In Memoriam: Thomas Sokolowski

May 11, 2020

By Michèle Wong

Michèle Wong and Tom Sokolowski in 1991, at a reception given to NYU employees celebrating their 10 year work anniversaries (thus, the corsage on Michèle’s lapel). Polaroid photograph courtesy Michèle Wong

It is with a deep sense of sorrow that I write about the passing of Thomas Sokolowski, who served as director of NYU’s Grey Art Gallery from 1984 to 1996. During his tenure, Tom organized many groundbreaking exhibitions and was a co-founder of Visual AIDS—but what I treasure most are my personal memories of working with him.

Tom loved music. During his very first week at the Grey, he asked for a cassette player, but all we had was a boombox left over from a previous exhibition. He soon began serenading us daily with operas, blaring them loudly from his enormous collection of tapes. Now and then, Tom himself would break into an aria, treating us to his beautiful baritone voice. Tom was fluent in Italian, and he told me that as a student in Rome, he had performed as an amateur opera singer. When Tom started at the Grey, I knew very little about opera—but he was a marvelous storyteller and soon cued me in, captivating me with plotlines embellished with his salty language.

Although he denied it, Tom had a near-photographic memory. He almost never kept any written records. Around the time he first started at the Grey, we hosted a memorial service for John Bernard Myers, curator of the Grey’s exhibition Tracking the Marvelous (1981) and a partner at Tibor de Nagy Gallery. Although Tom had never met Johnny, as the Grey’s director he was asked to make a few remarks. Just before the service, I handed him the press release and the exhibition’s catalogue. Tom glanced at these quickly, then stepped up to the podium and gave—without notes—a lengthy, eloquent eulogy detailing Johnny’s career, leaving the impression that they had been close friends. Tom loved picking up the phone and remembered phone conversations and messages verbatim. He also got a big kick out of sitting at the Grey’s front desk and talking with our visitors.

After Tom left the Grey in 1996 and we no longer worked together every day, he called every year to wish me and my family a happy Chinese New Year. His voicemails were always full of humor and warm best wishes. In all that time, he never missed a year; I last heard from him in January.

Underneath his boisterous manner and wicked sense of humor, Tom had a heart of gold. He was generous, sensitive, and caring—and those are the parts of him that I will miss the most.

Donations in his memory can be made to the Tom Sokolowski Internship Fund at the Grey Art Gallery, NYU.

Michèle Wong is Associate Director | Head of Collections and Exhibitions at Grey Art Gallery, New York University. Wong has been at the Grey since 1980, when she was hired as a preparator and assistant to the director. She graduated with a BS in Studio Art and Art Education from NYU Steinhardt.