Anchors aweigh, Seaport Museum loses its operator

Downtown Express photo by Yoon Seo Nam  The Museum of the City of New York invested $600,000 in the Seaport Museum’s Ambrose before announcing it could no longer afford to run the museum.

Downtown Express photo by Yoon Seo Nam
The Museum of the City of New York invested $600,000 in the Seaport Museum’s Ambrose before announcing it could no longer afford to run the museum.

BY TERESE LOEB KREUZER  |  The Museum of the City of New York, which had been managing the South Street Seaport Museum since the fall of 2011, will end its relationship with the museum headquartered at 12 Fulton St., effective July 5.

After years of financial hardship, the Seaport Museum, consisting of property on Fulton St. and Water St. and historic ships moored on Pier 16, was on its way back to financial and curatorial health when Superstorm Sandy struck, creating an estimated $22 million worth of damage.

“Sandy ravaged our building systems and more,” said Susan Henshaw Jones, director of the Museum of the City of New York and president of the South Street Seaport Museum. “FEMA [Federal Emergency Management Agency] considers the South Street Seaport 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.”

After struggling to reopen following Sandy, the museum finally had to close its galleries at 12 Fulton St. on April 7 and move its collection to its conjoined building facing John St., which still had adequate air conditioning and climate control to keep the collection safe.

It also kept its auxiliary shop, Bowne & Co. Stationers, open at 211 Water St. along with Bowne Printers, also on Water St. The museum’s 1885 schooner Pioneer embarked on harbor sails this season.

Danai Pointer, a spokesperson for the Department of Cultural Affairs, said that the Pioneer will continue to sail through the summer season and that Bowne & Co. will remain open.

“We are working with the Museum of the City of New York on the transition,” she said.

An article in The New York Times about the South Street Seaport Museum’s situation quoted Kate D. Levin, the cultural affairs commissioner, as saying that the D.C.A. is working to find another entity that could manage the South Street Seaport Museum.

In the last 21 months, under the Museum of the City of New York’s direction, the South Street Seaport Museum mounted 18 exhibitions and initiated an ambitious array of children’s programming.

It spent $200,000 to replace the hull on its historic lightship, Ambrose, and raised $400,000 to replace it’s deck. In addition, the Museum of the City of New York raised the $250,000 needed to rebuild the South Street Seaport Museum’s 1883 schooner, Lettie G. Howard. It also obtained a capital grant of $2.5 million from the city’s Department of Cultural Affairs to stabilize the hull on the Wavertree, built in 1885 and one of the last large sailing ships with an iron hull.

“I believe that the City of New York has a commitment and responsibility to our community to insure the continued existence and viability of the South Street Seaport Museum,” said Paul Hovitz, a member of Community Board 1’s South Street Seaport Committee. ”The programs, exhibits and ships are a vital part of our heritage. Letting them die would be like leveling the Alamo to build a shopping mall.”

Catherine McVay Hughes, C.B. 1’s chairperson, said that she is scheduled to go to a meeting July 3rd with city and other officials to discuss the museum’s fate. The topic will also be discussed at Board 1’s Seaport Committee meeting July 16.

A spokesperson for the city’s Economic Development Corp., the Seaport Museum’s landlord, declined to comment.

“I thank the Museum of the City of New York for its fruitful stewardship of the South Street Seaport Museum,” City Councilmember Margaret Chin said in a statement. “For many months, I have worked with the Department of Cultural Affairs, Community Board 1, the city’s Economic Development Corporation, the Howard Hughes Corporation, and the South Street Seaport Museum to ensure the museum’s continued presence in the Seaport, and I look forward to together finding an organization that will assume stewardship of the museum, its collections and its legacy.”

Downtown Express file photo by Terese Loeb Kreuzer Susan Henshaw Jones was president of the Seaport Museum for nearly two years.

Downtown Express file photo by Terese Loeb Kreuzer
Susan Henshaw Jones was president of the Seaport Museum for nearly two years.

Jenifer Rajkumar, who is running for City Council against Chin, said: “Back in March, thousands of community members asked the City Council to negotiate protections for the Seaport Museum as part of Howard Hughes Corporation’s…proposal for the Seaport. The City Council failed to do so. This was an incredible missed opportunity to save the Seaport Museum. We must not miss another opportunity now.”

All of the parties must come “to the negotiating table to find the stream of revenue that will ensure the survival of the Seaport Museum,” she added.

Spokespersons for Chin’s office and campaign declined to comment on Rajkumar’s criticism of the Council action.

Jones sent a farewell letter to museum friends last week saying in part, “Certainly, we hope that work on Ambrose and Wavertree will continue. In closing, I thank you for believing in our cause, as evidenced by your support, and I am so very sorry to disappoint! Come visit many of us at the City Museum.”

With Reporting by Josh Rogers

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