2016-01-20 / Features

Deborah Silverfine

Deborah “Debby” Silverfine, Director of Voelker-Orth Museum, Bird Sanctuary and Victorian Gardens is a Brooklyn-Queens native New Yorker. Silverfine joined the Voelker-Orth Museum as its Executive Director in 2008. It was her return to working with museums after a 25-year run with the New York State Council on the Arts, retiring from her post there as Deputy Director in 2007.

Silverfine makes the Jackson Heights Historic District her home, but hops the 7 train to Flushing to care for the museum set in an 1890s Victorian house and garden that was once home to the Voelker-Orth family. The arts, preservation, and her Queens community have long been her interests. Before working for New York state, Silverfine was the museum educator at the Queens Museum and caught the “museum bug” as a teen volunteering and taking art classes at the Brooklyn Museum. Her long-term special interest in the arts is film and media, with experience in curating, arts policy and funding panels. In addition, she serves on the board of a small non-profit, Independent Media Arts Preservation.

She earned her bachelor’s degree in Art History/Museum Studies from Queens College and participated in the master’s program in Cinema Studies at New York University.

QG: When you took over running the museum seven years ago from Catherine Abrams, how familiar were you with the work of the museum before arriving there as director?

DS: I first discovered the Voelker Orth Museum as a job listing, and soon visited for a house tour. Its charm was captivating, and I knew that Elisabetha Orth’s estate had provided an endowment to get things underway – but I knew little of its operations or history until I had signed on as the director. I was intrigued with the grand gesture of a middle class woman, a teacher, leaving her family home and estate to preserve a piece of Flushing’s past for those who would come after her.

I am actually the museum’s third director, but many of the founding board members have remained involved. My former museum experience was immediately put into play and all of those years of advising other museums and arts groups helped us work on developing the Voelker Orth. I spent my first year getting reacquainted with the neighboring cultural organizations and support networks and inculcating myself in the Murray Hill, and Voelker and Orth family story.

QG: What were the biggest challenges you saw facing you back then? Could you describe your progress with handling them since then, and for non-profits in Queens in general?

DS: A lot of energy went into restoring the Orth family house and garden, but it takes a greater effort to sustain it and turn a museum from a building into a community gathering place. We’ve started with looking at the connections between the Voelker family’s immigration story and the experience of Queens families today. Our school group programs engage children in a direct and palpable way to nature and history around them.

In many ways, running a successful small museum has a lot in common with a mom and pop-scale business – the constancy and quality of service, building and retaining an audience and staff, tending the building, having the resources to stay in business. We have much to offer – and as a non-profit, we need and welcome volunteers to help us, friends and members to support us.

We have the special challenge of retaining the period character of the house and garden, while making it available and inviting for audiences, some of whom have never been to a museum, and are used to the comforts of 21st century urban life.

QG: What programs for the public have been planned since you took over? Are there any free programs? What’s on tap at Voelker-Orth this year?

DS: People in Queens live busy lives in a fast-paced, media-rich city, but they are hungry for something real: real places, real stories, real human interaction. The programs we plan are designed to give the people a bit of that connection.

Many of our events are held on Sunday afternoons – and we try to mix things up for variety. We started an annual classic animation program with cartoon preservationist Tom Stathes (January 24), and will host musical performances monthly, starting this year with Valentine’s Day. There’s a talk and tasting about The Knish with Laura Silver. In the spring, we host a concert with a lawn tea. There are drop-in art workshops on Tuesdays in the summer, a family-friendly Honey Harvest Festival in August (when we’ve bottled our own honey), and Oktoberfest Flushing Style: Kimchi and

Sauerkraut, to start the fall.

Now that Queens is gaining recognition as a tourist destination, photographer Carlos Esguerra has created his own series of images of our borough. They will be on exhibit starting in February.

Many of our programs carry an admission fee, and there’s often refreshments provided to allow for time to talk and mingle. We like to serve Betty’s Zip Punch, made with grapes we harvest here at the museum. Hip to Hip Theater brings us two wonderful nights of free productions of Shakespeare in the garden. This summer marks their 10th anniversary, so we know it will be special.

QG: Do you have enough volunteers and how do they help you with the mission of the museum?

DS: The museum can readily use more help. We have a terrific group of volunteers – students, working professionals, retirees, and people who are between jobs. From spring through the fall our gardener needs support with planting, weeding and keeping the garden beautiful on Fridays, volunteers help with visiting school groups, our family programs and weekend events. And, there’s research and organizing work related to our collections and exhibitions.

QG: Has your membership support increased and is that directly related to an increase in attendance as Voelker-Orth becomes more well known as a destination to enjoy?

DS: We have a small and devoted membership – some who have stayed with us since our opening in 2003 – and new friends as our community gets to know us. There is one couple who sends us checks towards the refreshments at many of our events. The support means a lot to us – and every bit helps!

QG: Have many weddings or other celebrations been booked to take advantage of your beautiful garden / bird sanctuary setting surrounding a Victorian house?

DS: We book several wedding ceremonies, parties, and commemorative events each year. It’s a casual, relaxed and intimate space offering the feel of a home garden party. Our garden looks fabulous much of the year.

QG: Which other attractions in Queens do you personally enjoy? Do you have favorite restaurants in Queens?

DS: Oh, there are so many! When I can get away – I do love our museums and art spaces – the garden at the Noguchi, the galleries at MoMA PS1, screenings at the Museum of the Moving Image, talks at our historical societies, and hopping the Q53 to the beach at Rockaway Park.

I keep promising myself to leave time to discover all the great eateries in Flushing – but rarely even break away for a lunch at Hahm Ji Bach. I enjoy the café culture that has grown up in Jackson Heights – I can pop into Juju’s Bagels in Jackson Heights for a coffee and neighborhood gossip. And, it is worth stopping on the way back from Manhattan for a meal at La Flor in Woodside.

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