City is keeping Seaport Museum afloat

Downtown Express photos by Terese Loeb Kreuzer Historic ships belonging to the South Street Seaport Museum are moored at Pier 16.

Downtown Express photos by Terese Loeb Kreuzer
Historic ships belonging to the South Street Seaport Museum are moored at Pier 16.

BY TERESE LOEB KREUZER   | Reports of the South Street Seaport Museum’s demise were premature. The museum has a new board of directors and a new interim president, Jonathan Boulware.

“This is an organization that has not been closed but rather one that is alive and open,” Boulware said on July 8, his first official day in his new job. “While our galleries [at 12 Fulton St.] are not in any condition to open because of Sandy-related damage, our collections are quite safe,” he added. “Those parts of the museum that we can operate, we intend to operate to our fullest abilities.”

He said that Bowne & Co. Stationers and Bowne Printers on Water Street and the schooner Pioneer are open and accessible to the public. “We are using the active parts of our collection to vigorously represent what this museum is and can be.”

Boulware was formerly waterfront director for the museum, a job that he assumed in November 2011. After the Museum of the City of New York, which had been managing the South Street Seaport Museum since October 2011, announced that it would no longer do so, the museum’s board of trustees met on June 28. Six of those trustees resigned from the board, leaving three transitional trustees. They selected Boulware as interim president.

The transitional board members are Tracey Knuckles, general counsel of the New York City Department of Cultural Affairs; Christie Huus, director of strategic planning and development in the Mayor’s Office of Citywide Event Coordination; and David Sheehan, managing director and director of fiscal operations for the Mayor’s Office.

“The Department of Cultural Affairs has taken the lead in stabilizing the Museum’s governance structure through its involvement on the board of trustees,” said Danai Pointer, a spokesperson for the Department of Cultural Affairs. She said that the hope is to find a “successor steward” for the museum in the next few months.

The museum’s headquarters on Fulton Street suffered an estimated $22 million in damage from Superstorm Sandy. Pointer said that, “Strategies for undertaking the repairs are still being evaluated.”

In the meantime, Cultural Affairs, in partnership with the City Council and the Manhattan borough president, has provided capital funding for repairs to the museum’s historic ships and upland facilities. D.C.A. also provides funding for programs such as educational sailing aboard the Pioneer, said Pointer.

Jonathan Boulware in December 2011, shortly after he was hired as waterfront director for the South Street Seaport Museum.

Jonathan Boulware in December 2011, shortly after he was hired as waterfront director for the South Street Seaport Museum.

She explained that as interim president, Boulware would be responsible for the museum’s day-to-day operations and will report to the board of trustees. “As property manager for the larger Seaport district, E.D.C. [the New York City Economic Development Corporation] will continue to be involved in issues relating to the museum’s upland properties and waterfront throughout the transition period,” she said.

“I believe that the Department of Cultural Affairs is in earnest when they say that they are aiming to save the South Street Seaport Museum,” Boulware said. “I believe they are working toward that end and it is my confidence in their effort that has enticed me to stay into this next chapter.”

He said that he remains committed to the South Street Seaport Museum’s presence in Lower Manhattan. “It’s relevant and even necessary to the story that needs to be told here,” he said, “and the museum and the ships and the piers are a critical part of the waterfront district.”

As waterfront director for the museum, Boulware inherited a fleet of 11 historic ships, all of which needed maintenance. He supervised the first dry-docking in more than 20 years of the 1907 lightship Ambrose. He got the 1885 schooner Pioneer back on the water. He initiated project planning for the $6.75 million stabilization and restoration of the 1885 ship Wavertree.

With Superstorm Sandy looming, he worked for hundreds of hours with staff and volunteers to get the historic fleet ready to ride out the blow. The work paid off. None of the ships were damaged by the storm. For this, he received an award from the Metropolitan Waterfront Alliance as a “hero of the harbor.”

He is certified as a U.S. Coast Guard “master,” or captain, and has 20 years experience in maritime operations and nonprofit leadership.

“Jonathan Boulware has been known to wade into trouble. He did it literally with Sandy,” said David Sheldon, spokesperson for Save Our Seaport (S.O.S.), a group of Seaport Museum volunteers and advocates for the preservation of the historic Seaport. The water side of the museum’s operations and the land side are “inextricably linked,” he said. “It’s not just about the boats. It’s about the museum as well.”

Sheldon said that S.O.S. has been working vigorously for more than a year to bolster the museum and protect the historic Seaport. The group garnered 10,000 signatures on a petition to the mayor, mustered more than 150 people to speak at the City Council’s uniform land use review procedure (ULURP) hearing on Pier 17 and sent 1,000 postcards to the mayor.

“S.O.S. can help to voice what residents, New Yorkers and people around the world want to see in the district,” he said. “They want a historic district that reflects the mission of the museum and they want a waterfront that has the vessels that embody that history and a market in the middle that has been there in one form or another for hundreds of years.”

Yet, he said, the development of the Seaport seems “to transpire over our heads without our having a hand in [it]. People don’t know what’s going on. People do know that it’s out of their control. We are encouraged that the Department of Cultural Affairs is taking more of a hand [in the outcome].”

“It was very clear from our meeting last Wednesday with the commissioner of Cultural Affairs that she is working very hard with everyone on a difficult situation,” said Catherine McVay Hughes, chairperson of Community Board 1. “The costly damage from Superstorm Sandy comes on top of the reorganization two years ago in the wake of the Seaport Museum’s financial difficulties.”

But, Hughes continued, “It is in everyone’s interests that the Seaport Museum and its historic vessels continue their dual mission of highlighting our city’s history and animating the waterfront. New York City needs to keep its connection to its founding and its role as the greatest port on the Atlantic Ocean. The long-run viability of the Seaport Historic District requires an appropriate combination of historic assets with vibrant retail.”

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