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State of New York State History

NYSHA Responds to Advocacy for Local and State History Post

New York State Historical Association, Cooperstown

In a previous post, I reported on a petition initiated by the New York Academy of History in support of local and state history.  Much of the details of the letter were against recent actions of the New York State Historical Association (NYSHA). That organization has undergone some changes in 2017 as reported in New York History Blog by editor John Warren and columnist/advocate Bruce Dearstyne.

My post also led to a response by Paul S. D’Ambrosio, President & CEO, Fenimore Art Museum & The Farmers’ Museum aka NYSHA. He sent me an email asking if I would publish it. I agreed to do so and he then sent a second draft which is published below.

This is in response to the recent blog post by Peter Feinman entitled “History Professors Protest for State and Local History.” The post was unfortunately misinformed and inaccurate, and it is regrettable that no one from Fenimore Art Museum (the “Museum”), formerly known as the New York State Historical Association, was approached for comment prior to its publication. Accordingly, I write to you now to correct the record and provide an accurate description the Museum’s current and future activities. 

Most crucially, the notions that NYSHA is “defunct” or “ceases to exist,” or that any of its programs are “at risk,” could not be more incorrect. The organization formerly known as NYSHA has simply changed its name (formally adopting the name that it has legally used as a “d/b/a” for many years), while continuing to carry on a wide range of activities promoting an appreciation of art, history, and culture. The Museum thus has been, and remains, a private, non-profit organization chartered under the New York State Education Law and recognized by the IRS as exempt from taxation under Internal Revenue Code Section 501(c)(3). Indeed, the Museum’s status as such was re-affirmed by the IRS on October 17, 2017 in response to a submission including the Museum’s amended charter.  

The charter amendments were driven by the Museum’s desire to reflect the broad range of its long-standing activities, to avoid the misconception that it was a state agency, and to correct the ongoing confusion with the New-York Historical Society in Manhattan. The Museum also desired to address the fact that its collections have never been limited to New York State and, in fact, our important art collections, including our American Folk Art and American Indian Art, have been national in scope for decades. The charter amendments thus allow the Museum to present an institutional identity to the public that fully reflects its collections and the experience it offers.

Most important to the concerns in Mr. Feinman’s blog post is what the charter amendments did not change – the scope or quality of our educational programming. We still host more than 7,000 school children each year in organized tours on a range of historical and artistic topics.  We continue to operate our Research Library, a vital resource for the region with more than 100,000 volumes and a large collection of unique original manuscripts. The Library continues to be staffed by professional librarians as it has been for many years. We continue to serve New York as the statewide coordinator of National History Day, a competitive program that reaches more than 10,000 students throughout the state. We maintain a close partnership with The Farmers’ Museum, a living history museum dedicated to promoting an understanding of the rural and agricultural history of New York. We share most of our professional staff with this prominent history museum. Please know as well that we are committed to ensuring the continued publication of the journal New York History, and that its future is not in jeopardy. Finally, of course, we bring world-class art exhibitions to New York State every year, including artists such as Andrew Wyeth, Ansel Adams, and (upcoming in 2018) Thomas Cole.

In short, our museum campus continues to thrive as Fenimore Art Museum, and we maintain the same reverence for our state’s rich past as we always have. We are firmly committed to providing cultural enrichment and a better quality of life for New Yorkers, and critical educational opportunities for the youth of the state.

I would be happy to answer any questions anyone may have about Fenimore Art Museum and its range of activities. Please feel free to contact me directly at p.dambrosio@fenimoreart.org or call me at 607-547-1413 if would like to discuss this matter further. Thank you for your attention and interest.

Sincerely,

Paul S. D’Ambrosio
President & CEO
Fenimore Art Museum & The Farmers’ Museum

His response reflects the dual nature of the Cooperstown organization. On the one hand, there is a museum, actually two museums. I have been to both museums as part of Teacherhostels/Historyhostels and attending conferences. Those conferences have been both a local one for social studies teachers (which I believe have been discontinued or at least I stopped getting notices about them) and state ones such as for the New York State History Conference which NYSHA helped run.  The museum part of the operation of the organization is not defunct. It continues to function as a museum and my post was not directed towards this aspect of its identity.

The second part refers to its statewide identity and function. In previous posts I have written about the need for the history community to organiza and advocate. I confess when I wrote these various posts, the name that came to me as the perfect vehicle to express what I wanted was the New York State Historical Association. Here is where I have a problem with NYSHA. It is partially addressed in the letter from Ken Jackson that initiated this sequence and not really addressed in the respose by Paul D’Ambrosio. The true issue is not the functioning of the museum but the absence of any leadership position as a statewide advocacy group for history.

At the end of my post, I suggested the following actions be taken:

Let’s pick three days to advocate on behalf of state and local history during the 2018 legislative session:

1. a day when the legislature is not in session and advocacy can be done locally (such as a Friday)
2. a day when the legislature is in session (such as a Tuesday or Wednesday)
3. a day when the Regents is in session (monthly meetings).

