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MANY Board Interview: Sophie Lo, Deputy Director, Museum at Eldridge Street

March 07, 2024 11:43 AM | Megan Eves (Administrator)

Sophie Lo at The Museum at Eldridge Street

Sophie Lo has more than a decade of experience working at the intersection of arts and culture and education. She is currently the Deputy Director at the Museum at Eldridge Street, directing museum operations and strategic initiatives. Her prior experiences include overseeing public programs and events at The Institute of Fine Arts at NYU and managing public programs and communications at the Museum of Chinese in America (MOCA). She has freelanced for the Smithsonian’s National Museum of the American Indian (NMAI), consulted on diversity initiatives for young adult novels and children’s education materials at Scholastic Inc. Sophie was an Art Commissioner for Queens Council on the Arts from 2021-2022 and selected for New York Foundation for the Arts Incubator for Executive Leaders of Color Program, an initiative aimed to foster equity and diversity in the arts industry. She earned her B.A. in Culture and Media Studies from The New School, her M.S. in Human Capital Management and Organizational Effectiveness from NYU, and received a certificate for Managing Diversity and Inclusion in the workplace from Cornell University.

Lo joined the Museum Association of New York Board in January 2024. We spoke with her to learn more about her museum career journey.

Museum Association of New York: Where did you begin your museum career? Can you share your career journey to your current position as the Deputy Director at the Museum at Eldridge Street?

Sophie Lo: I  begin my career story at my immigrant parents’ modest small businesses–my father’s Chinese American restaurant, my mother’s paper goods store. I owe so much to those early experiences wrapping crab rangoons and tabling art fairs. That’s where I learned to communicate with customers, negotiate with suppliers, solve problems economically, and just plain work hard. 

Fast forward a couple dozen years, I have the pleasure and privilege of serving as the Deputy Director of the Museum at Eldridge Street, which is actually where my museum career began in college, as an intern. Back then, I didn’t know working in museums was a viable career option! I remember I was at a career fair and saw an opening at a museum housed in a historic synagogue. I actually spent my childhood going to the Jewish Community Center after school, and as a kid, was very close to our landlady and her family who are Jewish, and therefore had spent a lot of my youth celebrating Jewish holidays and traditions, despite not being Jewish. My mother is an artist, so I was exposed to museums and the arts from a young age. Finding myself drawn to the Museum at Eldridge Street felt really natural. The biggest shock however, was showing up for my interview and realizing I was in the middle of present day Chinatown. I didn’t know this neighborhood one hundred years ago was once home to millions of Jewish immigrants, or that it was once the most densely populated Jewish community in the world. Though my parents were born in Taiwan, I was born and raised in the United States and always lived in areas without a strong Asian community, so there was also a desire for me to find a way back to my roots. This is what made Eldridge seem like such a beautiful fit, even back then–it felt like home. I interned there for two years before I pursued other opportunities at other museums, higher-ed, and even a film company and start-up. I came back to Eldridge at the tail-end of 2020.

It’s nice to have that full circle moment where the place you began and had such a big impact on your museum and non-profit career to return as Deputy Director. 

Lo: Right, and I didn’t see it coming because when I was just starting out, I don’t think I really knew what working at a museum could mean. Yes, museums can be about paintings and sculptures, but it can also be about preserving cultural heritage and amplifying people’s stories.  There’s been such a reckoning in the museum world, particularly in the last ten years and it makes sense for many museum professionals to question what it means to be a museum or cultural worker and what kind of impact we want to make through our work.

What are some of the things that motivate you in your current role as Deputy Director at the Museum at Eldridge Street?

Lo: It’s the people. My team motivates me. I work with an incredible, dedicated, and grounded group of people whom I love learning from and learning with. I think so much of working within our museum spaces is working with people who feel passionately about what they do and especially the content. It brings great energy to our day-to-day work. I don't think I could do the work that I do without their excitement and commitment about wanting to create great content and make an impact. I think that this all translates into a positive visitor experience. It translates through everything else.

The Museum at Eldridge Street has undergone a massive restoration/ preservation transformation and recently was awarded more than $280K from the New York Landmarks Conservancy. What is happening next and what are some of your goals for the museum?

Lo: I see us in a really exciting place right now. We’re on an upward trajectory with some pretty exciting projects in the works that we will announce soon.

What’s been so rewarding is that in the past two years, we’ve had visitors from all 50 states and over 90 countries. We are breaking our attendance records and seeing engagement unlike ever before. We want to continue to welcome everyone and connect with people of all backgrounds through the story of immigration and community, within the lens of our incredible architecture. 

Would your 18-year-old self imagine that you would be where you are today?

Lo: Not at all! I wasn’t one of those people who knew exactly what I wanted to be “when I grew up.” Even though that caused a lot of angst, and in some ways still does, I’m grateful I jumped into life with open arms and an open mind. 

Can you tell us about where you grew up? What was it like growing up there?

Lo: People are often surprised to learn that I was born in Nebraska! I also lived Los Angeles for a brief time, but I consider Providence, Rhode Island to be my “home town.”  It’s where I grew up before moving to New York City when I was eighteen. Providence is a beautiful little city and I think I’m lucky to have grown up surrounded by a vibrant and artsy community. It probably helped that my mother went to art school and sometimes brought me to class or the studio with her so I was literally surrounded by artists all the time! 

Can you describe a favorite day on the job?

Lo:  Any day when I need to spend time in our historic sanctuary. Even though I’ve had a relationship with this institution for so many years, when I stand in the middle of the sanctuary with light spilling in from the stained glass windows, I still get goosebumps and I still feel emotional. The building has so much history and represents so much hope and resilience. 

Do you have any mentors?

Lo: Growing up as an Asian American woman working within the arts and culture sector, it’s well known that it has not historically been a diverse field. When I was a young professional, there weren’t many examples of successful women of color in leadership positions. That being said, I am so lucky to have had the opportunity to have several mentors in my life who were able to teach me about what it means to be a professional in general but also within a homogenous field. They gave me a chance when they hired me and then taught me how to create that culture of inclusion and how to in turn give opportunities to other young professionals starting in the museum world. Another mentor is my mother. She is an immigrant who’s worked hard raising me as a single mom and has gone on to have a flourishing career of her own. She will often say to me that she wishes she had a mentor which makes me all the more appreciative of her and the mentors that I’ve had. 

The Museum Association of New York helps shape a better future for museums and museum professionals by uplifting best practices and building organizational capacity through advocacy, training, and networking opportunities.

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