Meet the Board: John Zukowsky

John Zukowsky, Retired Museum Professional

Meet The Board: Please start with small intro paragraph about where you work and what you do there.                                                                                                                                      

John Zukowsky: Where do I work?!?! I am retired from a four-decade career in museums. My ‘work’ over the past three years consists of occasional consulting, and writing several books on architecture that are starting to come out now through next year. In a way that is something that I did when I organized books to accompany exhibitions while I was Curator of Architecture at The Art Institute of Chicago, 1978-2004.

MTB: What is your earliest museum memory (Perhaps an institution you visited as a child)?

JZ: As a little kid, I remember going to the American Museum of Natural History on Manhattan’s upper west side and seeing the giant Blue Whale reconstruction. How could you not be wowed by that exhibit when you’re only a tiny tike!

MTB: What led you to go into the museum field?

JZ: During the oil crisis and recession of 1974, I couldn’t get a job as an academic who specialized in Medieval architecture. So, I stumbled into museum work as a grant-funded Architectural Archivist for the Hudson River Museum, in Yonkers, just north of New York City. I was hired there while working at an antiquarian bookstore, liquidating the architecture books for museum donation, and I met one of their curators who suggested that I apply for this position. My subsequent museum jobs came from equally serendipitous situations, so you never really know where fate might lead you.

MTB: What is your workspace like?

JZ: I now work at home. But, during my career, two of my most memorable office spaces were: a porthole-illuminated compartment aboard the former U.S.S. Intrepid of the Intrepid Sea, Air & Space Museum, with views of cruise ships at Pier 88 on the Hudson River; and, an award-winning office interior, designed by Stanley Tigerman in 1991, within the Ernest R. Graham Study Center for Architectural Drawings of The Art Institute of Chicago.

MTB: What item in your office can you not live without?

JZ: My laptop, and, probably like everyone else, my smartphone.

MTB: Describe your favorite work memory. What was your best day like?

JZ: I’ve had so many great days, and even difficult ones can bring back good memories. Several come to mind relating to the 2006-07 exhibition redesign of the Intrepid museum. Some museum officials were nervous regarding my team’s efforts to bring a major New York museum into a historic naval vessel. But, during fundraising, senior staff and trustees ‘got it’ when they saw the final renderings. And, when the board chair previewed the finished space in 2008, he remarked that we did the right thing. Attendance dramatically increased in the reopening year by some 25%. And that was in the 2009 recession year when many other museums were stumbling, thus further validating our design choices.

MTB: What does your dream museum look like?

JZ: One that has sufficient budget to hire the right team of employees and outside contractors, in order to make it a great experience to visit — and revisit — for the general public.

MTB: What is the best advice you have ever received?

JZ: Be persistent as well as creative; think out of the box, and if you can’t go through a front door, find a side one to accomplish your goal. The idea regarding taking chances, creatively, is something that was consistently endorsed by my doctoral dissertation advisor François Bucher.

MTB: What are you currently reading?

JZ: I recently finished Robert Olds, Helldiver Squadron (1944). The book reads, at times, like a propagandistic war movie script from that era. But here is an interesting local twist. Olds was a PR executive at the Columbus Curtiss plant which produced most of the Navy’s SB2C Helldivers. Needless to say, the planes in his book performed perfectly well, something that history did not really document.

Helldivers were initially underpowered and aerodynamically unstable, earning SB2Cs the nickname “Son-of-a-Bitch, 2nd-Class” with pilots. Poor quality control with that and other Curtiss products led to congressional investigations and the demise of the company. As an architectural footnote, part of the Curtiss plant’s structure housed the Lustron House factory after the war, and although most of it has been demolished, the 1941 administration building designed by noted Detroit industrial architect Albert Kahn still survives at 4300 East Fifth Avenue.

With that done, I’m now starting to read Charles Fountain, The Betrayal: How the 1919 Black Sox Scandal Changed Baseball, which provides a good background to the longtime history of gambling and corruption in baseball.

Is there anything else you would like to add?

JZ: I’ve probably said way more than enough, especially considering the long-winded historic stuff in the last answer.