June 6th and June 20th weekends offer two contrasting perceptions of how to celebrate the history of New York State. These two weekends highlight fundamental problems with New York State’s approach to state heritage and makes clear that the state of Connecticut demonstrates greater leadership and a more profound understanding of its history community.
By the June 6th weekend historic sites have awakened from the winter hibernation, dusted away the cobwebs, slapped on a new coat of paint, and are ready for the summer season. It should be no surprise then that there were many events scheduled for that weekend. All of those events, if they had been scheduled at the same time last year, they would have qualified for New York State’s Path through History Weekend, but this year they don’t.
In some cases June 6th weekend events may be regularly scheduled events held on the first weekend in June. With others, organizers may have guessed that the Path weekends would remain the same (they didn’t).
Funding for the events held on the June 6th weekend came from the organizations themselves, local efforts, and/or the New York Council for the Humanities. Multiple local organizations collaborated in the presentation of some of the programs held over the June 6th weekend, and a few involve multiple locations.
The local and regional nature of these events serve as a reminder that there is a difference between the civic and community mission of the local historical communities and the tourist destination mantra of the state’s tourism officials. It’s not that one is right and the other is wrong, but that each should have its place.
Once upon a time New York State understood this. New York Heritage Weekend began in 2011 (following the 2009 Hudson Quadricentennial). At that time, the selected weekend was in mid-May. It’s stated purpose was to “showcase the Empire State’s rich history and cultural heritage to residents and visitors alike while helping to kick off the summer tourism season.”
Notice the mention of residents reflecting the reality that attendees would be local. There was no suggestion of overnight lodging or generating tax revenue so common with New York State’s history efforts today. In 2009, organizations were even invited to participate in Heritage Weekend by entering events on a new website. The instructions and procedures are remarkably similar to the current Path through History website.
The spirit of community heritage evident in the New York Heritage Weekend Program lives on outside the Path through History program. This past May, Dutchess County, the Hudson River Valley National Heritage Area, New York State Office of Parks, Recreation and Historic Preservation, the Greater Hudson Heritage Network, and Locust Grove, sponsored a one-day event for historic sites and organizations in “the Hudson Valley-Catskills” (the Mid-Hudson Path through History region, which includes Sullivan County). The theme for the fair was: “Hands-On History.” Discover what’s in your own backyard! Get some great ideas for summer daytrips!
The terms “backyard” and “daytrips” both suggest local visitors, something that is seemingly at odds with the ostensible purpose of Path through History program: generating tourism (and tax) revenue. Will Tatum, the Dutchess County historian and chair of the Mid-Hudson Path region, stated the May event’s purpose:
This event offers a unique opportunity for area residents and visitors from across the region to sample our 400 years of shared history. We’re delighted to welcome sites and organizations from throughout our region, especially those traveling from Sullivan County.
Notice the local and regional focus, again contrary to the approach of the Path program. This initiative is a reminder that people in the real world and those in Albany-Manhattan bubble operate in two different realities.
In practice the event turned out to be primarily a showcase of Dutchess County historical organizations, NYSOPRHP sites, and Sullivan County Parks. This is part of the challenge in promoting regional activities given the size of region.
Dutchess County then highlighted the shortcomings of the Path through History program by scheduling Dutchess Heritage Days on June 13 and 14! Last year that would have qualified as a Path event. This year it is a tree falling in the woods with no one at the Path project to hear it.
Are events on June 6-7 worthy of state recognition, even when they are not part of the Path weekend? What about June 13-14? Why does the state body count exclude them? Where is the state support anyway? There is no pool off funds in the Regional Economic Development Council funding set aside for Path programs. Why not?
There is a better way. Connecticut is just starting the “Good to Great Pilot Grant Program”. According to its guidelines:
The Department of Economic and Community Development seeks applications which look beyond basic facilities repair or expansion towards new means of telling the stories of our cultural sites in engaging, meaningful, and relevant ways. We are prioritizing funding for collaborative projects which demonstrate a clear vision of how individual sites and organizations can effectively tie together local, regional or statewide cultural assets.
DECD anticipates award of up to $2 million under this pilot program. We further expect to award 75% of the total available funds for project proposals submitted by small- to medium-sized organizations.
Connecticut will spend $2 million on local history organizations to develop paths through history, to tell Connecticut’s story. By contrast New York sets aside no money for that purpose. Connecticut’s state budget is approximately $20 billion annually versus New York’s $140 billion. This seven-times differential means New York State would have to budget $14 million to match Connecticut’s commitment.
Will New York State ever recognize the importance of community heritage in an addition to destination tourism? Will New York State ever learn how to do a better job supporting cultural heritage? Will New York State ever put its money where its advertising mouth is? Will New York State ever catch up to Connecticut in supporting paths through history? Don’t hold your breath.