Volume 20, Number 41 | The Newspaper of Lower Manhattan | February 23 - March 1, 2011

Downtown Express photo by Aline Reynolds

Some of the Seaport Museum’s financial woes are tied to its historic vessels (above).

Seaport Museum flounders, but hasn’t yet sunk

BY Aline Reynolds

Seaport Museum New York, once a thriving institution, is now barely keeping its head above water.

Thirty-two full- and part-time employees — half of its entire staff — have been placed on furlough, and seven of its 21 trustees have resigned in the last month, according to a museum spokesperson. Sources claim that future exhibits have been suspended, and that the museum’s development and curatorial departments have virtually evaporated.

The furlough move is “an interim, emergency measure,” according to the museum’s president, Mary Pelzer, who said she expects to rehire the employees in the coming months.

The museum was forced to lay off five other workers earlier this month, including a ship captain and curatorial and visitor services staff, according to sources. The situation has become so dire that some administrators have recently formed an austerity committee to devise ways to cut expenditures.

Pelzer and other museum administrators declined to be interviewed, but they issued a written statement, saying, “Like many cultural institutions, Seaport Museum New York is dealing with serious challenges resulting from the continuing economic downturn.”

Pelzer also said that administrators are working “diligently” to tackle the challenges and “ensure the museum’s fiscal health and ability to carry out its cultural and educational missions.” She met with Mayor Michael Bloomberg, Cultural Affairs Commissioner Kate Levin and Frank Sciame, the museum’s chairman, last Thursday to discuss possible solutions, according to reports.

“We’re hopeful the museum can be revitalized and put on a path towards long-term success,” a spokesperson for the mayor said.

Trustees Harold Reed and Brian McAllister have donated large sums of money to keep the museum alive. McAllister, who owns McAllister Towing, a local tugboat company that runs the towing operations at the Seaport, has contributed some $250,000 to its upkeep.

“It doesn’t bother me,” said McAllister. “That’s my job to help support them. I love this place, and I want it to survive.”

But neither donations nor loans will solve the museum’s long-term dilemmas, according to Peter Stanford, who co-founded the museum in 1967.

“No high-level shenanigans are going to work,” said Stanford. “It’s a matter of getting down to the basics.”

The museum, Stanford said, was a whopping success in its first few years of existence, with four active piers and a host of well-maintained operating vessels.

But in recent decades it has been plagued by mismanagement and misfortune. Things began to go downhill, according to Stanford, when Rouse Construction, a past owner of the Seaport, became incapable of “working the machine.” Many crucial educational programs offered on the waterfront were discontinued as a result.

Rouse eventually went bankrupt and defaulted on its obligations to the museum, according to Stanford; its successor, General Growth Properties, similarly filed Chapter 11 in 2009.

The trigger to the most recent setback, however, was not reacting quickly enough to the recession. “We should have laid off and tied up some of those boats,” said Stanford, “and let some of these [employees] go long before we did.”

Stanford and fellow museum lovers are hoping and praying the South Street Seaport’s new owner, the Howard Hughes Corporation, is capable, well-financed and willing to help salvage the museum.

David Weinreb, the chief executive officer of Howard Hughes, said the company is in full support of the museum staying open. “I think they’re an important part of the fabric of the Seaport and its history, and we’d certainly like to see them succeed,” he said.

Weinreb said he plans to meet with Sciame in the coming weeks to better understand the museum’s financial troubles and figure out how Howard Hughes can assist.

The museum going bankrupt wouldn’t necessarily signify its end, according to John Doswell, executive director of the Working Harbor Committee, which runs the tug boat rides to and from the W.O. Decker, one of the museum’s vessels.

“It’s not the worst thing in the world,” he said, pointing to the Intrepid Museum’s reemergence from Chapter 11 status in the mid-1980s.

This isn’t the first time the museum has been in financial turmoil. In 2004, it shuttered its library, laid off employees and relinquished its collection of cherished artifacts. In 2008, the institution fell into a one million dollar deficit, and, in 2009, it made only $280,000 in profits on a budget of more than $5 million, according to a recent New York Times article.

Neither the museum nor city officials would confirm these numbers.

