Overwhelming Support as Landmarks Works Through the Backlog of Proposed Sites.

GVSHP representative speaking at LPC hearing, Nov. 5, 2015.

GVSHP representative speaking at LPC hearing, Nov. 5, 2015.

Last Thursday morning at the Municipal Building at No. 1 Centre Street. dozens more supporters of landmark designations in New York City demonstrated their care for historic preservation in the city as well as their respect for the Landmarks Preservation Commission’s noble mission. This was another in a series of public hearings and viewings begun this July as part of the LPC’s “Backlog Initiative”. Reports on last month’s hearings have demonstrated just how greatly communities back the Commission’s initiative to designate and protect historically significant properties and neighborhoods.

33-43 Gold Street. Courtesy: MakeSpace.

33-43 Gold Street. Courtesy: MakeSpace.

The buildings up for consideration this time around included:

* no. 801-807 Broadway, one of the few remaining 19th century cast-iron facades in the city and one that has played a significant role in the historic commercial development of the area and survived destruction by fire over 40 years ago

* no. 33-43 Gold Street, an 1840s Romanesque Revival style building now known as the Excelsior Power Company Building

* no. 2 Oliver Street, an 1820s Federal rowhouse

* no. 57 Sullivan Street, an 1810s Federal wood-framed rowhouse

* no. 850 12th Avenue, the McKim, Mead & White Beaux-Arts IRT powerhouse, now used by ConEd

James McCreery & Co. Building at 801-807 Broadway in 1895. Courtesy: Tom Miller.

James McCreery & Co. Building at 801-807 Broadway in 1895. Courtesy: Tom Miller.

The above-mentioned structures were the ones that seemed to receive the most attention from speakers. The arguments made for the designation of these buildings were very prudent and practical, despite what many detractors may say about extremists that want to freeze the city in time. Those who gave their testimonies in favor of designation (which was everyone who spoke over the course of the hour and a half that we observed) stated that current residents have not been inhibited by Commission oversight, therefore making landmark status not detrimental to their future well-being. Then why not grant designation after all?

IRT Powerhouse by McKim, Mead & White. Courtesy: NYC.GOV.

IRT Powerhouse by McKim, Mead & White. Courtesy: NYC.GOV.

While the overwhelming support for protection of these sites as landmarks was obvious to everyone in the room, it was also painfully obvious just how little consideration the Commission is given as a city agency. The room itself was bursting at the seams with residents seeking to state their positions before the commissioners. There were just over 50 seats for press, participants, and observers. The rest were forced to overflow outside to the adjacent room, standing alongside walls, in doorways, and in an extra corner they could find. Is there any wonder why an argument has been made to provide the Commission with more resources to accomplish its mission?

Those represented before the Commission were a smattering of long-term neighborhood residents, students, tour guides, preservationists, architects, and politicians: the Greenwich Village Society for Historic Preservation (a mighty advocate in recent years), the Victorian Society of New YorkBIG architecture, the Society for the Architecture of the City, the Hudson River Powerhouse Group, Councilman Corey Johnson, and Manhattan Borough President Gale Brewer. Nearly all of these speakers went over their allotted three minutes, demonstrating their strong sense of duty in declaring the significance of these sites as city landmarks.

57 Sullivan Street. Courtesy: Tom Miller.

57 Sullivan Street. Courtesy: Tom Miller.

According to one speaker’s experience, travelers coming into the city express shock that such significant structures have gone unprotected for so long. Not only was the argument made to preserve buildings as emblems of important design and architectural periods in New York, but also as markers of significant technological, commercial, and immigrant population change that formed the backbone of the city’s character and impacted the rest of the nation throughout history. Supporters of preservation do not care solely for structures as lavishly ornamented monuments to wealthy families past – they care deeply for their city’s rich history, something they find personal connection with in some form or another. The preservation of these buildings in question, as was made evident by the speakers’ testimonies, would serve to validate the value of the immigrants, artists, architects, merchants, and transit workers who worked and made their home in New York in centuries past. Historic structures offer diversity in the architectural landscape of the city – not uniformity.  And, as borough president Brewer pointed out, the place of public discourse on New York’s ever-development landscape is an essential element in good stewardship of this city that millions call home. We at ArtWatch greatly appreciate the time and energy the Commission has provided for these public hearings and their thoughtful consideration as they work through proposed designations.

On the other side of the Atlantic, the topic of heritage preservation is being revisited with the re-launch of historian David Lowenthal’s renowned book The Past is a Foreign Country (1985). The Warburg Institute will host an event on November 11th to commemorate Lowenthal’s significant effort in investigating the 20th century culture of conserving heritage. His work has been a cornerstone for contemporary study of how the past is preserved, re-enacted, remembered, and celebrated. Additionally, the upcoming ArtWatch UK Journal will feature an article by art historian Florence Hallett on issues of heritage preservation in England. What British preservationists are finding is that their architectural heritage is being mixed up with competing social policy trends. When the motives behind spending and support for historic preservation get caught up in policy and legislation, on both sides of the Atlantic, these complications interfere with the care available for the buildings themselves in the future; in the end, resulting in damage that cannot be recovered from easily (if at all in some cases).

