Snug Harbor Cultural Center & Botanical Garden welcomes a new CEO

by JENNIFER VIKSE • Photos By Amessé Photography

Snug Harbor Cultural Center & Botanical Garden, located on Richmond Terrace in Livingston along the Arthur Kill, has a long history on Staten Island.

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Opened in the early 1800s as a home for retired sailors through the generosity of shipping heir Robert Richard Randall, the 83-acre site has morphed over the years from a self-contained town for sailors to a decrepit property that was nearly destroyed in the 1950s, and ultimately to the bustling cultural hub of today.

From elaborate botanical gardens to a Chinese Scholars Garden to performance spaces and museums, the site has never been more alive…and it’s about to get even better, according to newly-named Chief Executive Officer, Aileen Chumard Fuchs.

Chumard Fuchs recently made the move from Brooklyn to Staten Island with her family, and even with just four weeks on the job, her impressions of the property and its potential were clear.

“There is architectural diversity and sprawling green space. I would challenge anyone to find a comparable site. It’s incredibly unique,” she said from her office overlooking the center’s Tuscan Garden, modeled after the Villa Gamberaia in Florence, Italy.

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“My biggest goal right now is to learn quickly and listen a lot,” she said, adding that she has been impressed by what’s on site and how staffers manage it all. “I feel challenged, I feel inspired. If anything, I’m amazed at what’s been done to this point. Very small staff, very dedicated people, great board. There’s something to do here for so many interests—architectural enthusiasts, artists, nature enthusiasts—we just need to package it all up as a destination.”

That destination includes other stakeholders on the site, such as the Noble Maritime Collection, the Staten Island Museum, and the Staten Island Children’s Museum. Prior to taking the helm at Snug this summer, Chumard Fuchs served as executive director of programs and exhibits at the Brooklyn Navy Yard Development Corporation, where she ran the Yard’s museum and visitor center, curated exhibits, and oversaw tours, education, and cultural programming.

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“[The Brooklyn Navy Yard] is an incredible place. I was privileged to be able to tell that story. I fell in love with the yard. It was a real opportunity to make the history of the site relatable and engaging,” she noted of the 300-acre campus. “We were able to attract incredibly diverse audiences to sustainable architecture and sustainable design. When I first came here [Snug Harbor] for a visit, I felt it had a kinship with the Yard before I even thought of working here.”

Prior to the Brooklyn position, she worked for the American History Workshop as a curatorial associate on exhibits in New York, Philadelphia, and Washington, D.C. There, she learned from mentor Richard Rabinowitz the impact of such an institution. “I grasped what a powerful medium curation is. History is a powerful tool.”

Since she was a child, Chumard Fuchs—who is originally from Middletown, NY—was drawn to theatre and storytelling.

“Theatre and dance shaped my early career. I was in ballet at three, voted most dramatic in high school and college, and starred in high school plays. There’s a unique storytelling aspect that drew me into theatre,” she said.

The new CEO earned a B.A. in Theatre Arts and English from Muhlenberg College in Allentown, PA and an M.A. in Public History from New York University.

Once in the city, she started going to more exhibits, and experiencing more museums.

“There was a groundbreaking thing that happened at the New York Historical Society; it turned all the lights for me as far as understanding what exhibition and curation was…[its ability] to connect people. It made me realize that I wanted to go into curation,” she recalled. “Curating an exhibition is like writing a play or a book, just in a different medium. I was really drawn to that.”

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Under Rabinowitz, she grew to appreciate not only storytelling, but place making. (“I had a love of creating a sense of place,” she explained.) This ability made her a good CEO candidate for Snug Harbor Cultural Center & Botanical Garden, which is part of a dramatically changing North Shore Corridor, with major projects like the Empire Outlets, NY Wheel, and Lighthouse Point on track.

“The opportunity for Snug is humongous. This is such an incredibly unique cultural resource in the nation—not just on Staten Island or in New York. There are so many stories to tell,” explained Chumard Fuchs. “I’d like to bring that storytelling to the forefront of the visitor experience.”

She explained that the facilities’ strengths are threefold: Physical attributes (an 83-acre campus with a farm, gardens, and architecture); the on-site constituents, which include museums and cultural programs and a Montessori school; and a supportive community and stakeholders. “We have an amazing board of directors…neighbors who walk their dogs here, go to the Montessori school,” she noted. “It’s an incredible community.”

This uniqueness is what Chumard Fuchs believes will ultimately win over visitors. “There’s a disbelief that you are even in New York City when you are here. It has places that feel off the map,” she noted.

As for the current climate of the North Shore, the CEO observed that “there’s spotlight on the area, and we’re totally excited about it. This is going to elevate us from hidden treasure to something we can all enjoy.”

When she’s not working, Chumard Fuchs and her firefighter husband enjoy cooking and spending time with their twin toddlers, Faith and Fletcher. The live walking distance to Snug and enjoy being on campus as a family. They also love to eat out and are exploring the Island’s restaurant scene.

“There’s really nothing we don’t like,” she laughed. For now, the CEO is still absorbing life on the Island and focused on examining, among other things, seasonal experiences that Snug can “own” as far as the visitor experience is concerned.

“We’re addressing safety, circulation, accessibility, and way finding—we also need better site-wide signage. What [visitors] can do, where to park—way finding is insanely important,” she said.

Asked for a final thought, Chumard Fuchs offered: “You spend so much mental energy here and you get so much back. I’m trying to explore every nook and cranny. Being surrounded by this beauty, and how much work and dedication our team puts in here—this small staff—there’s so much work, and there are also volunteers who contribute. It’s such a lovely aspect of work…being in a natural surrounding. It’s so good for the mind, body, and soul.”

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Snug Harbor Cultural Center & Botanical Garden
1000 Richmond Terrace / 718.425.3504
Open every day from dawn to dusk / snug-harbor.org