HISTORICAL SOCIETY SHIFTS FOCUS WITH ITS SHIFT IN
BY ROBIN POGREBIN
June 23, 2004 Wednesday Correction Appended Late Edition - Final
The New-York Historical Society, with a newly hired president and
a conservative financier emerging as a board power, is shifting its
focus from the city to more national concerns, stirring the
objections of some historians and staff members.
Reflecting its new direction, the society has canceled an
exhibition marking the centennial of Times Square and scaled back
others with a local focus. It is mounting a $5 million exhibition on
Alexander Hamilton, the most expensive in the history of the
200-year-old society, officials said.
The Hamilton exhibition, whose curator is Richard Brookhiser, a
senior editor at the conservative National Review magazine, will be
used for private receptions during this summer's Republican National
Convention before opening to the public in September.
This shift in emphasis appears to signal the ascendance on the
society's board of Richard Gilder, a stockbroker and a leading
fund-raiser for Republican and conservative causes, who became a
trustee a year ago.
It also seems to close off all possibility of the society's
merger with the Museum of the City of New York, a long-contemplated
move for two institutions that have struggled to attract visitors
''If we were to focus on New York City, then we should merge,''
Mr. Gilder said in an interview yesterday. ''But there is a whole
different mission for each of us.''
Mr. Gilder, an avid collector of historical documents, whose
holdings are on on permanent loan to the society, was one of three
society trustees who together have contributed $2 million of $3
million raised so far for the Hamilton exhibition.
''There was nothing wrong,'' Mr. Gilder said, with the shows
that have been canceled or scaled back. ''They just weren't really
in the mainstream of American history. We want to focus on bigger
things. We want to bring American history into every family.''
Louise Mirrer, who became president of the society on June 1
after serving as executive vice chancellor of the City University of
New York, said, ' 'Hamilton is both the quintessential New Yorker
and also absolutely emblematic of the direction this institution is
To coincide with the Hamilton exhibition's opening to the public
on Sept. 10, the society plans to wrap the facade of its building at
Central Park West and 77th Street in a huge $10 bill -- the one
bearing Hamilton's face. It will also set up a temporary cafe
celebrating the country's founding fathers.
Mr. Gilder has been a major donor to conservative causes and
candidates since the 1980's. He is on the board of the Club for
Growth, a principal fund-raising engine of the conservative
movement, and is chairman emeritus of the Manhattan Institute, a
conservative research group.
In the current election year, Mr. Gilder has given $50,000 to
the Republican Party, the Club for Growth and various candidates.
During the last election cycle, Mr. Gilder gave Republicans $250,000
in soft money donations.
Conservatives have embraced Hamilton as a hero because of his
role as the father of American capitalism when he was the nation's
first secretary of the treasury. But Mr. Gilder said there had been
no political motivation behind the Hamilton exhibition. ''He's a
great New Yorker; he's a great American,'' Mr. Gilder said.
The society, he said, is determined to attract 250,000 people to
the Hamilton exhibition over its six-month run, attendance that
would make the Hamilton show the first in what it hopes will be many
blockbusters. Mr. Gilder said he hoped to double the society's $10
million annual operating budget in three to five years.
Kenneth T. Jackson, a Columbia University historian specializing
in New York City, who stepped down as president of the society this
month, questioned whether the society could meet the attendance
goal, given its average of about 100,000 visitors a year. ''I think
it's going to be difficult to get to that number,'' he said.
Mr. Jackson said he was trying to stay out of the new
management's decisions, though he remains the society's senior
historian and a member of the board. ''I'm not in charge,'' he said.
''I have a strong interest in New York City history, but whoever
puts out the money gets to call the shots.''
''I don't agree with my wife on every point,'' Mr. Jackson
added. ''I don't agree with Dick Gilder on every point.''
Others are more overtly troubled by the society's move away from
a hometown focus. ''They don't want to do local history,'' said Max
Page, the curator of the canceled Times Square exhibition, who is an
associate professor of architecture and history at the University of
Ms. Mirrer said the Times Square show was canceled for lack of
funds. ''It was too late for me to commit to an exhibit without the
funding being in place,' ' she said.
But Mr. Page, the curator, said the board was unwilling to
support the exhibition. ''We were told to fund the exhibition
completely on our own,'' he said, ''to raise money from donors and
grants with no direct investment by the institution.''
Among the shows that have been scaled back are one marking the
centennial of the New York subway system and an exhibition about
German-Americans in New York. A planned exhibition on slavery in New
York has been pushed back, staff members said, and there are plans
to broaden its focus beyond the city.
Several staff members, speaking on condition of anonymity for
fear of losing their jobs, criticized the Hamilton exhibition, which
they said was overly celebratory.
''There is grave concern about how history is being treated
here,'' a staff member said. ''Historical materials are being used
to encourage patriotism and to squelch criticism of the government,
and that's inspired a lot of fear and dismay.''
Some staff members said they were also concerned about the
exhibition's cost, and they argued that the society should be using
its 200th anniversary to build its endowment, which totals $20
''The only way we can build the endowment and the society's
reputation is to build the audience,'' Mr. Gilder said. ''Why should
people give anything if we 're not doing anything? The first problem
is to get people there.''
Mr. Gilder joined the society's board last June, along with
Lewis E. Lehrman, who ran as a Republican in the 1982 New York State
governor's race. The two men are co-founders of the Gilder Lehrman
Institute of American History, whose collection of historic
documents they have lent to the society. Mr. Lehrman and Roger
Hertog, another financial executive who joined the board last year,
joined Mr. Gilder in contributing $2 million toward the Hamilton
Mr. Gilder was co-chairman of the search committee that selected
Ms. Mirrer. The society has dismissed Rick Beard, its chief
operating officer. Mr. Gilder has also helped the society recruit
new board members, including Ken Burns, the documentary filmmaker,
and David Blight, a Yale historian and author.
Perhaps most crucially, Mr. Gilder has brought money to the
society, which faced bankruptcy a decade ago and has continued to
struggle financially. His wealth and connections could prove
particularly helpful if the society decides to expand; there are
four empty adjacent lots, Mr. Jackson noted.
Earlier, Mr. Gilder gave about $20 million to the Rose Center
for Earth and Space at the American Museum of Natural History and a
$17 million challenge grant to the Central Park Conservancy. He also
helped raise $110 million that his 1954 graduating class donated
this month to Yale University.
Mr. Brookhiser, who is the author of ''Alexander Hamilton,
American,'' and has never been an exhibition curator before, is
being paid $100,000, according to someone familiar with his
contract. Mr. Brookhiser refused to confirm this.
Copyright 2004 The New York Times Company The New York Times
CORRECTION-DATE: June 25, 2004
An article in The Arts on Wednesday about a shift of focus at the
New-York Historical Society from the city to more national concerns
misidentified a new board member. He is the documentary filmmaker
Ric Burns. (Ken Burns, also a documentary maker, is his brother.)