2016-02-15 - Church of Holy Innocents Albany abandoned

The Uncertain Future of Local History & Preservation.

Ruth Osborne

Last week, we saw a significant decision that will shape the future of architectural preservation and local history in New York City. And perhaps not for the better.

2016-02-15 - GVSHP city planning zoning

GVSHP member at the City Planning Commission hearing last week. Courtesy: NY1 / GVSHP.

On Wednesday, the City Council held its final hearing on Mayor de Blasio’s “Zoning for Quality & Affordability” (ZQA) plan, which last week was approved (9-3-1) by the City Planning Commission. As of Wednesday Feb. 10th, the City Council had approved the ZQA, thus allowing more oversized developments throughout the city’s varied historic neighborhoods – neighborhoods that have seen tall buildings go up in recent years without the city requiring any affordable housing units. This is not just an issue in New York – debates over height restrictions and historic district preservation are also occurring over Chicago’s famed Michigan Avenue.

Our colleagues at the Greenwich Village Society for Historic Preservation (GVSHP) have been tirelessly working to demonstrate that the ZQA will in fact not help either quality or affordability, but will surely have detrimental impact on the fifty years of progress made in preservation in the city’s neighborhoods, and in so doing will “[turn] back the clock on years of progress to protect community scale and character.” Their work, as demonstrated by this recent testimony, is not based on conjecture or opinion, but on data from City Council and site-specific studies as well as a thorough understanding of real housing needs. Interestingly enough, GVSHP also reports that: “Many [City] Councilmembers have expressed serious reservations about the plan, but as has been widely reported, the Mayor has been doing quite a bit of horse-trading to try to secure the votes necessary for passage.” What this plan could put into place is the lifting of height restrictions to allow for new development in residential neighborhoods throughout the city. The New York Landmarks Conservancy has also recently spoken out against the Mayor’s ZQA, saying that the City Planning Commission has “[ignored] community concerns” with their vote in favor:

We support the goals of increased affordable housing, but “Zoning for Quality and Affordability” (ZQA) amounts to a “bait and switch.” It doesn’t guarantee affordable housing but it does overturn local planning. It will toss aside agreements that communities have forged with the City over decades. “Mandatory Inclusionary Housing” (MIH) will result in units that remain unaffordable for residents in many part of New York.

What this new development is reflective of, in addition to the renewed proposed landmarks legislation we are sure to hear about in months to come, is that efforts against preserving history and local character are only increasing. This is all happening despite the Landmarks Law having celebrated its 50th anniversary last year – something commemorated at many events in 2015. But commemorating Landmarks Law is not just about patting the city on the back for having done a good job at not tearing down places like Grand Central Terminal, the Empire State Building, etc. It should demand a response to the immediate seen and future unseen needs to continue conscientious development and historic preservation in the city. Or else, wouldn’t we just look like a bunch of hypocrites?

2016-02-15 - Church of Holy Innocents Albany realty

Loopnet Realty ad showing the collapsed section of the Church of the Holy Innocents in Albany. Courtesy: Loopnet Realty.

Speaking of preserving local history, the capital city of Albany is in a bit of a mess over one of its historically and artistically significant houses of worship. The Church of the Holy Innocents in Albany, built in 1850 on a major thoroughfare for the local Episcopalian congregation, has been listed on the National Register of Historic Places since 1978. It has also been on the list of Albany’s most endangered buildings for the past ten years. Now, it risks not only rapidly increasing structural damage as a result of its lack of upkeep and maintenance. There is also, as history demonstrates, the potential for the church to be ripped from its historic setting by a larger institution that boasts the finances to preserve it in a new location. This is just one example of the growing trend of local history reluctantly yielding to bigger conglomerate collections or wealthier cities that have the concentrated funds that smaller sites simply don’t have. We saw this with the Corcoran Gallery in 2014 and the Barnes Foundation in 2003.

2016-02-15 - Church of Holy Innocents Albany interior

Interior of the Church of the Holy Innocents as it appeared in The Annals of Albany, Vol. X, 1870. Courtesy: Robarts / University of Toronto.

2016-02-15 - Church of Holy Innocents Albany history

Church of the Holy Innocents in Albany, NY, late 19th century. Courtesy: Paula Lemire / Albany History Blogspot.

As our colleague, Albany historian John Wolcott, provides insight into its historic and artistic significance:

The Episcopal Church was designed in 1850 by architect Frank Willis. In 1866, a chapel was built by lumber baron William DeWitt as a memorial to his children. It was designed by architects William L. Woollett and Edward Ogden. The church (with adjoining chapel) features a small garden and the interior work of John Bolton in its stained glass windows; it is an example of the mid-nineteenth century early Gothic Revival style that so proliferated not only in New York City but throughout upstate New York and gives much of the state’s nineteenth century landscape its enduring character; to attempt to list the number of related structures in upstate New York’s history of Gothic Revival architecture would be overzealous, but suffice it to say that this structure holds much aesthetic and cultural significance for the members of the area.

