Aaron Levi Garvey lives by the words of his great-grandmother: “Be better to the world.”
Garvey’s great-grandmother Sylvia Zuckerberg Marx, her brother Max and her sister Pearl, were raised in the Hebrew Orphan Asylum of New York in Harlem because their parents could not take care of them.
After leaving the orphanage, Sylvia went back to take care of her family.
“So, this woman telling me to be better to the world, to be a good steward and to be better to the world than it is to us, that’s where it all started,” Garvey said.
Since July, Garvey has served as the chief curator at the Andy Warhol Museum. Before moving to Pittsburgh, he was the Janet L. Nolan director of curatorial affairs at the Jule Collins Smith Museum of Fine Art at the Auburn University in Auburn, Alabama, and was the chief curator and vice chair of programs at The Hudson Eye/Jonah Bokaer Arts Foundation in New York City.
He is the co-founder and board adviser of the Long Road Projects Foundation, Inc. — an artist residency program and edition publishing house — in Jacksonville, Florida and Erie, Pennsylvania.
The Steel City transplant said art, family and baseball as the three central interests in his life.
Before moving to Florida while in high school, Garvey lived in New York with his great-grandparents and grandparents in what he called “a super tightknit household.”
His interest in baseball was nurtured by his grandfather, Sol, who lived a few blocks from Yankee Stadium, as well as his great-grandmother, who played ball in the orphanage. While his grandfather didn’t have a great love of the game, he saw it as an American tradition, and, as an immigrant, viewed it as a way to assimilate.
It was through baseball that Garvey first got interested in art and museums, taking trips to the National Baseball Hall of Fame and Museum. From there, he began branching out, taking trips to places like the Thomas Cole National Historic Site, the Metropolitan Museum of Art, Brooklyn Museum, The Cloisters and the New York Historical Society Museum and Library.
“It started out as trips to keep me occupied but then it took off from there,” he said. “I started dragging them (his family) to museums. I always had a plethora of art supplies — sketchbooks, painting supplies — and would sit at the kitchen table with my bubbie and we would draw.”
Like baseball — which he loved, but didn’t think offered career prospects — Garvey realized he was better suited to art history than the creation of art.
“I knew I wasn’t going to be an artist; art history was truly where my mind was,” he said. “I thought like an artist but tied in the historical component.”
Combining his interests with his heritage and love of family, he labels himself a “Jewish-American curator.” His work focuses “on the cross section of contemporary art culture and community building by creating accessible public programs and exhibitions within institutions and alternative spaces,” according to the Warhol Museum’s website.
“I was at synagogue with my grandparents constantly,” Garvey said. “I was in Hebrew school three days a week leading up to my bar mitzvah. I’m genetically Jewish but am also thoughtfully, traditionally a Jew. I take pride in it.”
Using the words of his great-grandmother as a mission statement, Garvey practices the Jewish tradition of tikkun olam, or making the world a better place, both in his personal and professional life.
He and his wife, Stevie, have offered space for both of his wife’s sisters to live with them and their daughter, while they began their careers.
“My bubbie was always telling me, if you have more than you need, help others,” he said. “So, I have a habit of doing that.”
Professionally, he hopes to support younger artists.
While in Auburn, he helped create an endowment to acquire the work of living Jewish artists, he said, noting that they probably needed the money and recognition more than dead Jewish artists.
He’s also helping artists who he sees as following the heritage of artists like Marcel Duchamp and Andy Warhol.
Awol Erizku is an Ethiopian artist who Garvey has known for the last decade. The two are collaborating on an exhibition that will open in March 2025 at the Warhol.
Garvey said bringing attention to lesser-known artists is part of the museum’s mission in addition to preserving the legacy of Andy Warhol — who encouraged new artists at his studio, The Factory, in New York City.
He plans to start a residency program in Pittsburgh for regional, national and international artists and then exhibit their work at the museum.
Garvey, who lives in the South Hills, said that he’s sampled different museums and cultural events each week since his move to Pittsburgh, including the opening of the Violins of Hope exhibit.
“We’ve been doing everything possible,” he said. “The type of person I am, when I’m in a place, I’m invested in that place. We want to get to know as many artists as possible.”
Given his interests, that will certainly include more than a few Pirate games. PJC
David Rullo can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.