New York’s “21 Questions” is back with an eye on creative New Yorkers. Anne Pasternak has been the director of the Brooklyn Museum since 2015, and is the first woman to lead an encyclopedic museum in New York. Before then, she served as the artistic director and president of public-arts organization Creative Time for over two decades.
Name: Anne Pasternak
Neighborhood: Brooklyn Heights
Occupation: Director of the Brooklyn Museum
What’s hanging above your couch?
I have a salon-style hanging of my art collection. Most of it has been gifts from artists over the years: Jenny Holzer, Ugo Rondinone, Kara Walker, Cary Leibowitz, and of course my husband Mike Starn.
What’s the first job you had in New York?
I was the director of Stux Gallery in Soho. It was 1989 and an exciting time because the art world was smaller, everyone knew each other, and people weren’t so competitive. Leo Castelli was across the street and I would have lunch with him every few months. I met my husband there and made lasting friendships with Andres Serrano and Vik Muniz.
What color are you always drawn to?
I like all forms of pink. It’s a happy, stress-free color. And when you see someone wearing shocking pink at a party, you’re like, You’re so cool.
What work of art or artifact are you most surprised you own?
I have a print of Abu Ghraib, by Richard Serra. He created it to raise money for a human-rights group. I never thought I’d be able to own a Richard Serra. For me, he’s one of the greatest artists of all time.
Which New Yorker would you want to hang out with?
A lot of comedians are not known for actually being funny, but Mel Brooks is. I love that old-school New Yorker type who’s got stories.
What’s the last thing you made with your hands?
Does dinner count? I don’t have any hobbies at all. I just work all the time. I’m not one of those people who learned how to make bread during COVID.
Is there one thing you own multiple versions of?
Mike and I have a collection of vintage amateur lake paintings hanging all over our cottage upstate. When we bought the house, everything the previous owners had was left behind and there were already old paintings of lakes hanging around, so it seemed like a thing to do. We found more at antique shops upstate, and I must confess that I bought a few on eBay, so now we have 75 total, hanging salon-style.
What New York City museum do you always go back to?
The obvious answer is the Brooklyn Museum since I’m there almost every day, but the Met is my temple and it always has been. When the world gets ugly, I head to the Met. I want to be reminded of humankind’s struggles and potential for greatness. I never miss the Medieval Art galleries.
What do you always have next to your computer?
Water, a lined pad of paper, and my fine-point Sharpie. I just need to be old-school and jot things down.
Where is the best view of the city?
It’s from the Brooklyn Heights Promenade — maybe tied with Brooklyn Bridge Park — because you have the meeting of the southern tip of Manhattan, the Brooklyn Bridge and the Manhattan Bridge, the Statue of Liberty, Governors Island, and all this boat activity. You get a sense of the river.
What building or object do you want to redesign every time you see it?
Every time I stay in a hotel room, I have to redecorate it. I can’t stand the clutter. I hide all the magazines, pop-up folded placards, and ugly décor in a drawer. I like to stretch in the morning, so I rearrange the furniture so there’s more floor space. The only thing I don’t do is take artwork off the wall because I don’t want to look at the nail.
What’s one thing you would change about your field?
There’s so much divisiveness in our culture and we are becoming less able to speak with one another. The situation is exacerbated by a sincere desire to avoid offense, the policing of speech, and the fear of being canceled, which stifles real communication. Yet museums are among the few spaces where people of all backgrounds and beliefs can come together to learn, grow, debate, and be in dialogue. We are places that open hearts and minds. But when we can’t have real conversations with one another, as staff and audiences, the potential for individual and collective transformation is limited. So, if I could wave my magic wand, I would ask cultural organizations to model how we can be in community and dialogue during these tumultuous times.
If you could live anywhere in New York City, where would it be?
I already live in that place and it’s Brooklyn. It’s the city of artists, the city of dissent, the city of diversity. It’s got more moxie and chutzpah than any other place.
What would you hoard, if it stopped being produced?
Duncan Hines brownie mix — the moist one, not the cakey mix.
What do you do to get out of a creative rut?
I always devote some time to hanging out with artists in their studio and having a meal with people who expand my worldview, and that could be anyone from NASA scientists to social-justice pioneers and business leaders. I was in a rut at the beginning of the summer, which came after pushing so hard through COVID. Once Roe was overturned, for me it was like, I don’t know if I can take much more. A couple weeks ago, I was in the studio of Hank Willis Thomas, an artist whom I really admire, and we were talking about bringing joy into the democratic process.
Where was your first NYC apartment and how much was the rent?
I had one and a half floors in a brownstone in Windsor Terrace. It was $1,250 in ’89. It was a working-class Italian neighborhood at the time and there weren’t many restaurants. It was a place I could afford on the F line to get to work in Soho.
Where in the city do you go to be alone?
I go to the Promenade on a weekly basis and watch the sun set.
Worst piece of career advice you’ve ever gotten?
My father urged me to be a computer programmer; he knew that computers would be the next thing and it would be a secure job to be a programmer. But he obviously didn’t understand anything about his daughter, because I can tell you that would have been an epic fail.
What have you given away to someone that you wish you could get back?
Truly nothing. I love giving gifts and I have been happily purging for my entire life.
What’s your favorite NYC restaurant and regular order?
My old standby since the ’80s is Indochine. My go-to order is the sea bass. It’s been able to stay hip for all these decades. It’s one of these places where they just know you and you’re taken care of really well.
What descriptive phrase do you want on your obit headline?
This is like writing your résumé. Do I have to answer? “She was a good friend to artists and championed the power of art to inspire social change.”
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