By Penny Gray
How did you become president of the Museum of the City of New York?
I’m a native New Yorker, but I was living in Washington, D.C., heading up the National Building Museum when I got a call because my husband and I were moving back to New York after 10 years in D.C. The call was this job. I started in February 2003 and I have been here ever since.
And it’s been a good match?
Oh, I think so. What attracted me most—what makes me happiest—is the name of our museum. I believe there is so much others can learn from our city. It’s a place of opportunity, diversity and perpetual transformation. The Museum of the City of New York is a testament to that.
The Museum of the City of New York has just taken over at the South Street Seaport Museum. Will this change your role at all?
Well, it’s important to clarify that this is an interim agreement for one year with a six-month possible extension and it started on September 29. We were asked to consider this by the City of New York; they were seeking a solution for the future of the Seaport Museum.
And so they came to you. What’s the solution?
We’re working quickly to show the community and New Yorkers that we can make quick, positive changes down at the Seaport. We have secured funding for the reopening of the boats; we’re winterizing the boats at the moment so they can be opened up by the summer.
We’ve also restarted the school programs; we’re booking programs as we speak and the first school program began November 1. We’ve hired archivists to work in the library, cataloging. The library has been closed to the public for a long while, so it’s badly in need of organization. Hopefully, we’ll even be able to digitize documents and make them available on the website.
Beyond that, we’re exploring strategies for our galleries on Schermerhorn Row. The Seaport has 30,000 square feet of public exhibit space within Schermerhorn Row, so we’re putting together an exhibition of New York’s maritime history, broadly speaking. As of January, we’ll be inviting artists into designated space to put the gallery into use for art installations, performance art, etc. It’s a good time to put the word out about that.
Sounds like you’ve got a lot on your plate. What’s the most difficult aspect of taking on the South Street Seaport Museum?
Undoubtedly, it’s the consideration of the 11 vessels in the Seaport fleet. Up here at the Museum of the City of New York, we haven’t really considered ships, but we embrace them. We are committed to joining these iconic ships with the Schermerhorn Row block, but working out the ins and outs of the vessels is certainly the greatest challenge.
And meanwhile, you continue to run the Museum of the City of New York as well. What’s the greatest challenge there?
Unlike our neighbors down Fifth Avenue, we’re a mid-sized museum entity. We’re a $16 million shop, so raising money in the post-2008 environment is the task at hand. We manage to have a surplus, though, because we’re very responsible.
The Museum of the City of New York is located at 103rd Street and Fifth Avenue, and the Seaport is definitely a Downtown museum. What’s it like working downtown and how does location affect museum culture?
Downtown is really a different place. I spent over a decade working in Lower Manhattan with the [John] Lindsay administration in the ’70s and ’80s, when all of the 24-hour uses of Manhattan were being facilitated. Thanks to the Downtown-Lower Manhattan Association, there’s new life cropping up all over the place, and even the function of Downtown is changing, with new residential areas and new uses. It’s unbelievable. It just goes to show how long it takes for city planning to really take root.
And how can Downtowners become involved in the Seaport Museum?
We need the support of all New Yorkers. We need Downtowners to become members on all levels. It’s not just a source of support, but also of attendance. And if museums aren’t your thing, come on over to Bowne & Company Stationers—it’s a fully functioning 19th-century letterpress. You can get your holiday cards printed here, or cards for any occasion. There are a lot of ways to be involved with the South Street Seaport besides stepping inside of a traditional museum.
Photo courtesy of the Museum of the City of New York
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