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BIG HAMILTON SHOW FAILS TO DRAW CROWDS
BY GLENN COLLINS

November 22, 2004 - The New York Times

$5 million "Alexander Hamilton" exhibition that the New-York Historical Society presented as a blockbuster - and that some historians derided as unbalanced history revealing a new, conservative bent at the institution - has drawn much smaller crowds than expected.

And though the society's new benefactors have conditioned their long-term support on the institution's adopting more ambitious goals and a more national focus, eight of its 10 current and planned shows have New York themes.

One such exhibition opens tomorrow, with a focus on a rare 1771 horse-drawn coach that could have transported Cinderella to the ball, had she lived on the East Side of Manhattan.

Significantly, the decidedly nonblockbuster show, "Arriving in Style: Treasures of 18th-Century New York," is an ornament of the society's 200th anniversary celebration, which begins tonight with a fund-raising gala.

"Bringing the carriage back with a lot of fanfare will be an appropriate symbol," said Dr. Louise Mirrer, the historical society's president. In 1990, during its fiscal nadir, the society sent the carriage to the Long Island Museum of American Art, History and Carriages in Stony Brook, where it was on display until a few months ago.

With tables costing $50,000, $25,000 and $10,000, the gala celebration honoring Robert E. Rubin, the treasury secretary under Bill Clinton, has taken in more than $1 million, an amount unimaginable in the grim days when the institution was near bankruptcy, before it was rescued by city, state and private intervention.

"The success of the gala shows that we are broader-based, and that now some of our supporters have deeper pockets," said Richard Gilder, the influential new board member who set off a controversy among historians last summer by calling on the society to assume a national perspective and aim for blockbuster shows.

The documentary filmmaker Ric Burns, a recent recruit to the society's board, agreed with Mr. Gilder's assessment. "The New-York Historical Society is no longer on life support,'' he said. "That is the story here, that civic-minded people with money in their pocket are willing to support history."

Dr. Mirrer explained the coming roster of New York-oriented modest shows by saying, "We feel New York is a microcosm of America." She added, "We had in mind one or two blockbusters a year, but we always had the idea of doing smaller, focused shows."

Mr. Gilder joined the society's board last year along with Lewis E. Lehrman, who was the Republican candidate for governor of New York in 1982. They lent the institution their renowned collection of historical documents and created a $1 million vault in the basement of the society's building on Central Park West to house them, saying the collection was "the society's to lose."

In June, Mr. Gilder said he was determined to attract 250,000 people to the Hamilton exhibition during its six-month run, which will end Feb. 28. But despite an aggressive marketing campaign, by the end of October the show had brought in just 27,643 people, including nearly 7,000 from school groups.

Still, the historical society is projecting 100,000 visitors for the show and an attendance of 150,000 for the year, higher than its total in 2002, when attendance was swelled by popular shows about Sept. 11, 2001.

Missing his 250,000-person goal "disappoints me, but it takes time to get organized," Mr. Gilder said. "And we'll be doing better than we've ever done." Dr. Mirrer said the society had also added 785 new members since the opening of the Hamilton show.

The new exhibition "Arriving in Style" makes the sociological point that ostentation in the post-Revolutionary War era could be considered suspect and royalist, and indeed the coach's gilt trappings were painted over after the war. "This was the stretch limo of its day," said Margi Hofer, curator of the exhibition, referring to the eight-foot-tall, four-horse rococo coach, one of only three four-wheeled American vehicles in their original condition to survive from the 18th century.

The show, which Dr. Mirrer said was her idea, will include 50 artifacts, paintings and rare documents.

Among historians, meanwhile, debate persists about the Hamilton show, which some have faulted for exaggerating the impact of a founding father at the expense of a more complex social history involving diverse movements and less-privileged citizens.

Dr. Mike Wallace, a professor of history at John Jay College of Criminal Justice and a winner of the Pulitzer Prize for history in 1999, has posted "Business-Class Hero," a 36-page critique of the Hamilton show at the Web site of the Gotham Center for New York City History at the City University Graduate Center (www.gothamcenter.org/hamilton), where he is director.

Dr. Wallace has argued that the exhibition sidesteps the reactionary aspects of Hamilton's political vision - like his opposition to the Bill of Rights and support for the Sedition Act - and he rejects the claim in the show's title: "Alexander Hamilton: The Man Who Made Modern America.''

Meanwhile, critics of the historical society's new management have seized on its cancellation of an Oct. 30 conference, "From Tea Parties to Free-Speech Zones: Activism and American Culture." The society revoked its offer to use its space, saying that it needed the building's auditorium for several performances of a 30-minute play, "In Worlds Unknown," associated with the Hamilton show.

"Although it had been planned for half a year, it was abruptly canceled three weeks before the conference," said one of its organizers, Sarah E. Chinn, assistant professor of English at Hunter College. "Considering we had been planning this for so long and that we had a contract, I was surprised that they had not noticed this conflict earlier." The conference was hastily switched to Hunter College.

Dr. Mirrer said that "the content had nothing to do with it - there were live performances of the play that day." She added, "We do not want to stifle dissent."

But Jesse Lemisch, an emeritus professor of history at John Jay College and a chronicler of left-leaning culture, said, "Of course it's political." He has posted his own critique of the Hamilton show on a history list serve.

As for the abundance of forthcoming New York-related shows, Dr. Mirrer said that had always been her plan. Among the exhibitions she has approved is "The Rescue," which opened in September and chronicles the history of the Brooklyn-based fire company Rescue 2, which lost seven firefighters at the World Trade Center on Sept. 11, 2001. Earlier this month an exhibition of 100 prints from the society's collection, "Impressions of New York," opened.

Also opening tomorrow is "Tunnel Visions," celebrating the subway's 100th anniversary with a selection of the society's 1904-to-1908 classic subway-construction photographs. In December, in a small exhibition about presidential inaugurals, the society will present for the first time what its curators say is the original four-foot-wide, flaglike shield that fluttered above George Washington when he took the inaugural oath.

On Feb. 18, "Audubon's Aviary," a multimedia exhibition, will offer 40 original watercolors by John James Audubon as well as taxonomic specimens. Subsequent exhibitions will honor the centennial of Byrdcliffe, a crafts and arts colony in Woodstock, N.Y., and offer a semipermanent reconfiguration of the society's collection of Hudson River paintings.

"Thomas Paine: Patriot and Provocateur," a show that illuminates the pamphleteer's life with documents and prints, is to open in January. Paine, who had a farm near New Rochelle, N.Y., "was hardly a member of the establishment," Dr. Mirrer said, and the small show will not range into blockbuster terrain.

Ideas for blockbuster exhibitions include a possible Ulysses Grant show in 2007 and "First Ladies: Political Role and Public Image," a traveling exhibition scheduled to open March 15 that examines the changing roles of presidential wives. The society is seeking to finance its own satellite exhibitions on Eleanor Roosevelt and Jacqueline Kennedy Onassis because "we wanted to give the exhibition our stamp," Dr. Mirrer said.

Next fall, the society plans to present a $2.2 million, 8,000-square-foot show on slavery (2,000 feet larger than the Hamilton show). Mr. Gilder said that slavery in New York would be "one aspect of the show," which would also focus on "the international slave trade and how New York as a financial center fit into that."

Is the historical society now thinking big or small? "The focus hasn't changed," Mr. Gilder said. "It's nice to have a variety of subjects."

Copyright 2004 The New York Times Company

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