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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 help.''

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 1996.

''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 about.''

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 direction.''

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, period.''

URL: http://www.nytimes.com