These days, Susan Chin is moving at breakneck speed. “I can barely fit this in,” she lamented when The Observer rang her in early October, just days before she took her post as the executive director at the Design Trust for Public Space, a forward-thinking nonprofit that links private development projects with community needs.
The “this” she is referring to wasn’t even an interview; it was the call to try to organize a time for the interview.
As assistant commissioner for capital projects in the New York City Department of Cultural Affairs—a position she held for the past 23 years—Ms. Chin worked to guide $2 billion to over 200 cultural institutions across the city. At City Hall, she helped shape the city’s urban landscape for years to come, ushering in projects like the New Museum on the Bowery, Lincoln Center’s Alice Tully Hall and the Museum of the Moving Image in Queens.
Few other individuals in New York have worked so tirelessly to get big, ambitious building projects off the ground, cementing the city’s role as an international cultural capital. Ms. Chin helps make New York look like New York and anticipates how it will look 50 or 100 years from now.
Projects she has supported have earned high praise. The New York Times called the New Museum “a magically unsentimental intrusion, an an-tidote to the generic luxury springing up around it.” It’s a tagline that could well be her mission statement.
On the cusp of her migration to the Design Trust, a sort of think tank for the optimum uses of public space, Ms. Chin was upbeat. Founded in 1995, the Trust has been key in transformative projects like the High Line and collaborates with interests as disparate as the fashion industry and the Taxi and Limousine Commission, doing its utmost to keep the city vibrant and make living here a better prospect. “Here we go. I’m ready for a new adventure,” Ms. Chin said briskly.
In spite of the grim economic news of late, Ms. Chin expresses optimism for the city of the future. “It’s about helping people [to] plan, to choose great designers, to build really exceptional museums, theaters, botanical gardens,” she says. “When you have an economy where things are not so robust, it’s a great time to plan,” she adds. “As long as we are strategic, and have a vision about the future, that’s really when the economy can recover. [It’s] constantly thinking: how do you make small moves that will put people to work?”
Her associates in the world of architecture agree. Rick Bell, the American Institute of Architects’ executive director for New York, believes vi-sionary designers are eager to work “more in this city than anywhere in the world…What is needed is to get projects moving, and [to] bolster the atmosphere that encourages new construction and innovation.” Ms. Chin, he says, brings “creativity, exuberance and persistence to the tasks at hand, including others in collaborative decision-making but taking responsibility for bringing new ideas, new initiatives and new spaces to light.”
At the core of Ms. Chin’s goals in her new position is to educate. When people are educated on the benefits of quality design and progressive uses of public space, she believes, then the other aspects of her job will fall into place. “The discussion in the design and urban architecture community is how do we imbed this kind of thinking about the public realm,” she says. Her success at the Design Trust will hinge on “educat-ing the public to demand quality design and also teaching … elected officials about what makes our city attractive to live in.”
One of her chief goals is to make design and architecture more transparent and she sees her involvement in the A.I.A., where she serves as the chair of the organization’s Gold Medal Award advisory committee, as a means to this end. “It is about communication. Sharing what architects do. I think it’s a similar issue for the Design Trust,” she says: “Amplifying their message and explaining to folks what they are engaged in.”
Rochelle Slovin, a founder of the Museum of the Moving Image, is one of many former partners who are eager to praise Ms. Chin’s capabilities. “She is extremely, excellently well matched to the objectives of the organization she is joining,” Ms. Slovin says. “Her expertise and the mission of the Design Trust really do seem very well matched.”
Her inside track at City Hall won’t hurt. “Her design sensibility and profound understanding of cultural infrastructure development has helped to enhance the role of the arts in neighborhoods across the city,” says Kate Levin, a commissioner at the Department of Cultural Affairs.
During Ms. Chin’s tenure at City Hall, the city has stood at an interesting crossroads. “9/11 raised the public’s interest in participating in design and architecture; it really did increase public engagement,” she says. The Bloomberg administration has also helped, she adds. “Mayor Bloomberg believing in investment in the public realm has also been a really golden moment for our city. He has empowered his commissioners to choose the best architects and landscape architects,” she says, becoming more animated. “[Major] architects have now wanted to work for the city and public sector, when they never before wanted to do those type of commissions.”
At the Design Trust, Ms. Chin will oversee some quirkier projects. Among other initiatives, the group is looking at agricultural activity across the city and addressing issues of sustainability. “I think green design is an essential component to modern living. I’d love to see green design becoming universally part of the design process, that we don’t have to think about it as this separate thing,” she says.
She is especially excited by the Design Trust’s “Taxi of Tomorrow” project—a move to transform the city’s taxi fleet with custom-built, fuel-efficient vehicles. “I’m really interested in extending that effort into larger transportation issues, and I see lots of potential [there].”
Seeing potential for dramatic transformations in even the most quotidien aspects of the city’s landscape is Ms. Chin’s forté. But she deflects praise on the subject of her unique skill set, saying “It’s [really] the cultural organizations that have always led the way.” Ultimately though, Susan Chin is an adept facilitator. She makes things happen, and she knows how to get ambitious projects off the ground. Her thinking? In New York, culture must always be king.