Statement on Museum of City of New York’s Oversight of South Street Seaport Museum

Many of us are still realing from the news that the Museum of the City of New York is withdrawing from managing the South Street Seaport Museum as of July 5, 2013.  The future of New York’s premier maritime museum is at best uncertain.

Susan Henshaw Jones, Ronay Menschel Director of the Museum of the City of New York and President of the South Street Seaport Museum, issued the following statement today:

Twenty-one months ago, the Museum of the City of New York wholeheartedly and enthusiastically took over the South Street Seaport Museum. A dedicated, seven member Seaport Museum Board of Trustees was formed, and during these 21 months, a small but mighty staff at the Seaport Museum downtown worked with many staff members from the City Museum uptown, with the uptown component literally doing double duty. But we were on a mission and we had a vision.

We worked to revive the Seaport Museum, making it again a destination for New Yorkers and visitors to the city. And we had success. We mounted 18 changing exhibitions including Titanic at 100 on Water Street; we were happy to host the American Folk Art Museum’s critically acclaimed show Compass: Folk Art in Four Directions, which was specially curated for the Seaport Museum. We initiated children’s programming through the City Museum’s Frederick A. O. Schwarz Children’s Center, and replaced Pioneer’s engine and got her sailing again under the auspices of New York Water Taxi and the Seaport Museum. We spent $200,000 repairing Ambrose’s hull while initiating and completing a fundraising campaign of $250,000 for the restoration of the schooner Lettie G. Howard, a National Historic Landmark. (We are thankful to Rosanne Cash whose benefit concert carried us to our fundraising goal.) We raised $400,000 for the replacement of Ambrose’s deck, and $2,500,000 for the stabilization of Wavertree’s hull—these capital grants came from the Department of Cultural Affairs. We re-opened Bowne & Co., launched Bowne Printers next door—it is a print shop utilizing Bowne’s letterpresses and historic type.

But we could not foresee Sandy, and Sandy did us in. Sandy ravaged our building systems and more. FEMA considers the Museum a “nonessential nonprofit.” There is no clear path to receiving “mitigation” funding. At the same time funding from FEMA will take years to receive.

Thus, the City Museum will not renew its operating agreement when it expires on July 5.

For all of us who have been split between two institutions, our focus going forward will be the Museum of the City of New York, and working on what the Chairman of the Board of Trustees has identified as our next priority—an interactive exhibition tentatively titled City of Aspirations and covering the sweep of New York City’s history—to be installed in all three galleries on the City Museum’s first floor.

In closing, I say hats off to Department of Cultural Affairs Commissioner Kate Levin and Mayor Bloomberg and members of his administration for entrusting us to revive the Seaport Museum. As our involvement with the Seaport Museum draws to a close, we will work with DCA and others to finalize the transition.

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3 Responses to Statement on Museum of City of New York’s Oversight of South Street Seaport Museum

  1. Kaäri says:

    Sad to say I’m not the least bit surprised 🙁

  2. Louis Cohen says:

    With shipping such an important part of the NY economy (the Port Authority, and all the foreign flag shipping controlled out of NY) I am amazed that the industry hasn’t raised money to endow the museum. Or even the Port Authority taking over the museum – they could have exhibits not only on NY’s maritime heritage but on the current port as well.

  3. Rick Spilman says:

    Back in the late 60s, when the Seaport Museum was founded there were still shipping companies based in New York. Jakob Isbrandtsen, former president of the American Export Industries and Isbrandtsen Company, was a major financial supporter. US shipping has since gone away and foreign owners lack the connection with seaport. The Port Authority spends most of its time and money managing the bridges, tunnels, airports, subways and buses. If they spent a dollar on the South Street Seaport, someone would cry bloody murder the next time the subway fare went up by a nickle.

    There is more than enough money floating around New York to support the museum and I am sure that many folks are now scurrying about trying to find it. The outcome doesn’t look great, however.