NEW BRUNSWICK, NJ - Thomas Sokolowski, the director of Rutgers’ Zimmerli Art Museum who spearheaded its exhibitions, scholarship and community outreach endeavors since taking the helm in 2017, has died.

He was 70.

He died following a seizure that had caused extensive brain damage, according to a report cited by

Sign Up for New Brunswick Newsletter
Our newsletter delivers the local news that you can trust.

The Rutgers community was informed of Sokolowski’s death Thursday by Rutgers-New Brunswick Chancellor Christopher Molloy, who called him “a dynamic thinker whose intellect and knowledge of art history inspired the Zimmerli board and the associated community.

“Tom’s enthusiastic personality, sense of humor and—above all else—passion for the arts quickly became the essence of the museum,” according to Molloy’s announcement.

Under Sokolowski’s leadership, the museum acquired many significant works of art, including, most recently, the collection of the former Jersey City Museum that features contemporary and historic art that represents the importance of immigrant communities in the cultural life of New Jersey. An exhibition featuring highlights from this new acquisition is scheduled to open in January 2021.

Sokolowski held a variety of high-ranking positions at museums across the country, and often used his position to foster AIDS activism. He was a founding member of Visual AIDS in 1988  and helped stage a protest called “Day Without Art.” Several art spaces, including the Metropolitan Museum of Art, shut their doors and altered their exhibitions to draw attention to the AIDS epidemic.

According to a report at, he described the Day Without Art’s purpose to the Daily Targum in 2018.

“The premise was if this disease goes unabated, there would at one point be no artists to hang art on the walls, no museum professionals, no critics, no art handlers and no visitors,” he said. “So, it would be a day without art.”

During his career, Sokolowski worked as a curator at the Chrysler Museum of Art in Norfolk, Virginia, director of New York University’s Grey Art Gallery and director of the Andy Warhol Museum in Pittsburgh.

At the Zimmerli Museum, Study All Night became an annual signature event that welcomed students to interact and jointly experience the treasures of the Zimmerli. Similarly, he ensured that the museum remained an accessible venue that supported community engagement events and served as a beacon for ethnic and cultural programs hosted at Rutgers-New Brunswick.