NEW BRUNSWICK, NJ—Just over a year ago, things were very different at Rutgers University’s Zimmerli Art Museum.
The museum was free and open to the public, and Thomas Sokolowski was in his third year as its Director.
A new exhibition titled “Everyday Soviet: Soviet Industrial Design and Nonconformist Art” showcased the relationship between Soviet industrial and nonconformist movements to tell a rich story of Soviet art and culture from 1959–1989.
Julia Tulovsky, the museum’s curator of Russian and Soviet Nonconformist Art, told New Brunswick Today the exhibition was the first in the United States to present Soviet industrialization and nonconformism as interlaced phenomena.
“Design shapes art, and art shapes design,” Tulovsky explained. By partnering with Moscow Design Museum in Russia, the Zimmerli presented that sentiment with vibrancy and detail.
“Now that the time has passed for this chapter to acquire historical significance, we are reflecting on an epoch. The unique interchange of ideas between Moscow Design and the Zimmerli shows how art and culture are a means for unification and understanding.”
Tulovsky urged the community to take advantage of the exhibit before it closed, but the closure came sooner than expected.
As Rutgers University shut down much of its campus due to the COVID-19 pandemic, the museum abruptly closed to the public in March 2020. But another blow would soon be dealt to the art museum.
Two months later, on May 6, Sokolowski passed away at age 70 from cardiac arrest, which followed an emergency surgery for a suboral hematoma.
“In May, after Director Tom Sokolowski’s unexpected passing, the pandemic closures left us not knowing how soon we would be able to hold a commemoration of his life,” said Amanda Potter, Curator of Education and Interpretation, told New Brunswick Today.
As part of the museum’s development of virtual programs during the fall semester, they re-envisioned one of their longest-running programs, which was also one of Sokolowski’s favorites: Art After Hours.
Before the pandemic, this program was an open house event with tours, music and other special offerings on the first Tuesday evening of most months.
“We realized that the first Tuesday in December would coincide with Day With(out) Art, a national day of action and mourning in response to the HIV/AIDS crisis, which Tom helped create in 1989,” said Potter.
Sokolowski was a co-founder of Visual AIDS, an important early advocacy group for AIDS awareness and action in the arts world; that organization-initiated Day With(out) Art and created the world-famous red ribbon.
There was a lot that went into the curation of the virtual event, and Potter handled a great deal of the details.
“In the fall, we began partnering with Rutgers Global to offer Art Before/After Hours, which transformed our first-Tuesday programming into a format that accommodates different time zones, letting students connect from across the globe,” Potter said.
In recent years, Visual AIDS has organized video programs for Day With(out) Art to be screened at partnering venues across the world, including Rutgers’ Mason Gross School of the Arts.
Their planning group wanted to add a virtual panel discussion that reflected on the history and present state of AIDS advocacy in the arts, in part to reflect on the impact of Sokolowski’s work.
To ensure that the LGBTQIA+ community and public health experts were represented, Perry N. Halkitis, dean of the Rutgers School of Public Health and an expert on LGBTQIA+ issues, joined the panel.
On top of that, Rutgers Student Health, Rutgers Global Health Institute, Rutgers Center for Social Justice Education and LGBT Communities, and the Office of the Chancellor, Rutgers – New Brunswick all joined as co-sponsors to spread the word among their audiences.
Several colleagues at Mason Gross helped us create “Day Without Tom,” a site that collected memories submitted by Sokolowski’s friends and colleagues.
They also commissioned a short documentary about Sokolowski by Sam Vladimirsky, a talented filmmaker and photographer who interned at the museum and graduated from Rutgers in 2018.
The film, “One Singular Sensation,” traces Sokolowski’s life as a museum curator, activist and museum director.
“We shared people’s memories of [Sokolowski] and selections from the film on our social media throughout the day as well,” said Donna Gustafson, Interim Director and Curator.
On top of the AIDS/HIV epidemic that kills millions every year, we also experienced the COVID-19 pandemic in 2020.
With millions of doses of vaccines distributed to combat COVID-19, the future looks bright for a time when the public can go in-person to museums and other public spaces again.
The museum expects that once they are able to open our doors to the public again, they will have the same numbers of visitors as before the pandemic. But the pandemic has prompted a renewed interest in online exhibitions.
“We have also realized the importance of digital programming to reach distant audiences, and plan to continue to provide digital content even after we are able to reopen,” Gustafson said.
The museum also continues to find ways to honor Sokolowski and his impact on the institution.
“We’ve established a Thomas Sokolowski Digital Engagement Internship and hired our first intern for the 2020-21 academic year. She is working to help us better connect with Rutgers students and other audiences through social media,” Gustafson said.
On top of that, future exhibits will be done in the spirit of Sokolowski’s cultural and activist style.
The museum is planning to open a new exhibit in September, titled “Angela Davis: Seize the Time.”
Sokolowski was excited to present this, but it has been postponed for a year due to the pandemic.
Beyond that, they plan on continuing to engage with ideas, have interesting conversations, present music and events, and show fantastic art, as Sokolowski would have pushed them to do.
“I think his legacy will live on in the exhibitions, programs, and events we do at the museum,” Gustafson said.