2016-02-15 - Church of Holy Innocents Albany collapsed

Collapsed part of the Church, captured by local news in Albany last May. Courtesy: WNYT.

The church is currently owned by Hope House Inc., a residential recovery program next door. As Hope House a non-profit organization not designed to care for a historic structure, it isn’t surprising that news report of its collapsed roof and corner arrived last May.  Once its immediate stabilization was accomplished, the Historic Albany organization has been monitoring the church’s maintenance. Our colleague in Albany has also written to “Partners for Sacred Places” on the importance of its preservation and maintenance as a historic landmark in Albany, and has been in contact with Historic Albany regarding the urgency of this work:

2016-02-15 - Church of Holy Innocents Albany facade

Church of Holy Innocents as of May 2015. Courtesy: John Carl D’Annibale / Times Union.

This entire matter here has been something of an awful mess for years and became worse than ever of late in spite of constant spin doctoring, but please hang in with it.  If you have received a copy of the Realty ad [see above photo]; the main photograph shows a view looking from the nave toward the chancel.  Though not too clear here; the chancel arch is completely collapsed. This means that the lettering of a portion of the 23rd Psalm along the lower edge has also been destroyed. One of the most key spiritual artful and historic features of the church. However, in studying recent photos of the debris; it appears that with careful tedious, painstaking sorting the letters could be reassembled to either cement back together but probably to replicate on new stonework that would  faithfully replicate that which collapsed. 

2016-02-15 - Church of Holy Innocents Albany abandoned

Interior of the abandoned church, c. 2015. Courtesy: Chuck Miller.
A fear we have currently is whether or not pieces of this beautiful church could be broken down and demolished. It has appeared so far in one realty ad, to be sold for all of $1,000.

A fear we have currently is whether or not pieces of this beautiful church could be broken down and demolished. It has appeared so far in one realty ad, to be sold for all of $1,000. Another option is, unfortunately, to remove the artistic structure and put it back together at another location or museum that boasts the funds to display salvaged architectural remains. Places like The Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York have certainly worked wonders in this respect. But if we take a step back from the nineteenth-century cast-iron staircase or bank facade that we’re looking up at in amazement, can we ask ourselves a more serious question?: How can this be beneficial to the stewardship of our local artistic heritage? To tear a historic structure from its original context and setting, which demonstrates its connection to the local community and the cultural and artistic development of an area that has lost many other buildings from this period? To place it in the hands of a museum that would likely have an over-abundance of other significant items from this period? Are we forgetting about the authenticity of place? Authenticity of place is exactly what was lost when Albany saw another of its unique nineteenth-century churches collapse (and subsequently be demolished) due to neglect. Trinity Church (1848) had been designed by renowned architect James Renwick, Jr. – the same who worked on Saint Patrick’s and the Smithsonian Castle.

2016-02-15 - Trinity Church Albany demolished

Trinity Church in Albany, which collapsed in 2011 and was subsequently demolished. Courtesy: (c) Chuck Miller / TimesUnion.

Its stained glass windows, however, were the only pieces salvaged, and which may or may not return to Albany.

Former Met director Philipe de Montebello himself has stated on the importance of authenticity in James Cuno’s Whose Muse?: Art Museums and the Public Trust:

For museums, this should derive from their collections and comprise an absolute commitment to authenticity and to the museum’s authority, which should never be compromised […] It goes without saying that probity should be expected of the museum […] But probity should be found deeper still embedded in our mission, in our thoughts, and in our intellectual approach. For starters and quite simply , since what we promise is authenticity, that is what the public expects to find within our walls. So there must never be any question of a reproduction, a simulacrum, taking the place of a work of art […]

2016-02-15 - Church of Holy Innocents Albany 1918

Church of the Holy Innocents, 1918. Courtesy: Coll. Mrs. Weldon J. Vail / Albany Group Archive.

How can we presume to celebrate the authentic and original while at the same time stealing it from its authenticity of place or destroying historic context with disjointed developments? The case for historic preservation presented at Albany’s Church of the Innocents is an example of the fight to retain an important piece of local history in its setting. What makes something historically, artistically, or culturally significant to the point of necessitating its preservation for future generations? Or even to simply retain a visual reminder of a past moment in that region’s history? The character of a historic environment, a historic architectural setting, or a historic neighborhood in New York City is important – it is unique, it tells the story of a community or a people or an artist that makes up a larger culture and society. Those who don’t care to deal with the financial and legal burden of caring for local history and neighborhood character simply attempt to gloss over its importance.