The institution has been behind on rent and utilities payments to the city for the last decade, a N.Y.C. Economic Development Corporation spokesperson said. The city rejected administrators’ funding requests to reimburse loans to board members, which, not including Sciame’s, total around $500,000.

The museum’s eleven vessels, its primary tourist attraction, deteriorated over the years as profits have shrunk and the institution cut back on its maintenance expenses. As a result, the Pioneer, an 1885 schooner that makes chartered voyages, for example, barely left the dock last summer.

“The boats need a lot of money and work, that’s what the problem is,” Doswell explained.

The ships, he and others said, are in dire need of more public programming. Right now, they’re like “mute animals standing in their stalls with no active programs to bring them to life,” said Stanford.

The board of trustees is ironing out a deal with Sciame to bring back services to two of its vessels, according to McAllister.

The museum has unsuccessfully tried selling a few of its ships, including the Peking and the Lettie G. Howard, in order to maintain Wavertree and other vessels it plans to hold onto.

But sources worry that the museum will lose part of its charm with a smaller fleet.

Without the museum’s historic vessels, the Seaport is “just a mall on a pier,” according to McAllister. “And the mall has not done well.”

Seaport resident and maritime lover Lee Gruzen believes part of the problem lies in the clash between the district’s commercial character and the museum’s historic presence. The two entities, she said, have nurtured an unfruitful relationship in recent years.

It’s an extraordinary paradox, Gruzen observed, to see the museum floundering despite the recent population boom Downtown and forthcoming plans to revitalize the area’s waterfront.

“You can’t have all of this love, passion, activity and use of the waterfront… without having one institution to keep the history,” said Gruzen.

The museum, Gruzen added, has been life-changing for both out-of-towners and city residents wishing to learn about the neighborhood’s rich history.

Sciame’s managerial abilities have recently been called into question since the museum’s latest downturn. The chairman has reportedly lent the institution $3 million to fund payroll and other operating expenses in the last year.

In a written statement, Sciame, like Pelzer, attributed the museum’s financial woes to the flailing economy.

“I’m confident that we will overcome these obstacles so that the museum can continue to fulfill its important cultural and educational missions,” Sciame said, adding he is grateful to the city and the downtown community for their continued support.

Many sources acquainted with Sciame sang his praises, and did not attribute the museum’s problems to his leadership.

Gruzen, who has known Sciame for ten years, said the chairman has only good intentions. “He wouldn’t have put in his own money if he didn’t think the tide was turning for the Seaport, and that it was extremely important to give it a financial foundation,” she said.

Trustee Peter Gates said the board is “extremely grateful to [Sciame] for all that he does for this institution. He has brought incredible energy, generosity and judgment to the museum.”

“I think he’s very well-meaning, dedicated and enthusiastic,” echoed Reed.

And, despite its sharp decline, many of the museum’s supporters remain optimistic about its future.

“The museum has overcome significant challenges in the past, and I’m confident that we are making the right decisions to do so again,” said Gates.

The facility is such an invaluable historical resource to the city, according to its co-founder, Terry Walton, that “I believe a way will be found to make it continue and have a good future.”

John Fratta, chair of the Community Board 1 Seaport-Civic Center Committee, said the museum is integral to keeping alive the neighborhood’s history. He said the board hopes to arrange a meeting with the Howard Hughes Corporation to come up with some solutions.

“We’re going to have to all put our heads together,” said Fratta. “If it’s a funding issue, we’ll try to identify funding sources for this museum to stay open. We don’t want to see it go.”

Weinreb said he would welcome such an opportunity.

Meanwhile, Stanford and Walton have submitted a proposal to Pelzer to revamp the conditions of the vessels and initiate new educational programming along the waterfront.

The plan includes getting the stationary Wavertree to sail in the harbor again.

The hope, Stanford said, is to revive the maritime spirit the museum and its ships

thrived on 30 years ago.

Pelzer was receptive to the suggestions, according to Walton, and intends to present the founders’ ideas to the trustees when and if the museum recovers from its slump.

Doswell also has plans for the vessels’ future at the Seaport – to continue conducting weekly “Hidden Harbor” tours next summer, for example, so long as operations aboard the W.O. Decker are still up and running.

“Fingers crossed,” said Doswell.

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