A native of New York's Capital Region, Diane Shewchuk has more than 30 years of experience working in museums and historic houses throughout New York State. She has held the positions of Curator at Clermont State Historic Site, Historic Site Manager at John Jay Homestead State Historic Site, and Curator promoted to Director at the Columbia County Historical Society in Kinderhook. Today she is the Curator at the Albany Institute of History & Art.
She has curated numerous exhibitions including Spotlight: Albany and Anti-Suffrage, Well-Dressed in Victorian Albany, and The Schuyler Sisters and Their Circle.
Shewchuk has an MA in Museum Studies: Decorative Arts from the Fashion Institute of Technology, New York City. Throughout her career, she has worked on the treatment of museum collections with conservators at the New York State Bureau of Historic Sites as well as those in private practice. Shewchuk was elected to the Museum Association of New York Board of Directors in April 2019. We spoke with her to learn more about her path to museums, what she gets excited about in her role, and what motivates her.
Albany Institute of History & Art Curator Diane Shewchuk speaking with the media at 2019’s The Schuyler Sisters and Their Circle Exhibition. Photo courtesy of Albany Institute of History & Art
MANY: Do you remember your very first museum experience?
Diane Shewchuk: Maybe it was visiting the Clark [Art Institute] in high school. I’m not really sure. I didn’t grow up going to museums as a child with my parents, so it likely was some school trip. But I was always interested in art and I always liked being surrounded by beautiful art. So I think when I went to the Clark, it was the first place that I really learned to appreciate art.
When did you first become interested in art?
I think it was because I would always do crafts. It goes back to my heritage, making Ukrainian Easter eggs, embroidery, and just learning the traditional arts associated with my culture. I was often representing my community through the arts and then teaching others.
My parents didn’t take me to museums but encouraged me to travel when I was in college so I could see great art. I went to study at the Ukrainian University in Rome for a summer where I got to see my first Michaelangelo. The trips abroad were an important way for me to see great art and great museums.
Tell us more about where you grew up and what was it like?
I was born in Albany but my parents were Ukrainian and came to the United States after World War II. My father was a prisoner of war in Italy and they were both technically born in Poland that is now a part of Ukraine because the border shifted. They ended up meeting each other in the United States and settled in the Capital Region where many other Ukrainians settled.
My parents came to this country where everything is new and I think what shocked them is that I wanted to surround myself with old things. They never really understood that because I took a non traditional career path that they didn’t understand. I didn’t become a nurse or teacher or something that they could relate to.
It’s hard thinking back and explaining my career choice to my parents. We never spoke English at home. I didn’t even know English until I went to kindergarten. The Ukrainian community is very close. But my parents worked hard so that we (my brother and I) could do the things that they thought were the American dream. I did want to escape, so I went to New York City for grad school for museum studies.
What other jobs have you had? What was your journey to get to your current role?
I liked that throughout my career I have worn many different hats which helped me discover what I like to do and what I don’t like to do. My first museum job out of graduate school was Curator at Clermont State Historic Site. It’s located in a really beautiful setting. Technically I worked for the Friends Group, not the state [NYS Office of Parks, Recreation and Historic Preservation ]. I loved that even though historic houses are basically giant exhibitions, you get to tell the story of a family in depth. I liked telling the story of the Livingston family and at that time, many members of the family were still alive. So I got to meet them and that was really exciting.
After I left Clermont, I did a little bit of consulting work and then worked as the Coordinator of Special Events in the development office at the College of St. Rose in Albany. I learned a lot in the development office and I worked there until the registrar position opened up at the Albany Institute of History & Art.
Then I took an opportunity to become the director of the John Jay Historic Site. I moved to Westchester and lived on site in the coachman’s house. I supervised a very large staff with grounds people, education, and worked closely with the sites’ friends group. I relied on my previous connections with conservators from my days at Clermont which helped, but I ultimately didn’t enjoy being a site manager. I didn’t want to do trail maintenance. I didn’t want to worry about rabid animals or hazardous trees. My parents were getting older and I wanted to move back towards Albany to be closer to them. I left and did more consulting work at the Thomas Cole National Historic Site, the Shaker Heritage Society, and the Columbia County Historical Society working on object-based cataloging. Eventually, the Columbia Historical Society hired me as a full-time curator, and later on when their director left, I was promoted to curator/director.
When the curator position opened at the Albany Institute, I applied and got the job. I was happy to return and I’ve been here for six and half years.
What have you learned from those other jobs that have impacted your current role as a curator?
By working in different departments I’ve had the opportunity to learn a lot because I’ve had to do many different jobs. I’ve learned what education does, I’ve learned what development does. I’ve learned even more about special events, the gift shop because when you’re a small site you’re stocking, buying, and selling gift shop items. A curator normally doesn’t learn all of these different roles but because I’ve worked in places with a small staff, you do a little bit of everything, including learning how to manage people. At the John Jay Historic Site, I ended up managing a larger staff. I’ve also done a lot more public speaking than I ever thought I would do. I enjoy speaking to reporters and taking them through the galleries, talking about the shows I’ve curated. I love talking to people about exhibitions.
My biggest takeaway from all of my previous roles is maintaining my connections with colleagues. That’s what’s been the most important thing in my career. They’ve helped me be successful in what I do today. I can speed dial a whole group of people and get their help on areas that I’m not an expert in. I’ve had this great honor of working with people in this field. We’re losing generations of historians now and I really feel like my work stands on the back of their work.
Diane Shewchuk and Norman S. Rice, Former Curator and Executive Director at the Albany Institute of History of Art of which he was associated for nearly 70 years, starting in 1953. Rice passed away early this year at age 95. Photo courtesy Erika Sanger
What do you get excited about? What motivates you to do what you do?
What gets me excited is that we have this facility at the Albany Institute where I can handle amazing things and share them with the Albany community and other visitors. I love the power of the authentic object. Having a facility where the climate and security are top-notch allows me to dream really big.
I like getting people excited about history and I will piggyback on things that are popular in pop culture. People think that I curate a lot of costume shows, which I do because we have an audience for that but it’s actually exhibitions about the anti-suffragists [Spotlight: Albany and Anti-Suffrage] and the Schuyler Sisters [The Schuyler Sisters and Their Circle] that get me more excited because of their stories and they’re real people. I remember getting the email from the Rare Book & Manuscript Library at Columbia University for Eliza Schuyler Hamilton’s wedding ring and it was beyond what I had expected… to get that ring back to Albany where Hamilton put it on her hand. It came here and I never got to touch it, you know, because the courier came and we stitched it into the case, highly alarmed, but it was powerful to think about what that ring witnessed.
I can’t tell the whole story in an exhibition label and that’s why I do a lot of gallery tours. You can only say so much in a label and I really like to tell people what goes into curating an exhibition like that because it helps people from outside the museum world understand.
Photo courtesy of Albany Institute of History & Art
Can you describe a favorite day on the job?
I love walking through the galleries and seeing people enjoying the exhibitions. Sometimes the most trivial thing has a great story and in the end, I love the objects...they don’t talk back to some people, but they do to me. I can make an object ‘talk’ in different ways and sometimes the same objects are in five different exhibitions for five different reasons.
What is your superpower?
My master’s degree is in museum studies and I study antiques. I got to turn my hobby into a career and I’m incredibly lucky. I work with the museum staff to create the look of the exhibits. I get to create the installations that showcase the objects and the environments to help tell the story. I always knew I’d be in the creative field and I think museums are more creative than people give them credit for. I think that I can create anything on a relatively low budget –which I think is a strength because we often have to stretch small pots of money to fit big projects.