Joshua Ruff is the Deputy Director and Director of Collections & Interpretation at the Long Island Museum of American Art, History & Carriages, in Stony Brook. He is a graduate of Syracuse University with a dual major in Broadcast Journalism and in History, and Stony Brook University with a MA in History. Ruff has worked at the Long Island Museum for 25 years including as Curator of its History and Carriage Collections and has curated more than 60 exhibitions.
Recently named the next co-Executive Director of the Long Island Museum and elected to the MANY board this past April, we spoke with Ruff to learn more about this museum experience and what his new position will look like.
MANY: How did you get into the museum field? What was your career path like?
Joshua Ruff: Maybe by accident. It wasn’t the life that I had planned for myself when I was thinking about a career but now I’ve been predominantly at one institution for 25 years; working with the museum’s collection, exhibitions, and all of the special projects. I've been very fortunate to have had worked with incredible mentors including the chief curator at the museum, William Ayers. I worked with him for 16 years before he retired and then I was promoted to his position Our outgoing Executive Director Neil Watson was also a mentor. Those are just two incredible people who have left a great mark on me that I've been lucky to have known and worked with.
Working in museums was nothing that I imagined or anticipated but it’s been a progressively deeper experience. I've worked in curatorial positions throughout my career but with more administrative responsibilities as time has gone on.
What other experiences outside your museum career have you found most helpful in your role now?
While attending Syracuse University as an undergrad majoring in Broadcast Journalism, public speaking, working with the press and media, and video production. The Long Island Museum produces videos for exhibitions and our YouTube Channel. So I have a big role in video productions using those skills.
The ability to ask questions about what is interesting and to communicate with a broad audience is an important skill that I learned early on, even if I didn’t know what I thought I would do with that skill, but now it’s incredibly useful in my museum career. It’s important to connect beyond a specialized audience, especially in museums. We need to be able to talk to a variety of people and the only way you get better at it is to do it as often as you can.
What are some of your biggest motivations to do what you do? What do you get excited about in your role as both Deputy Director and Director of Collections & Interpretation?
The ability to work with and preserve our collections but also develop a long-term goal and vision about how we do that. But also it’s really the folks that I work with.
I have twenty-seven colleagues at the museum. The curatorial department is small, but we have a great work culture where there is a lot of interconnection, sharing, and creativity. We’ve got each other's backs and that motivates me more than anything. I want to do my best to help my colleagues. I think museums do great things, especially when they have people working together, creating in harmony, and putting in an effort which is not a small thing to be able to achieve.
How do you create that environment?
You have to set the tone every day in meetings and the work that you do. For me, I’m in the thick of things and I've worked for people who didn’t sit in a chair and tell people what to do. That's not my style nor is it the style of the people that I've worked for. I think you have to trust and respect what people are good at, learn what they’re good at, come together, and have trust in the process. I’m the first one to admit that I will never know everything, but I trust the people that I work with that are more specialized to do the job, but I will be involved in the discussion about where we need to go.
You were recently promoted to the position of Executive Director sharing the duties with Sarah Abruzzi set to start this fall. Can you tell me more about how those duties will be split? How will the decision to have co-Executive Directors impact the museum? Is this a long-term plan for the museum?
It’s definitely a long-term approach. Sarah and I were interviewed together by the board of trustees and it was very much “this is our path moving forward” conversation. Sarah’s responsibilities will be advancement and operations and mine will be collections, programming, and visitor services. We will work together on all of this too. I think the reason it will work for us is we have great mutual respect and work well together. This is years in the making. We’ve been Deputy Directors together for four years and in that role, we worked closely with our executive director Neil Watson. So when people ask “how will this work?”, well it has been working. It’s something that has been successful over these last few years, especially the last couple of years as museums reimagine their futures.
In the complicated world of running museums, an approach where you have shared responsibility in leadership can be a great model for an institution.
We feel really confident that it will work at the Long Island Museum and that this structure will expand our footprint and allow us to build community partnerships and meet our constituents. We’re also going to be learning and know that learning will be a part of the process.
Would your 18-year-old self imagine that you would be where you are today?
I thought I was going to be a sports broadcaster. Growing up, I was consumed by sports and I thought that’s what I was going to do. I went to Syracuse University for Broadcast journalism and it was only while there as a student that I started taking history classes and adding a history major. For me going into museum work was nonlinear. I had formative experiences growing up and those experiences brought me to museums. Then once I was almost done with graduate school at Stony Brook, I started working with the Long Island Museum as a curatorial assistant. I remember thinking that it was only going to be a couple of years and then I was going to go back into grad school and be a professor of history, but they got their hooks in me, I decided to stay with it, and it became my career.
Can you tell us about where you grew up?
I grew up in Upstate New York. Both of my parents went to Cornell University so I grew up in Ithaca and then after they split up, I went to live with my mom in Johnson City. We definitely visited a lot of museums when I was a kid growing up. I remember many trips to the Johnson Museum of Art at Cornell and just being in awe of their African Art Collection and some of their Hudson River School paintings where you could kind of see yourself in this vast wilderness. My parents had a 10-acre farm and we were outside constantly.
After I graduated from college, I volunteered at the Roberson Museum in Binghamton, and it was the first time I ever worked in a museum. I helped catalog their glass plate photograph collection. The privilege of being able to handle that collection that you normally would just see on display, I’m still addicted to that kind of stuff, all these years later. You get to know these things as intimately as you would people and that’s a real privilege.
What are some of your favorite moments while on the job? Is there an achievement that you are most proud of?
I would have to say the fact that over the course of COVID our staff all stayed with us. We had one educator leave for a new job and other than that, we entirely stayed together. I don’t say that’s my achievement but something that we all achieved together.
Favorite moments include when an exhibition goes up or when the last label is written.I love it because of the long process to get to those moments. I’ve done a lot of exhibitions throughout my career and it’s always been exciting.
I would say the last thing I’m proud of is that we recently completed our Land Acknowledgment with the Setalcott Nation. It was a very eye-opening process and I’m proud that it’s a start of a long-term relationship that is going to help the community and give them an understanding of our heritage and history of this land.
Blue sky question, what would you want to do at the museum, no limits? What’s a project you would love to do?
I keep thinking that there are a lot of museums partnering with contemporary artists who are using a museum’s collection as inspiration to create a new perspective. I would love to hire a contemporary artist or artists to use our William Sidney Mount painting collection that has some heavy things to say about race and class in America’s 19th century and here we are in the 21st century looking at many of the same issues but through a different lens and with a different understanding of it.
We also have a carriage collection at the museum and with our current conversation about the future of electric transportation, i think that maybe having a contemporary artist do a take on the horseless electric carriage of the future might be a fun interesting throughline connection that goes back to the beginning of it, a connection from past to present.