Suzanne LeBlanc has served as the Museum Association of New York’s Board President since 2018 and has spent her career working in children’s museums. Prior to joining the Long Island Children’s Museum (LICM) in 2005, she served in leadership positions at children’s museums in Boston, Brooklyn, and Las Vegas.
Most recently, LeBlanc has been an award recipient of the Premier Business Women of Long Island and Nassau County’s Women of Distinction. She was also chose as on e of the “50 Most Influential Businesswomen of Long Island” by Long Island Business News. She’s been a member of the Community Advisory Council of the Junior League and the Early Years Institute Advisory Committee. In November 2012, she received the National Medal for Museum and Library Service at the White House on behalf of the Long Island Children’s Museum for “Together to Kindergarten” a community-focused initiative for Spanish and Haitian-speaking immigrant families.
LICM recently earned accreditation by the American Alliance of Museums; one of only 16 children’s museums in the country to achieve this recognition and the only CHildren’s Museum in NY currently accredited.
LeBlanc earned her MA in Counseling Psychology from Lesley College in Cambridge, Massachusetts, and a BS in Journalism and Photojournalism from the School of Public Communication at Boston University. Her work has been published in museum journals, she consults, teaches, and presents at conferences.
As Suzanne concludes her tenure as President of MANY’s Board of Directors, we spoke with her to learn more about how she entered the museum field, what excites her about museum work, and more.
Long Island Children’s Museum President Suzanne LeBlanc celebrates accreditation from the American Alliance of Museums
MANY: What was your first museum experience?
Suzanne LeBlanc: When I was in elementary school, the only museum field trip that we went on was to the Christian Science Center in Boston. Their museum had a mapparium where you crossed the room on a suspended walkway with a backlit globe all around you, and I think that's where I got my interest in the whole museum world. It was my first exposure to museums.
What was the museum experience that made you think about entering the profession?
As of this past January, I’ve worked in the field for 48 years. I went to Boston University and majored in Communications and Photo Journalism. I saw Michael Spock, the son of Dr. Benjamin Spock and one of the first creators of interactivity in children’s museums, being interviewed on one of the television morning news programs. He was also the director of the Boston Children’s Museum. I found it interesting and I had never been to a children’s museum so I visited and ended up doing a photo essay on the museum. I heard that the museum offered a three-month internship, I applied, was accepted and after I graduated, I interned at the Boston’s Children’s Museum. At the time, the museum was just a Victorian house, it was small but had a large reputation. It’s the second oldest children’s museum in the world, founded in 1913 by the Science Teachers’ Bureau.
There were a couple of people there who really inspired me and who saw something in me and wanted me to stay, so I stayed. I never studied museums and I never intended on working in museums or even imagined it, but it’s something that I love.
I worked there for fifteen years, and while I was there I debated whether or not I wanted to be a director. I learned about the then Museum Management Institute that the J. Paul Getty Trust funded (it used to be a month-long residency program), applied and was accepted. It ended up being very critical to my early museum career because I was exploring what I wanted to do. It was taught by business professors from Harvard and Stanford, but every week they had a nationally-known museum professional in residence who would direct the conversations towards museums and host office hours. This was really the only formal training for museums that I had. Everything else I learned through working my way up from my internship position.
I left Boston to take the position of Associate Director at the Brooklyn Children’s Museum and when their director left for eight weeks, I was named Acting Director. Then I was recruited to go to the Lied Discovery Children’s Museum in Las Vegas (now DISCOVERY Children’s Museum) as the Executive Director and following that, was recruited to come to the Long Island Children’s Museum. That’s my trajectory and it’s been a fun and exciting one. I’ve probably done almost every museum job.
Can you tell us about where you grew up? What was it like growing up there?
I grew up in Salem Massachusetts which is about 25 miles north of Boston, and had a large French Canadian population. It’s on the water and very historic. I went to Catholic schools through high school and grew up with eight brothers and sisters as the oldest. When I was fourteen we had to move into a larger house, but really couldn’t afford it so we also rented rooms to eight college students. People were everywhere! Truthfully, growing up there as a kid I mostly knew French Canadian Catholics and reading was sort of my way out into the world. At the time, Salem State College was a one-building teacher’s college and my father used to say that one of these days that place is going to take over. Today it’s Salem University. And of course, there is the history that’s associated with the Salem Witch Trials. When I was growing up it wasn’t that big of a deal but now every Halloween about 250,000 people from all over the world come. It’s a major event with historic, touristy and Wiccan themes. It’s a very different place now then when I was growing up but it’s more aligned with the places I like to live now – more culturally diverse, more arts activities, and more variety of restaurants.
