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Arts Executive to Lead Pioneer Works

Mara Manus, a former executive director for the New York State Council on the Arts, will become the chief executive officer at Pioneer Works, the nonprofit cultural center in Brooklyn, its board of directors announced on Tuesday.

Manus, who will start in October, replaces the executive director Maxine Dalio, who left at the end of last year, and the interim chief Jill Eisenhard. She will work closely with the artist Dustin Yellin, the founder of Pioneer Works; Gabriel Florenz, its founding artistic director; and the astrophysicist Dr. Janna Levin, the chief science officer.

The appointment marks a pivotal moment for Pioneer Works, which is housed in a former iron works factory in the Red Hook section of Brooklyn. Since it opened its doors in 2012, it has offered space for the creative-minded to convene, and aimed to foster innovation in the performing and visual arts, music and science, with far-flung, experimental and often free public programming.

Lately its ambition has grown; in a major capital project, it now plans to open a publicly accessible roof deck observatory — a rarity in New York City.

Finding someone who understood Pioneer Works’ unique multidisciplinary mission and had the vision to expand on it was “a very tough job description,” Austin Hearst, the chair of the board, said in an interview. As they began the search for a new leader, “Pioneer Works was really at an inflection point,” he said, “in terms of its operating budget, in terms of its reach and its capacity.”

Pioneer Works’s annual operating budget for 2023 was $9.5 million, a spokeswoman said.

In Manus, who started her career in the 1980s in film development before moving to the nonprofit sector (she previously led the Public Theater and was an economic development officer at the Ford Foundation), Hearst said he found someone with a similar appetite for scaling up, sustainably. The New York State Council on the Arts, the largest of the state arts agencies, which she led for seven years, has over $100 million in funding and supports 3,000 organizations and artists.

“As we look to accomplish some of our most ambitious endeavors in Pioneer Works’s history, her knowledge will be critical,” Hearst added in a statement.

In a video interview, Manus said that what called to her “so strongly” about the job “is the opportunity to work in a place where arts and sciences are equally valued as vital parts of our culture.” She and Yellin had been talking — “circling each other,” she said — since 2016, and she recalled a favorite event, a 2017 talk about gravitational waves, when Dr. Levin, the astrophysicist, interviewed the M.I.T. professor Rainer Weiss, who had just won the Nobel Prize in Physics.

Manus’s role now, she said, would be to strengthen Pioneer Work’s infrastructure — “both physical and organizational.” (Air conditioning and an elevator will be added as part of the redesign for the observatory. The building will close early next year as renovations begin.) Manus will also work with Becca Keating, the newly-appointed director of advancement.

For Florenz, the artistic director, who has been with the organization from the start — long before it had any traditional leadership structure — Manus’s appointment offers a welcome sense of stability. It will give Pioneer Works, he said, the runway to explore its role as an institution.

I’ve always really thought, how do you make a structure that’s the most orderly possible, so the most disorder can happen within it?” Florenz said. “The most creative chaos and energy — that beautiful kind of freedom.” With confidence in their new chief executive, he said, “we can fly now.”

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