While saving architectural remains from what would otherwise be lost to time is sometimes the only option, ArtWatch would like to ask readers what this means for the future of preserving our local history and cultural heritage? What does this mean for neighborhoods in New York that will in 10 years be unrecognizable after historic structures have been torn down, local merchants removed, and all our architectural history is relegated to sit in fragments against the clean walls of a large gallery? These once were real and thriving buildings and streets, and if we consider ourselves at all connected with their history, there should be conscientious development into the future.

Should all our heritage end up at huge institutions that leave the works disjointed from their original environment? Nevertheless, this what is happening with collections management as well as funding for the arts and history – larger institutions that get the grants and the big donors are financially equipped to subsume smaller collections, which leaves less diversity in museums and less physical presence for local historic collections. 

2015-11-10 - broadway James McCreery & Co

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

Ruth Osborne

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.

2015-11-10 greenwich village society for historic preservation landmarks preservation commission

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

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.

2015-11-10 - gold street historic preservation

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

2015-11-10 - broadway James McCreery & Co 1895

ames 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?

2015-11-10 - IRT Powerhouse 12th Avenue McKim Mead White beaux-arts ConEd

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.

2015-11-10 - Sullivan Street historic preservation

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!

2015-09-04 - Grand Central Station Chrysler Building

Punishing Preservationists for their Lack of Resources? The Dangers of the Proposed “Intro 775” Landmarks Legislation.

Ruth Osborne


2015-09-04 Empire State Building

The Empire State Building, one of the landmarks that took longer than 1 year to secure.

I recently attended a lecture on the survival of one of New York City’s landmarked sites (now a professionally-staffed museum), and the speaker was very reluctant to answer mine and others’ questions about the politics behind historic preservation and the Landmarks Preservation Commission’s authority. He did, however, acknowledge that public opinion and testimony truly is the most effective thing in his experience of advocating for preservation.

Public outcry was the reason New York City Landmarks Law was enacted in the first place, and the LPC was created for the fundamental purpose of providing a voice for the historic integrity of a neighborhood or building that would otherwise be overlooked and forever wiped out by new development. But now, in the same year that we celebrate the fiftieth anniversary of Landmarks Law and the rich history it has helped preserve – places like Grand Central Station, 30 Rockefeller Center, and the Empire State building – proposed legislation now threatens to put a muzzle back on that voice.

Major news outlets this week have finally turned to acknowledging the Intro 775 bill, which will be scheduled for public hearing next week on September 9th. This bill is both unnecessary and unreasonable, as many preservation advocates have argued. It will essentially serve only to punish historic landmarks and the LPC for having been provided inadequate resources with which to do their job of thoroughly researching and considering potential landmarks. It could create an environment in which developers again have more say, and preservationists are no longer able to effectively do their job. Intro 775 proposes to implement a strict timeline on the designation of landmarks (both interior and scenic), as well as historic districts. It will, in effect:

(1) Impose a shorter calendaring timeline of for the LPC to hold a public hearing (180 days for individual landmarks, 1 year for historic districts).

(2) Impose a follow-up timeline after the public hearing within which the LPC must take final action (180 days for individual landmarks, 1 year for historic districts).

(3) Require the LPC to make determination on current items on the calendar within 18 months (that is, 95 total properties and districts).

(4) Barr a property or district unable to pass designation by the LPC from reconsideration of landmark status for another 5 years.

This is essentially imposing unrealistic time limits on the Commission for doing their work well and thoroughly. It acts almost as an inadequate performance review, but without any true understanding of what it really takes for the Commission to do their job properly. An interview earlier this summer with Andrew Berman, the Executive Director of the Greenwich Village Society for Historic Preservation,  gave ArtWatch some insight into the dangers this legislation could pose to the future of historic preservation in New York.

RO: Thank you for taking the time to speak with me about something both the Greenwich Village Society for Historic Preservation and ArtWatch is passionate about: proper stewardship of our cultural and artistic heritage. As ArtWatch is New York-based, we are currently expanding to cover issues regarding historic preservation of the city’s cultural landmarks and neighborhoods and are therefore interested in connecting with organizations like yours that work tirelessly towards such efforts. You spoke of a major issue of current concern for GVSHP: Intro 775 and the landmarking process. Can you elaborate briefly on GVSHP’s position on this?

