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
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,
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
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
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
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