City saves Seaport Museum

BY ALINE REYNOLDS  |   For maritime buffs hoping for a miraculous recovery by the Seaport Museum, recently on the brink of closure, help is now on the way.

The Museum of the City of New York will be overseeing the management and budgetary operations of the struggling museum, in the heart of the South Street Seaport, on an interim basis. The decision is the result of months of talks with the city Economic Development Corporation and the Department of Cultural Affairs.

The City Museum’s Board of Trustees officially approved the $3 million deal last Thurs., Sept. 8 — two million of which is being supplied by the Lower Manhattan Development Corporation in the form of a cultural enhancement grant. The oversight is expected to last 12-to-18 months. After that, the Seaport museum could then branch off again as a separate nonprofit, transform into a different, independent nonprofit or merge with the City Museum, according to Susan Henshaw Jones, the City Museum’s president and director.

The acquisition followed a tumultuous period during which the Seaport laid off most of its paid staff and shuttered all its galleries.

“There was some urgency about this consideration, because the Seaport’s financial position had deteriorated,” said Jones. “We respect the Seaport’s mission, we admire it, and we want to keep it going.”

The City Museum is in solid financial shape, having raised close to $80 million for a $90 million worth of capital improvements to renovate its own space at 5th Ave. and 103rd St.

“That, in a sense, enables us to breathe and see how we can be helpful at the Seaport Museum, because we’ve gotten so much behind us up here,” said Jones.

When asked about the recipe for success at the Seaport Museum, Jones said there was not a predetermined formula.

“If you provide meaningful programming that people want to come to and participate in, then you can solve your problems to a large degree just as long as you’re watching your income and expenses,” said Jones.

In the case of the Seaport, Jones noted, the “expenses were exceeding the income,” therefore the museum was “unsustainable.”

Jones and her team have already begun to map out programming for the Seaport Museum’s indoor exhibit space, including a 22-minute multimedia presentation on the city’s history that will be on display this fall. The City Museum will also be re-activating the museum’s school programs, re-organizing its archival material, accepting new members and launching a new fundraising campaign.

“What we have to do there is, we have to educate and entertain New Yorkers as we introduce them to the city’s history and to the history of our status at the Seaport,” said Jones.

In the next month, Jones and her colleagues will decide whether to keep or let go the Seaport Museum’s Chairman, Frank Sciame, and its president, Mary Pelzer, who have both been under fire for the museum’s troubles.

The City Museum, Jones added, is committed to retaining the connection between the Seaport’s eight ships and its exhibition space. The historic vessels, which are tightly stacked around Pier 16, will promptly reopen to the public and be periodically rented out to interested parties.

“There’s no [docking] room down here. It’s very problematic,” said Jones. “What we know is, we’re going to have to look at the subject of ships, and planning for the ships, as soon as possible.”

Many Seaport Museum advocates were thrilled to hear about the new development.

“It’s wonderful news that the Museum of the City of New York is considering [taking] a crack at running the Seaport Museum,” said Peter Stanford, who co-founded the maritime museum and is a founding member of Save Our Seaport, a grassroots group that has been advocating for its restoration. “I have to hope that a better picture of the potential of the museum will reach them.”

The City Museum has an “excellent reputation,” Stanford added, having worked with former director Ralph Miller in the creation of the Seaport Museum in 1967.

“For us, we see it as a possibility for re-engaging with the Seaport,” said Murray Fisher, founder and program director of the Harbor School on Governors Island.

The school, once an active partner with the Seaport Museum, has not had any programming for its students there since June. “We’re eager to get our students back on the Seaport’s ships,” said Fisher.

John Fratta, co-chair of the Community Board 1 Seaport-Civic Center Committee, said he was happy another organization finally stepped up to the plate to salvage the dying institution. “We knew it was in dire financial straights, and we didn’t want to lose that commodity in our community,” said Fratta.

To succeed, Fratta said, the City Museum would have to “find a way to attract more people to the museum with different types of exhibitions they haven’t had.”

Fratta is hoping Jones or another City Museum official will accept his invitation to the next Seaport-Civic Center Committee meeting on Sept. 20 to discuss the specifics of the takeover. Fratta also hopes the Seaport Museum will become more transparent in general as it comes back to life.

“We were always kept in the dark as to what was happening,” said Fratta. “Every time we questioned rumors, we really weren’t getting answers as to what happened.”

Others were cautiously content upon hearing the news.

“It’s certainly positive, but we have to wait and see what happens,” said Michael Kramer, another member of Save Our Seaport. “We hope it comes to pass.”

“I would just feel better if I knew [the Council of American Maritime Museums] was doing consulting for the Seaport,” said a source familiar with the museum’s recent problems and who requested anonymity. “I am sad and worried that an obviously willfully incompetent management is being maintained.”

However, while Sciame gave no indication that he was resigning, he said he is confident there will be a smooth transition to “new leadership.”

“The Seaport Museum’s board of trustees and I are extremely pleased about this outcome,” said Sciame. “With the challenging financial environment our city and country are facing, and the fact that our two institutions already share compatible missions, this is a relationship that makes good sense.”

The shared goal, Sciame continued, is “to see the museum thrive once again.”