Harold Holzer on the 16th PotusHarold Holzer calls himself an “opportunist,” but this is true only in the most positive sense—he embraces all promising opportunities that cross his path. “If a project comes along that sounds exciting, it doesn’t matter how impossible it is,” he says. “I try to dive into it.” The opportunities have come fast and furious for him, leading to a career-balancing act few others could manage.
As senior vice president for external affairs at the Metropolitan Museum of Art, Holzer “transforms curatorial visions into direct appeals to the press and public” alongside the 150 people he leads in handling “public relations, communications, marketing, advertising, multicultural audience development and outreach, internal communications, government relations and visitor services.” Weekends, vacations and the stray free evening feed Holzer’s insatiable curiosity—first sparked by a fifth-grade project—about all things Lincoln. The result is 43 books—many award-winning—he’s either penned himself, co-authored or edited on the 16th president of the United States. This includes his latest, Lincoln: How Abraham Lincoln Ended Slavery in America, commissioned by Steven Spielberg as the companion young adult book to his new film, Lincoln.
Holzer’s understanding of his real-life “protagonist” and the society of his times is profound, and driving his writings is a mission to illustrate lessons found in the horrors and achievements of a part of our history that mirrors keenly the issues of our own contemporary culture. Somehow Holzer also speaks and appears on television frequently; he even performed a nationwide tour with actor Sam Waterston of their theatrical piece. And he also squeezes in family life with his wife, two grown daughters and grandkids.
“It’s the best of both worlds,” Holzer says of his work with the Met and the president, and he is careful not to let one seep into the other. The few intersections include a portrait of Lincoln painted from life in Springfield, Ill., in June, 1860, that the Met hung in Holzer’s office, and visiting celebrities such as Tony Bennett, who count Holzer as yet another of the museum’s countless treasures. “They come to the Met because of its standing in the world,” he says modestly. “I happen to be standing at the door.” That’s sometimes literally true. During the Met’s landmark Alexander McQueen exhibit, notorious for up to four-hour waits to get in, Holzer stayed until 2 a.m. during the final weekend, scouting the lines of people winding throughout the museum to cull out seniors and others he felt should be escorted inside.
The Lincoln-related opportunities have snowballed over the years, but Holzer, who started out as a journalist and then flacked for Bella Abzug, never considered scaling back his Met position, one he describes as a “combination graduate school, museum, fishbowl of society, diplomatic center—it’s extraordinary, everything I ever imagined it would be and much more.” That is, until he was recently appointed the first Roger Hertog Fellow at the New York Historical Society. He assumes residency in January and, along with lecturing there, will continue working on his next book, one that explores the relationship between Lincoln and the press. “I will continue to represent the Met as my top priority,” he says, “but I will be letting go of day-to-day branding, marketing and promoting of exhibitions and programs after 20 years in order to focus on strategic press issues and government relations, which I enjoy very much. We have wonderful relations with the city, state and federal governments, including leaders—many of whom I’ve known for years.” This includes former governor Mario Cuomo, with whom he co-authored 1990’s Lincoln on Democracy (which sports a Tony Bennett watercolor of Lincoln gifted to Holzer by the artist/singer on its front cover). “I’ll continue making the argument during these last weeks of fiscal-cliff negotiations that the uniquely American idea of giving charitable donors tax deductions for contributions to health, cultural, scientific and religious institutions and universities is crucial for a society that doesn’t provide government funding for these things,” Holzer goes on to say. “That’s an advocacy we want very much to make, not only on our own behalf but for, say, Bellevue, which needs charitable contributions to rebuild. There’s no Bellevue Hospital in New York for the first time in 200 years!”
Harold Holzer will appear with playwright/screenwriter Tony Kushner on Jan. 29 at the New York Historical Society (170 Central Park West) for a discussion following a 7 p.m. screening of the movie Lincoln. Check www.nyhistory.org or call 212-485-9268 for more information.