New Museum’s Karen Wong Pushes Boundaries

Originally Published on Cultured on June 1, 2016.

Karen Wong New Museum

Karen Wong co-founded the New Museum initiatives Ideas City and New Inc. Photo by Benoit Pailley.

“Museums in the 21st century have to understand how to be more relevant,” New Museum Deputy Director Karen Wong says on a chilly spring afternoon in the museum’s cafe. Though the space is closed to the public that day, the lobby is bustling with staff meetings, a symptom of its lack of office space, Wong explains. But soon that will all change following the recent announcement of the museum’s $80 million expansion, from which significant funds will be earmarked for two initiatives co-founded by Wong: Ideas City and New Inc.

 

“What’s exciting is the commitment from Lisa Phillips and the board,” Wong says. “They see Ideas City and New Inc as integral initiatives of the New Museum.” Those two buzzy programs have existed for six and two years, respectively, and each focuses on turning the museum outward in its own way, in particular towards the worlds of public policy and entrepreneurship.

Wong has previously described Ideas City as “a forum to co-join the cultural and civic,” a turn of phrase that aptly describes her area of expertise, professional ambition and personal passion.

Ideas City—which in its current iteration takes the form of a five-day residency of sorts for artists, designers, policymakers and others to live and work together in different places across the globe—sets out to “make our cities better,” Wong says. “It’s really asking: What does citizenship mean? What does cultural participation mean?”

Theaster Gates comments on a presentation by IdeasCity Fellows at the Jam Handy, Detroit

Theaster Gates comments on a presentation by IdeasCity Fellows at the Jam Handy, Detroit. Photo by Justin Milhouse.

New Inc, on the other hand, lives on the Bowery and functions as an incubator for artistically inclined start-ups, individual practices and collectives. “At New Inc we want to look at the way art, design and technology are melting into each other,” Wong says. “People are really trying to figure out how to make businesses out of those spaces, so we’ve essentially created a cultural incubator where people are getting a creative MBA in a way.”

Before the start of her tenure at the New Museum, Wong was the managing director at London’s Adjaye Associates. “For me, personally having watched architects work so passionately and so hard on how they try to use space to solve community problems is incredibly inspiring, and I brought a lot of that energy with me to the museum,” Wong says.