Sin of Omission
City Agency Leaves Cash-Strapped Local Museum Off Roster of Cultural Institutions
The City’s Department of Cultural Affairs (DCA) has omitted from its list of dozens of New York-based cultural institutions that receive public support the museum that chronicles the oldest community anywhere in the five boroughs.
Since the 1870s, City Hall has maintained a roster of museums and arts groups located on publicly owned land, which are earmarked for tax-payer subsidies. This relationship began with the American Museum of Natural History, and has been updated recently enough to include new entrants like the Museum of Jewish Heritage, in Battery Park City, along with more than 30 other organizations.
But DCA has never included on this list the South Street Seaport Museum, which is the historical repository of New York’s first neighborhood, the colonial port and fishing village that grew up around the first Dutch settlement in what is now Lower Manhattan, starting in 1625. Indeed, the Museum’s mission statement promises to, “preserve and interpret the origins and growth of New York City as a world port, a place where goods, labor and cultures are exchanged through work, commerce, and the interaction of diverse communities.”
This lapse has led to Community Board 1 (CB1), which has defended and championed the Seaport Museum for decades, to push DCA to expand its tally. This would be a crucial development for the Seaport Museum, because inclusion in what the DCA calls the Cultural Institutions Group carries with it significant financial benefits, both in terms of capital budget support and operating funds.
The DCA notes that these funds are allocated, “to help meet basic security, maintenance, administration and energy costs.” In exchange for the funding, the DCA notes, “these institutions operate as publicly-owned facilities whose mandate is to provide cultural services accessible to all New Yorkers.” Ironically, the second part of this quid pro quo is already being fulfilled by the Seaport Museum. But the first component of the bargain (inclusion in the Cultural Institutions Group, and the funding that accompanies it) has never been formalized.
Even without such support, the Seaport Museum is on the verge of a renaissance. At Pier 16, on the East River waterfront, it maintains and operates a fleet of five historic vessels — several of which have been restored in recent years, including its flagship, the 133-year-old Wavertree. The Museum has also seen its attendance double in the past 12 months, and last year balanced its budget for the first time in recent memory.
But there have also been setbacks. The Museum was wrecked by 2012’s Hurricane Sandy, which devastated the entire Seaport neighborhood. This led the Museum of the City of New York (which is included on the DCA’s Cultural Institutions Group) to sever a partnership that had been seen as a financial lifeline to the Seaport Museum the following year.
In a resolution enacted at its September 24 meeting, CB1 urged the administration of Mayor Bill de Blasio and the DCA, “to add the most important and deserving South Street Seaport Museum to its Cultural Institutions Group,” and predicted that, “by doing so, the City will provide the Museum with urgently needed additional funding to reinforce the Museum’s status as a major cultural anchor for the East Side of Lower Manhattan and enable it to carry out its vital duties as an essential steward to this very special historic district.”
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