We need to become a squeaky wheel.

Notice what Paul D’Ambrosio’s response in his post was to my suggestions  – there is none whatsoever. In my email to him, I even asked what he thought of my suggestions. In other words, I gave him the opportunity to revise his own response to include an endorsement or recommendations of his own on behalf of state advocacy for history. His email response to me is private but clearly his published response does not address the deeper concerns I raised. One should note that he once was a member of the Regents  Advisory Council on Museums reported on in post dated November 9, 2017 so he has been involved at the state level. What lessons can he share from that experience as part of an advisory council that nobody outside a small circle even knows exists?

Over the past few years, I have participated in advocacy days for tourism and state parks. Both of these days are organized by private organizations with full-time staff  who have the mission of having a statewide perspective. They are not trapped in the day-to-day necessities of running a museum, park, or hotel. Their job is to monitor the events in the state capital as they relate to their respective sectors and to be on top of developments. Obviously teachers and libraries also pack a wallop along with numerous other sectors like preservation.

History and museums have no such state voice. Yes, MANY exists and with a lobbyist but it is a small staff and I am not sure it has the resources to create a Musem Advocacy Day (MAD) in New York. MANY is not a purely history organization either since its mandate includes art museums, science museums, zoos, and acquariums. And the 600-pound history gorillas in New York City tend to do their own thing without consideration for a state leadership role. There are more fulltime people at the New-York Historical Society building than in just about any individual county in the state. It operates in a separate world from the history museums and societies in the towns and villages throughout the state …. or even their equivalent organizations in the neighborhoods of the city.

NYSHA should be the history organization that galvanizes the history community. It isn’t and it is not going to be. So what do we do instead? Perhaps being squeaky as I suggested in the earlier post isn’t enough. We need to get MAD!

Peter Finch in Network

And just as was about to post this blog to the IHARE website, look what I received.

November 29, 2017

Dear Friends, Members, and Supporters,

I’m pleased to share the news that I have been invited to testify on Tuesday, December 5, 2017 at the New York State Assembly’s Standing Committee on Tourism, Parks, Arts, and Sports Development’s Annual Budget Oversight Hearing of the 2017-2018 State Budget. The purpose of this hearing will be to review the impact and effectiveness of the New York State Council on the Arts (NYSCA) grants awarded throughout the State and arts projects funded by NYSCA.

I would like to include information from as many members of New York State’s museum field as possible in my remarks. This is a link to a survey that will take less than 5 minutes of your time to complete. Please click the link above and submit your answers before Friday, December 1 at 5 PM when the survey will close.

The information gathered will be shared with the Committee next Tuesday and with you later next week. Please feel free to forward this email to colleagues.

Unless you choose otherwise, I will aggregate and reported responses anonymously.

Thank you for sharing your information and helping me to prepare my testimony.

Erika Sanger
Executive Director
Museum Association of New York

4 thoughts on “NYSHA Responds to Advocacy for Local and State History Post

  1. Fortunately, many of us have long memories. The Clarks with help from the Pells (virtually singlehandedly) moved a thirty-year old institution to Cooperstown from the sleepy but more historically significant community of Ticonderoga in the 1940s. At the end of WW ll it seemed to them that historical tourism was about to become a major industry, and Cooperstown was eager to cash in. They manufactured historical attractions by moving historic structures from other places to a European-style outdoor museum, and turned one of the Clark estates into a folk museum, emphasizing Native-son J. F. Cooper’s fictional tales. The statewide title of the organization was inherited from the founders, and many of the members were a lot less interested in Cooperstown than the Clarks, but to no avail. The emphasis would remain on Cooperstown for more than 50 years.

    This is the final insult. The rebranding of the parent organization by dropping the state name and morphing the purpose of the organization from a historical association into an Art Museum is unconconscionable. In my opinion, the Board of Regents should never have approved such an abrupt abandonment of the original charter goals. Which part of the New York State Historical Association do the trustees not comprehend. Is it the focus on New York State? Or the focus on history? Or perhaps it’s the Association part, which implies it’s a grass roots organization. An art museum is in no way the equivalent of an Historical Association. Art is not history, and associations are not museums.

    Most of us are aware that the Clark family has supplied the bulk of funding for the museums from their inception. That is a laudable community-spirited activity, but the tail is now wagging the dog. It seems to me that the appropriate move would have been to legally separate the museum functions from the parent organization without destroying it.

    1. By coincidence I used the Yorker image in the next blog post about NYSHA. It is on the IHARE website but hasn’t been been disseminated. I think I will write it in a post on what a state historical society should do.

  2. NYSHA no longer exists.
    It was vaporized when Paul D’Ambrosio moved his $50 million endowment meant for New York history to his non- New York history art museum.

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