FOR A MUSEUM AND NEW YORK, RISKS ARE ALSO OPPORTUNITIES
BY ROBIN POGREBIN
June 30, 2004 Wednesday Late Edition - Final
With attention trained on a new museum of freedom at ground zero
and a fresh infusion of money and leadership at the New-York
Historical Society, historians say that the Museum of the City of
New York is at risk of becoming a footnote among cultural
institutions interpreting the city's heritage.
Over the last two years, the museum has lost the new home in the
Tweed Courthouse downtown that it had been promised by Mayor Rudolph
W. Giuliani; a proposed merger with the historical society has
fallen through; and the museum was rejected by the Lower Manhattan
Development Corporation for a place at ground zero, though it may
still play a role in programming there.
In addition, the museum is facing renovations at its
72-year-old home on Fifth Avenue above 103rd Street that are
expected to cost $40 million over the next six to eight years.
''This is a critical moment for the museum,'' said Mike Wallace,
the Pulitzer Prize-winning historian, adding, ''The museum needs
Like other historians, he had hoped a merger with the historical
society would strengthen both institutions by combining their
complementary collections. Now, he said, New York needs ''to make
sure we are not the only world-class city that does not have an
institution that provides an overview of'' its history ' 'for
tourists, citizens and students.''
While acknowledging these challenges, Susan Henshaw Jones, who
became director of the museum last year, said it was ''poised for
steady, incremental growth.'' And she says that the decision by the
historical society to broaden its focus creates an opportunity.
''We're focused on the five boroughs,'' Ms. Jones said. ''That
means our organizations can be highly complementary, and that is
what we intend our institutions to be.''
Already, she said, things are looking up. Attendance is expected
to nearly double in the year that ended today, to 150,000 from
82,355. Ms. Jones, who was formerly president of the National
Building Museum in Washington, said her goal was to increase that
number to 500,000 in the next five years. Wealthy new trustees have
been added to the board. The museum will be open one more day a
week, Tuesdays through Sundays, starting Aug. 3.
Nevertheless, the museum's board does not yet appear to have a
member comparable to Richard Gilder, a financier who has become a
large contributor and a driving force at the historical society. And
it remains to be seen whether the board will be able to raise the
substantial amounts needed to update the building, whose dioramas on
ship building, institutional blue walls and noisy air-conditioning
give it an archaic air.
''How deafening this is right here,'' Ms. Jones said as a tour
of the museum reached the second floor.
Barbara J. Fife, a 10-year trustee, said the air system had hurt
the museum 's programming. ''We don't have the climate control to
qualify for high-class traveling exhibits,'' she said. ''We have not
been able to compete.''
The museum has hired Polshek Partnership Architects to handle
its renovation. The city, which owns the museum and subsidizes its
operations, has promised $9 million over three years to help pay for
the project, museum officials said.
Still, veteran trustees say, the museum's financial picture
shows signs of improving. New trustees include Stephen S. Lash,
chairman of Christie's, North and South America; Marvin H. Davidson,
president of Davidson Kempner Advisers Inc., an investment adviser;
and Donald Oresman of Simpson Thacher & Bartlett. ' 'We've come a
huge way in terms of vitality, the giving capacity as well as the
willingness to give,'' Ms. Fife said.
Mayor Michael R. Bloomberg and Kate D. Levin, his cultural
affairs commissioner, have been paying more attention to the museum.
The mayor has visited twice this year, for the opening of the
current exhibition about Daniel Patrick Moynihan and for the
museum's annual business award. This year's event, which honored
Michael J. Kowalski, the chief executive of Tiffany & Company,
raised nearly $900,000, the most since the award's inception in
''Everything looks like it's moving in the right direction, both
management and curatorial programming,'' Ms. Levin said.
If so, that would be an abrupt about-face. Two years ago, the
museum was geared up to move downtown to the Tweed Courthouse, next
to City Hall. But Mayor Bloomberg rescinded the offer, giving the
courthouse to the city's Department of Education instead. Robert R.
Macdonald, Ms. Jones's predecessor, resigned because of that
decision, as did several trustees.
''Between the Tweed and the possibility of merging, we lost
three years,'' said Bruno A. Quinson, a vice chairman of the board.
''We were heading in one direction and we had to stop.''
Now, however, Ms. Jones says it was all for the best, that the
Tweed's location so near the seat of city government might have
intimidated some potential visitors.
''We are completely 150 percent connected to this building and
to our location here,'' she said of the museum's East Harlem
location. ''Harlem comes down to visit us; others come uptown. We
can create a diverse audience here. That's what the city is all
The historical society has concluded that its success will lie
in reaching a more national audience, moving beyond a local focus on
the city. David Nasaw, a history professor at the Graduate Center at
the City University of New York, said the society's shift was the
museum's gain because the society effectively has said that it wants
''to cede the ground and let the Museum of the City of New York take
over New York''
''The problem is, it's never been a standard history museum,''
Mr. Nasaw added. ''And maybe they have to think about moving in that
As for becoming the repository of New York history, Ms. Jones
said, ''There is only so much square feet.'' She added that the
museum was preparing an exhibit for its entrance on the city's
history, an early version of which is to be in place by December.
To some extent the museum is also trying to reach a broader
audience with shows like those on Steuben glassmaking, the Magnum
photography cooperative and Moynihan to complement its quirky
permanent exhibitions on toys and military uniforms.
''We are widening the lens a bit,'' Ms. Jones said.
But the museum also sees virtues in the parochial. While the
historical society has all but scrapped a planned exhibition on the
centennial of the city 's subways, for example, the museum is
presenting three photographic exhibitions for the occasion,
including one on the revitalization of the 1 and 9 lines.
Will this draw audiences in droves? Since the terrorist attacks,
''people are much more conscious of New York City,'' said Martin J.
McLaughlin, a board member who is a lobbyist and publicist. ''All of
that works for us.''
One thing that is certain, Ms. Jones said, is that the notion of
merging with the historical society is off the table -- ''a
completed inquiry,'' as she called it.
''We are both keen on forging our own identities,'' she added.
Ms. Fife said the historical society's new national emphasis was
good for the museum. ''It stops the blurring of the two
institutions,'' she said. ''For tourists, for donors, for
foundations, the questions stop. This is a different institution,