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REPUBLICANS CLEAN HOUSE AT NEW-YORK HISTORICAL SOCIETY

September 29, 2004 - Artnet News

The façade of the New-York Historical Society building on Central Park West is wrapped with a huge multicolored replica of a $10 bill -- a symbol that seems appropriate to the takeover of the august institution by two deep-pocketed Republican trustees. Since history nuts Richard Gilder and Lewis E. Lehrman seized control of the society last summer [see "Artnet News," June 24, 2004], they have gutted the professional staff and dumbed-down the exhibition program. Unceremoniously out are ceo Rick Beard, who previously headed the Atlanta History Center; Historical Society museum director Jan Ramirez; senior projects historian Steven Jaffe, who formerly was curator at the South Street Seaport Museum; and public information director Travis Stewart.

The much ballyhooed current exhibition -- "Alexander Hamilton: The Man Who Made Modern America," Sept. 10, 2004-Feb. 28, 2005, for which the museum building was plastered with the aforementioned giant sawbuck -- could hardly have cost almost $6 million, as widely (if unofficially) advertised. The show consists of three galleries: an orientation space lined with benches, hung with a score of portraits of Hamilton's peers (including Dolley Madison) and featuring a brief audiovisual introduction to Hamilton's ideas; a long high-tech gallery containing the actual historical documents in a series of fancy vitrines, along with a baffling series of five newsreel-type projections that have little to do with Hamilton himself; and finally a confusing timeline printed on the wall of a long hallway. And in the lobby is a slightly comical, contemporary (dated 2004) pair of bronze figures of a dueling Hamilton and Aaron Burr.

On a recent Saturday, the show was well-attended if not crowded, so hopes that paying visitors to "Hamilton" -- beloved by conservatives as the father of high finance -- might add to museum's coffers don't seem entirely unrealistic. As for the exhibition itself, its commentary is pitched alarmingly low, reminiscent of junior high school social studies class. The design of the main gallery is perplexing, with many documents displayed at knee level, so the sight of visitors leaning over like feeding storks is a common one. What's more, Hamilton was the founder of a newspaper that was the ancestor of the current New York Post, whose obnoxious presence is felt throughout the show, in the timeline as well as the advertising-filled free handout, which is designed as a mock copy of the tabloid.

In a recent New York Times story, new Historical Society director Louise Mirrer suggested that a "dusted-off" museum would include an exhibition of the institution's great collection of paintings by John James Audubon. This comment was greeted derisively by one former staffer. "We just did a show in 1997 or so," said the source. "There was a fine catalogue, a national tour -- and abysmal attendance at the museum." Since the society was reopened in 1995 (after nearly going bankrupt), its curators had resorted to the Audubon holdings more than once to fill an unbudgeted exhibition slot -- "Birds of Autumn," "Birds of Central Park" and the like. "Anytime you see Audubons at the New-York Historical Society," said the source, "it's a sign of trouble!

"Otherwise, the society is one of New York's best-kept secrets. The open-stack storage of the Henry Luce III Center on the fourth floor is a marvel, and the large and airy Beaux-Arts library is simply beautiful. The Luman Reed Picture Gallery is full of quaint 19th-century masterpieces. Among the other exhibitions on hand is a selection of 9/11artifacts and, in the basement, "Around Town Underground: Prints from the Collection of Dave and Reba Williams," a group of 66 works that show how little life in the subway has changed in the last 60 years.

Copyright 2004 Artnet News

URL: http://www.artnet.com/Magazine/news/artnetnews2/artnetnews9-29-04.asp