During much of the coronavirus pandemic, Jean Savitsky’s workplace — the Museum of Modern Art (MoMA) in New York — had been quiet. And empty. Wandering through its galleries, you could really see the art; “It was a beautiful experience,” she says.
But on a humid July afternoon this summer, the people are back. They form small clusters outside of MoMA’s West 53rd entrance and Savitsky ’85 — who worked for five years leading the museum’s $450 million expansion — is pleased. They are the reason MoMA is here, she says.
“To see people engaging with the art — maybe they’re New Yorkers and they’re here all the time,” she says. “Or maybe it’s someone who has always wanted to come and see ‘Starry Night’ or ‘Christina’s World,’ and they finally get to do it. … And then they turn and see something else they’ve never seen before, and you’re just listening to their comments and their enthusiasm.
“That’s what all of this is for.”
Mastering schedules and diplomacy
From 2014 to 2019, Savitsky, who is MoMA’s director of real estate and sustainability and a 35-year veteran of New York’s real estate and construction industry, led the expansion and renovation of this beloved icon. It has unveiled, in the words of the museum, “a reimagined presentation of modern and contemporary art.”
To this end, MoMA added more than 40,000 square feet of additional gallery space — presenting more works by more artists, including some pieces from its permanent collection that are being seen by the public for the first time. Many galleries now show work chronologically, so you’ll see paintings, sculpture, photography, design and other art forms from the same time period together, to give historical context. There’s a new high-tech performance space; a new Creativity Lab for educational programming; a new museum store; a free street-level gallery for passersby along 53rd Street, among other improvements.
This highly complex project involved combining three separate buildings. There was the westward expansion into a new condominium development — literally sliding three floors of exhibition space into this towering skyscraper. It involved the demolition of the American Folk Art Museum, to also help expand gallery space. In the process, Savitsky led the project to LEED Platinum certification for its environmentally friendly design and construction.
She sums up her job: “I had to control the budget, I had to control the schedule and I had to control the scope” — not an easy task.
“It took a village,” she says. “I have amazing people that I work with.”
Savitsky also performed a master act of collaboration and diplomacy. She worked with contractors, developers, museum trustees, curators and community members to reach consensus and get everyone on the same page for this institution they all care so deeply about.
As Savitsky offers a quick museum tour, it is obvious that she cares deeply; her ties to MoMA are long-standing. Her mother first brought her here as a child, and Jean has long been a patron. She’s drawn to the galleries of the 1950s, to the action paintings of Pollock, de Kooning and others, and the “beautiful and clean” sculpture of Constantin Brancusi.
But mostly, when Savitsky walks through these spaces, she sees them through the eyes of an engineer.
A new staircase — hung from one piece of steel — is a true engineering feat, she says. To create the new dramatic entry to the museum, workers removed an entire floor above, which doubled the height of the ceiling and created “a whole new experience, a floating tension.” They moved massive sculptures — such as Richard Serra’s “Equal,” a series of eight forged steel boxes, each weighing 40 tons — and created the new street-level galleries, where art comes to the people.
Savitsky came well prepared for this challenge. Just south of MoMA soars the Bank of America Tower at Bryant Park, for which Savitsky served as project manager during her long tenure with Jones Lang LaSalle, a global real estate services company. (The skyscraper also achieved LEED Platinum, the first skyscraper in North America to do so.) Before that, she served as facilities director with Simon & Schuster and directed facilities operations at Radio City Music Hall.
Interestingly, for the MoMA expansion, she notes that three women really led the way: Liz Diller from the architectural firm Diller Scofidio + Renfro; Madeline Burke-Vigeland, of the architectural and design firm Gensler; and herself.
Savitsky says that, in her long experience, she has found that women do lead differently.
“I’ve been extremely fortunate because I’ve only worked for good people,” she says, and counts men among her top mentors. “But I think (with women), there’s a lot more listening. There’s a respect for what everyone is bringing to the table. I don’t know if that’s because some of us who set the stage now sat around a table where this didn’t happen for us.”
When it comes to her leadership philosophy, Savitsky is disarmingly humble.
“I surround myself with people on my teams who are smarter than I am. And you let people who are really good at what they do go do it. When they hit a wall, or there’s a problem, you’re there to help them figure out how to get through it.”
Looking forward, and family
Her current work at MoMA involves nothing less than the museum’s future. Her main focus is putting together MoMA’s sustainability plan and aligning with New York City’s ambitious goals for reducing carbon emissions and developing a greener power grid by 2030. It’s an all-encompassing effort touching upon energy use and optimizing the building’s performance; reducing museum waste by 50 percent by 2025, including increasing composting and recycling; and exploring ways to move away from fossil fuels while maintaining “incredibly stringent” environmental conditions needed to preserve priceless works of art.
“I’m thrilled to be working on this because we’re kind of aligning with what’s happening in the broader world, around climate and the climate crisis,” she says. “We’re a small piece of it, but it feels like we’re doing something to help put everything in the right direction.”
As she eyes more ambitious projects for MoMA, Savitsky feels blessed to be there. She also feels lucky to have shared this project with her mother, Mary, a retired public school teacher in New York and New Jersey, the host of a television math education program and a professor at New Jersey City University, who instilled a love of art and a strong sense of determination. And her father, Stevens’ renowned Davidson Laboratory professor Dan Savitsky M.S. ’52, her trusted counsel. (He passed away in 2020 at age 98.)
She shared engineering drawings and many stories with her father, who was truly engaged in the project, asking questions, challenging her. Both of her parents attended the opening of the expanded museum in October 2019.
“It was so wonderful to be able to have him see, finally, what he had been seeing on paper all along,” she says.
Walking the museum’s galleries, Savitsky calls it a privilege to work in a place of beauty that can take her breath away.
“You’re surrounded by art every day, and to be surrounded by such smart people … I can walk through a gallery and see something ... or pop my head in the studio and try to experience what is happening there.
“It’s a dream place to work.”