In high school, I would visit the Peabody Essex Museum which was probably my first traditional museum visit. I was interested in their Japanese collections and when I was an intern at the Boston Children’s Museum, my major area of focus was their Japanese Home. My interest in cultures developed there.
Would your 18-year old self imagine that you would be where you are today?
At first, I thought, absolutely not. I grew up in a family that varied from poor to working class, and hardly anyone in my family went to college. I loved school and reading and I was intent on going to college. I had worked two summers at a factory to save money and at the time I wasn’t thinking of college as leading to a profession, but I was just excited about the opportunity to learn more. I certainly never thought that I would end up as a museum director which now feels like it really fits me, but wasn’t something my 18-year-old self would imagine.
What other experiences in your career have you found most helpful for your role now?
Professionally what’s helped me was early on in my career at the Boston Children’s Museum, I was given responsibilities like budgeting and supervising. I found these responsibilities extremely helpful. At the Brooklyn Children's Museum, as their Associate Director, I worked with their board, attending meetings, and that introduced me to the director and board relationship.
From my education, I have a communications degree which I've found helpful as I work with stakeholders, board, staff, and funders. I also have a masters degree in counseling psychology which broadened my people skills. I’ve worked at fairly large museums with many staff members so that degree helped in all the critical interpersonal skills.
In doing so many jobs, I really understand how hard people work which I think is helpful from entry-level to the very top. I think a lot of directors come into the field as directors, but I’ve worked my way up and I try to tell new staff that story.
I adopted my daughter Tara when she was 16 and volunteering at the Children’s Museum in Las Vegas when I worked there. She is now 42, a speech pathologist and living in Wales with her wife Aimee and adopted daughter Aimee. It is the most amazing and wonderful gift from my career.
What are some of your biggest motivations to do what you do? What gets you excited about your role at the Long Island Children’s Museum?
I love working for an institution. In terms of my role, I like thinking about the big vision and helping to bring it about even if it takes a long time. I really love seeing staff grow and being a mentor. I’ve had some amazing mentors and I love mentoring others. I look at our museum as not just a learning place for visitors, but for staff as well, so I try to provide as many opportunities for that and when I can do that, it really feels like I am accomplishing something important.
Our community initiatives are highlights of my work. One program that gets me very excited is a program called “Together to Kindergarten” for immigrant families with children about to enter kindergarten. We recently hired someone who is now at Hofstra University who was in our program maybe thirteen years ago and she is now coming to work at the museum and will work in that program. She wrote a testimonial on how important that experience had been for her and also for her family who went on and supported her love of education. That’s the kind of thing that makes you cry, seeing that impact because sometimes you don’t get to see that as people come and go in a museum.
I’ve gotten really good at helping to gain national recognition for the museums I’ve worked at. I think that came from when I went to the DISCOVERY Children’s Museum in Las Vegas there were some comments from my colleagues at the time asking are there really museums in Las Vegas? So I thought that I’m going to put this museum on the map and worked hard to get state and federal funding including funding from the Institute of Museum and Library Services (IMLS). I did the same thing for the Long Island Children’s Museum including the National Medal for Museum and Library Services, which is the highest honor for libraries and museums that are serving their communities in exceptional ways. [The Long Island Children’s Museum received the National Medal in 2012 at the White House for “Together to Kindergarten” a community-focused initiative for Spanish and Haitian-speaking immigrant families.]
Accepting the National Medal for Museum and Library Services at the White House
What are some of your goals for the museum?
One major goal that I’ve tried to accomplish and that we keep getting stopped by financial downturns is a capital campaign expansion into the airplane hangar building next door to us. The first delay was during the global financial crisis in 2008 and then there was another setback during Hurricane Sandy. Then I thought the third time's the charm and we were ready to go with architects, exhibits were planned, the county was ready with funding, and then the pandemic hit.
I’m starting to pick it back up again, and in the meantime we’ve added new exhibitions and redesigned others, but part of this campaign was to do a number of new major exhibitions. We plan to do an exhibition about immigration on Long Island. We resarched this five years ago as part of our strategic plan and we found that 18% of people living on Long Island were immigrants.
