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Tuesday, July 13th, 2004

At the New-York Historical Society, there is a new bottom line: New York history is out. The 200-year-old city treasure possesses the greatest collection of resources on the city's history but a major contributor to right-wing causes has recently become head of the Board of Trustees and has quickly made his influence felt.

This is a tragedy. And the way it is happening is even worse.

Richard Gilder, a top Republican donor, and his team recently fired the senior history museum professional and canceled several shows. Gilder has a personal collection of American historical documents and has worked out a deal to house them at the society, while retaining complete control over their use.

As if embracing the power of money to change the direction of the institution, Gilder has chosen to festoon the entire Central Park West façade of the society with a giant $10 bill - the one with Alexander Hamilton on it. The entire museum will be given over to an exhibition celebrating Hamilton, at a cost of $5 million, 10 times the cost of any previous exhibition.

Instead of showcasing the society's collections and building its endowment, the historical society is marking its bicentennial year by becoming a vanity museum for a single donor. Instead of an exhibit marking the centennial of Times Square that would celebrate the messy vitality of New York's crossroads, there will be a temporary café celebrating the Founding Fathers. I was the guest curator for the Times Square exhibit and believe that this city's history at the very least deserves a place alongside the Founding Fathers.

Here's why every New Yorker should care what happens in that old hulk of a building:

Gilder's coup continues a dangerous corporatization of America's historical institutions. Too many have allowed their direction to be transformed by the smell of money. At the New-York Historical Society, decisions are being made by the biggest donor, while its scholars and curators follow orders under threat of being fired. Historical institutions across the country struggle to achieve this delicate balance: relying on donations, but demarcating a clear line between support and meddling.

In New York, things have quickly gone too far. We need to let the society know that New York is no longer for sale for a Gilder or two.

Page is associate professor of architecture and history at the University of Massachusetts Department of Art.

Copyright 2004 New York Daily News