by Phillip Henderson | President, Surdna Foundation




It was almost a miracle of a day.  Sun shining, warm, flowers blooming and everyone in a good mood.  We’d all endured a long, dreary, cold winter, and this day felt like a celebration.  


Who?  What?  


Well, it was the entire Surdna staff and board out to see and feel the work we are investing in at the Queens Museum in Flushing Meadows, New York, and the surrounding community.  The gorgeous weather certainly added some pep to our step.  But there was something in the air less tangible—but even more evident than the perfect spring day—that made this a remarkable gathering.  It was the ease and authenticity of our board-staff conversations and the way we learn together that gave the meeting a comfortable family feel.


An important part of this atmosphere was the presence of the entire Surdna gang—from our receptionist to the board chairperson.  When we first discussed using a part of our May Board Meeting for a site visit, all agreed that 330 Madison Avenue—our Manhattan office—would move across the East River for a day. The day felt extraordinary, but really it was quite ordinary for a foundation that prides itself on being a family philanthropy.


What we saw that day was terrific.  The Queens Museum is a model for the kind of arts institution we think is critical to the emergence of sustainable communities that truly reflect and celebrate the cultures of their residents.  The Queens Museum has a wide range of community-based programs, and we focused on the work that staff are doing in Corona Plaza and the surrounding neighborhoods. 


Tom Finkelpearl, the former president and executive director of the Queens Museum and new Cultural Affairs Commissioner for the City has often said the museum attempts to apply the same sort of imagination, experimentation, and resources to community engagement that they do to the galleries. This was certainly evident by the performances and community-based services on offer. It was also clear that by facilitating partnerships between the city, neighborhood organizations, and community members, the Queens Museum is extending itself in a way that makes it and the surrounding neighborhoods stronger. For years the Museum has been hosting public art projects and community festivals in the Corona Plaza. More recently it has partnered with local business owners and community leaders to develop a set of priorities for the redesign of the Plaza, which the City’s Department of Transportation will undertake beginning next year.


This inspirational work was the backdrop for board and staff conversations about the work we are doing not just through our Thriving Cultures Program, but also related to our Strong Local Economies and our Sustainable Environments programs. 


It helped our deliberations to have the Museum’s panoramic views of Flushing Meadows Corona Park—the grounds of the 1964-65 World’s Fair complete with the iconic Unisphere, a 12-story, stainless-steel model of the earth. But our conversations were inspired and productive because of the hard work we’ve done over the years to get clear on the mission we are working toward as both a board and staff.  It means that when we are together, we can enjoy the time and be productive, critical, and insightful about what we have done—and sometimes haven’t—and what’s ahead of us.


As we approach the summer and the end of our fiscal year, our thoughts are turning to the year ahead.  The energy of our May Board Meeting positions us well for the myriad challenges of the coming year.  We are anticipating great work as we continue to grow our portfolio of Program Related Investments; and we are committed as a foundation to sharpen our learning about the alignment of our investment portfolio with our foundation’s mission.  We also see the coming year as one in which we will get smarter about imbedding learning in our program strategies. We believe this will improve our understanding about what success looks like in each of our programs and help us become better at talking about it. 


Much as that wonderful early May visit to the Queens Museum and Corona Plaza felt good because we were together as the entire Surdna family, I’m excited to work together as a staff and board to continue to refine and deepen the work of the foundation.



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