For the expansion into Hangar Five (an old airplane hangar adjacent to the LI Children’s Museum), we were going to move our non-public spaces there to create more room for exhibitions in our current facility. But getting new exhibitions is exciting and this capital campaign expansion is still something I am sure we will accomplish.
Can you describe a favorite day on the job?
I have a lot of meetings. Sometimes they’re on the more tedious side and sometimes they’re more productive, where we’re solving a problem or ideas are flowing. So a really good meeting where we’re getting someplace and then having time to really think it through and follow up on it is especially good.
I also like to take the time to walk around on the museum floor, especially after a bad day to be reminded of what impact you’re having and how much fun people are having.
I like noise around me, maybe because I grew up in a large family and had a lot of people around me, so even though I’m good at business, I don’t think that I would do really well in a regular corporate-like environment. I like having people around me with creative ideas.
Add-a-Dot Art Installation at the LICM in 2018 –a collaborative art-making experience
What is your superpower?
We’ve been getting IMLS funding every year for years and one of the things that I like to do and that I’m good at is listening to people in meetings and understanding what people want to do and thinking about what will move this museum forward with IMLS funding or other funding sources. And then conceptualizing that idea, bring people together to make it happen. I usually am not part of projects from start to end, but I’m okay with that. I’ll stay on in an advisory capacity but I don’t have to take the project from beginning to end. I do think that’s important in this role. You have to be okay with understanding your role as an Executive Director.
My first thought was my people skills, working with staff and board members and outside stakeholders. This leads to my abilities in creating a work culture that people thrive in.
During the pandemic, one of my staff told me that I am good in a crisis. I do think I’ve been good at navigating crisis situations for this time and previous ones as well.
It was interesting when the pandemic started because we were in the middle of accreditation with the American Alliance of Museums and I decided to keep going. We had already put a lot of time into it, we’d worked on it for about a year and a half. We accomplished being accredited for the first time and it ended up being a nice team-building project and something very thrilling to accomplish in the midst of the pandemic.
Do you have any key mentors or someone who has deeply influenced you? Can you tell me about them?
My most important mentor is Elaine Heumann Gurian who was the Director of the Visitor Center at the Boston Children’s Museum. I really believe that if I hadn’t worked for her, I wouldn’t have stayed in museum work. She was incredibly inspiring and I would hang on her every word. I wanted to work with her. So I stayed after my internship. At first, I was her executive assistant and truthfully I had no skills in that area, but I taught myself how to type and I would write her letters. She would say “write them how I would talk but make sure they are correct”. I would do budget work, lead meetings, I did a lot and she trusted me. She’s always been supportive of me and my career. She went on to work at the Smithsonian Museum of the American Indian and the United States Holocaust Memorial Museum. Now she does international consulting.
Michael Spock was inspirational to me in a different way. He was an example of always having where you wanted to go on your radar even if it was going to take you a long time to get there and he had the patience to stay with it and get it to happen. Moving the museum [Boston Children’s Museum] from a Victorian house to the waterfront was his goal and took a long time.
Elaine and Michael had very different styles and approaches but I think of them both as my mentors.
There is another person who wasn’t necessarily a mentor but when I was trying to decide whether or not I wanted to be a director, her words inspired me. She was Bernice Johnson Reagon, who was a curator at the Smithsonian and also the founder of Sweet Honey in the Rock, an acapella group comprised of Black women.
When Elaine went to the Smithsonian, she knew that I was shy about speaking in public, but also knew that I needed to develop that skill to move forward. She told people at the Smithsonian to get me as a speaker. Bernice Johnson Reagan asked me to speak at one of their conferences. and when she was introducing the conference she said if you want to make a difference in the world, get yourself in a position of power. That stuck with me and it helped lead to my decision to become a director, but it also stuck with me in that I was meeting a lot of young people of color who felt like they didn’t have enough say in community outreach roles, so I would ask if they ever thought about being a director and encouraged them to think about it. I’ve tried throughout my career to try to be a mentor to others, as others have to me.
What have you appreciated the most during your time as MANY Board President?
I joined MANY before it merged with MuseumWise. At the time, I didn’t know much about the rest of the state. By joining MANY and being in a leadership role I’ve gotten to learn about the many different museums across the state, and worked with a wonderful variety of museum professionals. It’s something I’ve loved.
It’s been rewarding to see MANY grow from the beginning and be a true service to the field, especially during the pandemic. It’s great to be part of an organization that has helped so many museums.