Finally, later today, ArtWatch will join others again at an LPC hearing to provide support for the continued preservation of the Gansevoort Market Historic District in downtown Manhattan. The GVHSP has sustained a brilliant campaign against the proposed overdevelopment plan for the historic market buildings on Gansevoort. According to their website: “If approved, the development would not only destroy Gansevoort street and the surrounding historic district’s unique sense of place, but set a terrible precedent regarding the type of construction allowed in landmarked districts.” Stay tuned for reports!

By Ruth Osborne

The Business of Museums: Mismanagement at the de Young in San Francisco.

de Young Museum CEO Dede Wilsey, 2010. Courtesy: Panache Privée.

de Young Museum CEO Dede Wilsey. Courtesy: Panache Privée.

We often forget that museums are a big business. They draw in millions annually, contribute billions to the national economy, transport major works of priceless artistic value miles around the globe, and provide jobs for hundreds of thousands in the U.S. alone. Most of this work is done behind gallery walls – from conservation labs to accounting offices to research libraries. According to an AAM study, museums are also believed by visitors to be “one of the most trustworthy sources of objective information.” If we are to uphold the character of the museum as an expectedly trustworthy institution, then the public must also know what goes on behind the scenes.

Last month, news emerged surrounding a new financial scandal at the de Young Museum in San Francisco. The origin of the scandal was a complaint by the CFO of the Fine Arts Museums of San Francisco (the umbrella over the de Young and the Legion of Honor, proudly self-proclaimed as “the largest public arts institution in the City of San Francisco”). According to the CFO Michele Gutierrez, CEO of de Young and FAMSF Board President Dede Wilsey initiated an order to pay a retired staffer $450,000 for a “disability severance payment” sanctioned by the City Charter. This retiree, reportedly, already collects a $56,580 annual pension from the city. The payment was signed off by the Gutierrez but, she supposedly found out later, was not given final approval by the entire board before the check was issued. Mind you, the FAMSF is an institution that receive $16 million in city funding each year.

This was not the first time that the FAMSF have been in the news for mismanagement. In the past few years, the museums have gone through a series of high-profile firings, a wrongful termination lawsuit, a deaccession and sale against a living donor’s bequest, and another scandal involving items from Wilsey’s personal collection being handled and prepared for shipment during business hours on museum property and with museum personnel. For a museum that receives millions in public funds annually, especially in a climate in which arts funding is increasingly rare and precious, one would hope that such an institution is being run in an ethical manner.

Just a few days after news of this new scandal involving Wilsey hit the newsstands, the FAMSF issued a statement denying any wrongdoing on behalf of their CEO or the disapproval of her actions by the board at large. Their defensive statement appears to gloss over the large staff turnover that has occurred over the past year, arguing that as the result of recent evaluation by management consultants they have “[reorganized] the institution and [changed] personnel and job responsibilities.”

It should also be pointed out that, since Wilsey has been Board President two decades ago, sudden changes in its bylaws enabled the new president to remain without a term limit. These don’t seem like ideal procedures for a well-run public art collection.  And yet, the FAMSF remained on the American Alliance of Museums’ list of accredited institutions in 2014.

Another accredited institution that has recently seen itself through financial mismanagement and shaming (it actually did receive an AAM sanction) is the Delaware Art Museum. News of the board’s bad stewardship over the collection – by means of selling art to make up for a bond debt – developed over the course of last year. The $19.5 million in debt was no doubt assisted by the $32.5 million the Museum shelled out for a 2005 expansion. As a result, the Museum took a blow to its artistic legacy as well as to future precedent for collections management practices.

With museums spending millions on expansions, additions to their collection, traveling exhibitions, transparency is not to be taken for granted. There is a higher and higher demand for institutions to be constantly spending in order to draw attention and relevance in an increasingly competitive art world.  At the same time, those funding art institutions are failing to see their benefit to the local community and society as a whole, thus causing museums to strive to keep what little funding they have and remind people that art and history is relevant.  The same week that this (most recent) scandal in SF emerged, the AAM announced it was putting the Illinois State Museums on probation as a result of their closure on September 30th after state budget decisions reached a stalemate. AAM Commission Chair Burt Logan took issue on how this closure would “impact […] the long-term viability of the museum, including affecting its ability to retain a professional staff and operate at the highest professional level […]”. The closure has caused museum staff to seek refuge for their collection during the interim, certainly not ideal care for the works being shuttled back and forth.  The State Museum’s director of science Eric Grimm has commented on the situation that caused the closure: “It’s a travesty […] I think it’s political corruption and malevolent anti-intellectualism.”  In an atmosphere like that of the past fifteen years, the need for greater oversight in the arts is becoming more and more evident.

By Ruth Osborne