ever.” That word comes instantly to the mind of Susan Robinson ’73 when asked if she ever thought she’d spend a significant portion of her life on Staten Island. Not an altogether surprising response, since the most remote and least glamorous of New York’s five boroughs is commonly seen as the home of the working-girl Tess McGills of the city, not of an arts-minded Skidmore-Columbia-Harvard graduate.
However, as Robinson says, “Life has its many twists and turns.” Since 1988 she has not only lived on Staten Island but become a cultural leader, a driving force in the rebirth of a college, and a big local booster. (While she grew up in West Islip and taught in Manhattan for four years, Robinson confesses she was “one of those New Yorkers who never saw any reason to come to Staten Island. I led my classes on ferry rides there, but we never got off the boat.”)
On November 1, 1999, Robinson was appointed president and chief executive officer of Snug Harbor Cultural Center. The 830-acre waterfront facility with an annual budget of $2.7 million is home to twenty-eight arts and cultural organizations, including the Botanical Garden, Children’s Museum, New York Chinese Scholar’s Garden, Staten Island Institute for Arts and Sciences, and several performance halls.
“This is like a dream come true,” she says. “I never intended to be an arts administrator, but this pulls together a lot of my experiences and certainly my loves.” Indeed her experiences majoring in psychology at Skidmore, earning master’s and doctoral degrees in education, and serving as a college administrator, and also her love for piano, clarinet, classical ballet, and modern dance all come into play in her current job.
For nearly 175 years, Snug Harbor was Sailor’s Snug Harbor, a retirement billet for aged mariners. But the decline of the merchant marine and maritime industries in the second half of the twentieth century meant that fewer sailors needed the cozy haven. In the 1970s, when the property was empty and on the verge of being razed, the City of New York stepped in and bought the property for a cultural center.
That did not happen in a New York minute.
Abandoned buildings deteriorate quickly, “and the damage was just incredible,” Robinson reports. It’s taken twenty-five years, but most of the buildings are now restored. “We have brought this place back to life, but there’s still a lot to do. It’s daunting at times, but mostly it’s inspirational when you think of how you could make this more exciting and offer more of the arts. Now we are systematically putting in the cultural programming to make this the epicenter for activity on Staten Island.”
The programming is certainly diverse. Large gallery spaces feature 130 paintings of the human figure over the course of fifty years. The Harmony Street Fair celebrates multiculturalism. Summer concerts on South Meadow include the Tommy Dorsey Orchestra and country star Willie Nelson.
Overseer of the physical plant and the cultural life, Robinson is a fundraiser too. Considerable monies come from the city and the state, but she must also reach out to local and national organizations and foundations, which she says have been “fantastic” in their support.
“It’s remarkable how much Snug Harbor is like a college,” she observes: a campus, buildings, finances, programs, staff, varied constituencies. Given her recent record at Staten Island’s own Wagner College, Robinson should shine at Snug Harbor. “She is the most brilliant and able academic administrator I have ever worked with,” says Mordechai Rozanski, former Wagner College provost and now president of the University of Guelph. “Had she not also been the president’s wife, she would have been my certain successor.”
Of course if Robinson had not been married to Norman Smith, neither the college nor the community would have benefited from her skills. When Smith became president, Wagner was a local college that had spent “years of wallowing in the backwaters of academe,” according to a feature in the Staten Island Advance. “Neglected” is the way she and Smith found Wagner in 1988, Robinson says. Since she had served as dean of admissions at Philadelphia’s Moore College of Art and Design for four years, her husband asked, “Do you mind just helping out in Wagner admissions for a few months until we get things rolling?”
A few months? How about eleven years? When she left for Snug Harbor, Robinson was serving as Wagner’s associate provost for admissions, academic advising, career development, institutional research, and publications. Her efforts brought upgraded admissions standards and new recruiting and marketing strategies; she was also instrumental in the formulation of an innovative curriculum. Some of the results: two consecutive years of “top tier” ranking among regional colleges and universities by U. S. News & World Report, residence halls filled to capacity with students from more than thirty-five states and fifteen countries, and a curriculum emphasizing experiential learning hailed by the Association of American Colleges and Universities as “one of the most interesting and promising new designs abroad in the land.”
“I like to think my contributions helped to make Wagner this new institution,” Robinson says with modest pride.
Dramatic change became part of Robinson’s life soon after she arrived at Skidmore as a freshman. She discovered “a texture in learning, thinking in cross-disciplinary terms, developing ideas, theses, arguments,” and she found the whole learning experience “transformational.” She says “many professors who wouldn’t let you off the hook” contributed to her growth, and professor of history Tadahisa Kuroda “taught me more about writing and thinking than any single person I know.”
While nurturing Wagner’s transformation, Robinson found time to serve in a variety of local leadership positions and discovered that “parts of Staten Island are more beautiful than New England.” In fact, she was pleasantly surprised to learn the island’s newspaper had made her one of its own: in announcing her appointment, the Advance (so parochial it prints the obituaries of people born on the island in boldface type) called her a native Staten Islander. “I felt this was the highest form of flattery, my highest moment, in being accepted,” she says.
Freelance writer Bob Smith graduated from Wagner College and really is a native Staten Islander.