was high time for there to be an exhibition that spoke about our character as a city,” Jones says.
Donhauser, who took over at the beginning of January, says the museum is currently showing a few new exhibitions, including the photography of Jacob Riis, a display about the New York City Marathon, and a history of affordable housing in the city. And, of course, there is still much work to be done to get the permanent exhibition on the city ready for the public, she says.
“The museum allows people to reflect on the issues that affect their city,” Donhauser says. “I value the place of contemplation that museums are.”
An art history major at Vassar, Donhauser says she was always drawn to the Frances Lehman Loeb Art Center, where she worked as a docent. Prior to taking the reins at the Museum of the City of New York, Donhauser spent 23 years at the Metropolitan Museum of Art, most recently as senior advisor to former president Emily K. Rafferty. In addition to museum management, she gained extensive experience in fundraising, operations, project planning, and more. One of her most memorable experiences, she says, was chairing a committee with the goal of finding creative new revenue streams for the museum, which involved working with curators and administrators to expand the museum’s audience.
The museum is already a popular destination for international tourists, but Donhauser says she hopes to increase the number of international visitors, while also drawing New Yorkers from the five boroughs and young adults new to living in the city.
Jones says she has no doubt that Donhauser will be a success in her new position.
“I see in her all of the Vassar women traits,” she says. “Curiosity, organization, drive, wonderful manners, and a high level of professionalism.”
Photos courtesy of the Museum of the City of New York