AB: We’re definitely very concerned with Intro 775. It’s being portrayed as aiming to ensure there aren’t these delays or backlogs at the preservation commission but it doesn’t really do anything to ensure the commission would move forward in a timely fashion. It just penalizes the public if they don’t. Ninety-percent of recent designations do move within timing the bill proscribes. And in cases that don’t, there are understandable reasons why. This bill would essentially throw the baby out with the bathwater. It creates pocket veto: if the LPC doesn’t act within this tight time frame, the proposal will be rejected automatically. The bill doesn’t do anything to help get rid of some things that can be reasons why designations can take so long. The LPC is the smallest of all the city’s agencies – but the bill doesn’t improve funding or staffing. What it would really do is encourage developers resistant to their sites being landmarked to come up with as many ways as possible for delaying designation. Designation can drag out and be prohibited from happening for an extensive period of time. We’re also concerned because it’s been introduced by chairs of landmarks committees who we hope would have a more balanced approach. There are also instances in which developers have tried to prevent landmarking from taking place. This would just give them another tool to do that.

2015-09-04 - Merchant's House East Village NoHo construction

Merchant’s House Museum in NoHo, a landmark now endangered by construction next door. Courtesy: Herrmann Fan.

A letter recently sent to City Council Members from GVSHP and other preservationists does well to call out the inconsistencies of the proposed bill and why it should not be passed:

“Our research shows that the LPC has a solid track record of timely designation, if not within the strict litmus described by Intro 775, then nonetheless within a reasonable period of time. […] In the instances where LPC has failed to act within the proposed time

limits, this failure has been in part a result of the Commission’s limited resources. Designations require heavy investment of staff

time towards extensive research, in-depth examination of boundaries, a full airing of all information and viewpoints on a subject,

and the production of highly-detailed reports. […] it would force LPC to make decisions before all information has been

contemplated and all discussions have taken place.”

Does the City propose that their smallest agency do their work with an eye for speed and quantity instead of quality and thorough consideration of all parties involved and affected? How does it expect the LPC carry out their mission without having adequate time and resources to bring full attention to the task at hand? Or would it prefer they were less effective in considering a conscientious approach to city planning that often gets in the way of developers’ interests? Would it prefer the Commission had less and less power as if it weren’t even part of the dialogue in the first place? How would this help create discussion amongst all parties and interests involved? Would it not simply allow developers to have less restrictions and checks on their actions?

A recent New York Times article quoted Michael Slattery, senior VP for research at the Real Estate Board of New York: “The problem is it’s open-ended and indefinite if your building is calendared. […] If you want to sell your building or develop it, it makes that very hard. Property owners deserve to know what is in their future.” But then, don’t the residents of New York also deserve to have the cultural and historic integrity of their city’s landscape properly cared for and taken into account when a change is about to occur? This was the whole basis for the founding of the Commission in the first place – that the growth of the city should be a conscientious, thoughtful effort; one that recognizes the impact a building has on the city around it, and how it fits in with the character of that city. It was about growing respect for what has gone before and taking responsibility for new progress. Buildings – both old and new ones – have character and heart to them, and if we forsake that, then will we even recognize our city anymore?

By Ruth Osborne

2015-06-04 - Frick Collection

Support for Landmarks in New York Prevails: Frick Decides Against Proposed Massive Expansion

Ruth Osborne
2015-06-04 - Frick Collection

The Frick Collection from 5th Avenue.

It appears the Board of The Frick Collection in New York has decided against its 2014 proposed expansion plans to build the equivalent of a ten-story tower atop their original 1911 landmarked museum building on 5th Avenue.

Culture reporter at The New York Times, Robin Pogrebin, has reported that the Board decided it was up against far too much opposition to go forward with their current plan and seek Landmarks approval.Among the expansion’s opponents were the group Unite to Save the Frick, several prominent New York artists – including Cindy Sherman, Jeff Koons, and Chuck Close  -, and a latecomer to the fight, the Municipal Arts Society. Their letter to Director Ian Wardropper argued that the currently proposed expansion plan would be inappropriate to the treatment of the Frick as the historic landmark it is:

The issue is not the number of gardens at the Frick, or if the same number will be retained going forward. More is at stake; the current proposal risks undermining the singular essence of the Frick Collection by erasing a masterpiece of landscape design—a landmark in its own right.

Questioning the aims of modern development that impact the historic fabric of a city or the exhibition of works of art is an essential part of good stewardship of our cultural and artistic heritage. The groups and individuals who spoke out against such a prominent cultural institution as the Frick are not frightened by the big wigs of the Board. Rather, they are acting on their larger role as artists, architects, makers of culture, and are taking their responsibility to care for their New York City’s heritage to heart. It is crucial to ensure we have a balanced approach to respecting the history that has gone before us that has made us what we are today. It is forsaking a city – and a society’s – cultural development if we forget to preserve important parts of its history that has allowed New York City to become what it is today.

It is the aim of ArtWatch to support that critical voice, to question the aims of those entrusted to protecting and maintaining our artistic and cultural heritage, and not simply accept things as they would seem. We are appreciative of those who do not shy away from asking the hard questions and looking under the surface of bureaucracy and policy that is all too often automatically accepted as infallible. We are humans; we make mistakes. Without actively engaging in dialogue with those in positions of authority, we are not taking ownership of our future but instead accepting fate as others decide it for us.

We look forward to seeing the new plans that are reportedly in the making for another attempt at The Frick’s expansion, and we hope this news encourages our readers that something indeed can be done.

2014-08-01 - Corcoran Gallery Washington DC

The Cost of Caring for Art: Art Law’s Role in the Corcoran Case.

Ruth Osborne
2014-08-01 - Corcoran Gallery Washington DC

Corcoran Gallery in D.C. Courtesy: New York Times.

Several similar battles have emerged this year in the museum world; battles over the mismanagement of important art collections and the unfortunate consequences for the artworks involved.

In the case of the Delaware Art Museum, a collection has begun to disintegrate in the interest of keeping the doors open to the public after owing millions in bond debt after a major building expansion. Meanwhile, the Corcoran Gallery in Washington, D.C. is struggling to maintain its collection by joining with the National Gallery and abandoning its historic 1897 Beaux-Arts building just steps from the White House.

In each of these instances, items of cultural and artistic significance are being forsaken due to responsibility falling on the shoulders of those unwilling or unqualified to provide strong enough support. Caring for art is not – nor has ever been – a simple task. But as the beginnings of the Corcoran court case have illustrated this week, it demands highly discerning Board leadership and financial management. The Delaware Board using deaccessions as an answer to refilling a museum’s budget goes against the fundamental purpose of a museum to care for and preserve works of art for the public. Works are treated like fluid assets and bargaining chips, not priceless cultural artifacts to be cared for. Owners are neglecting their call to be stewards of these collections, instead treating them like cultural capital to be traded.  In the on-going struggle between bankrupt Detroit’s creditors and the DIA’s supporters, art is being asked to clean up after a city government that could not keep itself afloat.

2014-08-01 - Merchant's House Museum Manhattan

Merchants House in Lower Manhattan. Courtesy: The Villager.

Across the Atlantic, the Maeght Foundation in France has a new Director looking to make up for its budget deficit by auctioning off works from its collection, which he believes would not be much affected by deaccessions. Director Olivier Kaeppelin “wants the foundation to be free to sell works. The collection is valuable.”  Furthermore, a study by France’s Ministry of Culture this July identified the shortcomings of more than 1200 museums nationwide in caring properly for their collections. From the curator’s and collection manager’s perspective, this comes down to having the right storage and staff to care for the objects. But that all depends on a museum’s money being spent in the right way, and on fundraising that keeps collections preservation as the ultimate goal, rather than new gallery expansions.

But who is to answer if the governing board in question fails to account for their lack of good stewardship? Where a museum’s trustees fail, other major donors and supporters can step up (as in the case of the DIA and Corcoran). But what happens when outside support systems fail as well? Here in New York, the month of April signaled the final nail in the coffin of the Merchant House Museum’s fight against damage from new construction next door. The state institution charged with defending the interests of art and historic preservation was unable to prevent a new hotel from going up. Now, with 6-1 approval from New York’s Landmarks Preservation Commission, the 180 year-old landmarked building and superior interior plasterwork will now suffer greater damage for the sake of a new hotel that surely could have been built elsewhere in the trendy NoHo neighborhood.

The law is the last system in place to defend the interests of a collection. The role of art law often ends up being essential in deciding how museums and historic sites fight to preserve their collection. It sets parameters for what should be expected of a museum board or director; it determines what should be expected from those in such positions and creates an arena in which they can be called to account for their actions. For the Corcoran, the question of what will happen remains to be answered by the D.C. Superior Court. The battle over the Corcoran’s proposed dissolution will be sure to set precedent for (inevitable) future struggles over museum collections. Questions of board mismanagement, the appointment of an unqualified director, and an inability to fundraise have thus far been raised. Representing the “Save the Corcoran” group, lawyer Andrew S. Tulmello has even gone so far as to argue: “the museum trustees have long operated as if the Corcoran had no future.” ArtWatch will be keeping tabs on what is sure to be a serious debate over board and directorial ethics, items coming under greater scrutiny in today’s changing non-profit development and donor climate.