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The NYSHA Saga Continues: Gone but Not Forgotten

Defunct NYSHA School Program (

The story of the New York State Historical Association (NYSHA) remains a fluid one with continuing new developments. To recap, in the spring of 2017, NYSHA recast itself as the Fenimore Art Museum and Farmers’ Museum. The change has led to questions regarding the statewide functions it once had and which have diminished over the years. In my post on the subject on November 26, I called for the need for state advocacy for local and state history, an effort which needs to happen in the absence of NYSHA performing that role.


A comment on my post emphasized the distress felt over the decline of NYSHA:

Successive administrations at NYSHA and the Farmer’s Museum have managed to slowly obliterate a once world class historical association, through antipathy, mission creep, or outright neglect. Stephen C. Clark Sr. and Louis C. Jones pulled off quite the coup when they brought NYSHA from Ticonderoga. With the help of Dixon Ryan Fox, Edward P. Alexander, and Clifford Lord it made huge advances. In the last few decades we have seen fundamental aspects of the organization they helped build decline and eventually fade away entirely. The educational program for schools, the Young Yorkers was a great vehicle for promoting NY State history in schools, as well as ensuring visitation to the museums throughout the school year. It built relationships with NY youth that built appreciation for NY’s history and gave them a vested interest in the organization. The Seminars on American Culture brought people from all over to Cooperstown experience history first hand and learn more about their past. The New York History quarterly was a first class publication and invaluable to both professional historians and amateurs alike. Wendell Tripp’s contribution to the production of that publication was yeoman’s work and he deserves recognition for his years of work on it.

Now it is all gone, a legacy squandered by later generations. In a few years no one will really remain who remembers what the organization once was. It is ironic that an organization based on the preservation of history has forgotten its own.

Someone needs to write the history of NYSHA before everyone is gone and the lessons of its decline are lost to the ages.


Also in response to my post and the charges brought against by the New York Academy of History (NYAH), Paul D/Ambrosio, the President and CEO of the two museums sent me an email which he asked me to post. I did so on November 30.  Here is what has happened since then.


At approximately the same time of these posts, the museums sent out a funding letter under Paul’s name. Certainly that seems like a routine occurrence especially for this time of year. One recipient of the letter who read it at the same time as reading the two posts here, then wrote me:

I find it strange that in the fund raising appeal letter there is no mention of either NYSHA or Research Library…. On this donation form one can chose to make a donation between the Fenimore Art Museum, The Farmers’ Museum or Both!   In prior years there has been a third choice for donations, that of The Research Library.

In Paul’s email to me which was posted, he wrote:

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 recipient of the funding appeal asked, “how certain is he of that figure?  Perhaps he has forgotten that the library collection has been significantly reduced?” I can’t speak to the specifics on the format of the funding letters in previous years or the state of research library today compared to years ago. Who does know what happened?


In his email which I posted, Paul also commented on the status of New York History, the academic journal for scholarship on New York State history. In the New York History Blog on April 2 reporting on the changed name, Paul is reported as saying that no decision has been made on whether the Fenimore Art Museum will support the journal New York History beyond 2017. In his email to me, Paul wrote:

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.

I posted this on November 30 to the IHARE website, a couple of days after receiving the email from Paul. By coincidence, on November 30, Jeff Pressman, the Chair of the Trustees of Fenimore Art Museum, announced that the concern for the fate of New York History could now be put to rest. Effective January 2019, responsibility for the journal would be transferred from the Fenimore Art Museum to the New York State Museum. Specifically, Devin Lander, the New York State Historian would henceforth be responsible for the publication of the academic journal working in conjunction with Cornell University Press.

Just as the Fenimore Art Museum has the right to focus on its mission as an art museum, so too it has the right to discharge its statewide responsibilities. It use to run the annual state history conference; that task was transferred to Bob Weibel when he was the state historian. When he left, there was no one to do the job. One presumes that the new state historian will assume responsibility for that conference in 2018 just as he will for the journal in 2019. With a podcast on state history also under consideration, one certainly hopes that state historian position will have the resources it needs to fulfill its responsibilities.


One other area of statewide activity by NYSHA which I have not seen reported on is history prizes alluded to in one of the replies I received. According to the Fenimore Museum website,

The Dixon Ryan Fox Prize is presented each year to the best unpublished, book-length monograph dealing with some aspect of the history of New York State. The New York State Historical Association named the award for its former president Dixon Ryan Fox in 1997 to recognize his contributions to New York state history. The prize consists of a $3,000 purse. Manuscripts may deal with any aspect of New York State history. Manuscripts may not have been accepted for final publication at the time of submission to the New York State Historical Association. Biographies of individuals whose careers illuminate aspects of the history of the state are eligible, as are manuscripts dealing with such cultural matters as literature and the arts, provided that in such cases the methodology is historical. Works of fiction and works of article length are not eligible.

Deadline for submissions is March 1, 2017. There are no application forms. For submissions, please send an electronic, printable file of the full manuscript, table of contents, and an abstract as separate PDF files to No hard copies are accepted.

Questions? Please contact Martha Membrino in the Publications Department at the New York State Historical Association at or by phone at 607-547-1416.

For more information about NYSHA and the prize, please visit our website at

According to New York History Blog on April 2, the editorial board was scheduled to meet in June to decide the awards for 2017, which would be presented at the Fenimore Art Museum’s annual meeting in July. The same applies to The Paul S. Kerr History Prize, awarded annually to the best article published in New York History. There is no listing on the Fenimore Art Museum website for a winner of the $1000 award in 2017, the last entry is 2016.   I also was unable to access the website for the Dixon Ryan Fox award listed in the notice above. When attempting to do so I received the reply

The connection has timed out

and I saw no listing for this award on the Fenimore Art Museum website. The current status of these two history awards remains unclear.

It should be noted that the Fenimore Art Museum does contain historical items. On December 5, it issued a press release:


The grants will provide funding for new programs and a publication based on the museum’s collection of documents pertaining to the life and death of founding father, Alexander Hamilton, focusing predominantly on a collection of thirty-five letters exchanged between Hamilton and Aaron Burr, leading up to their fatal duel on July 11, 1804. These documents, although familiar to historians, have remained largely unknown to the public until recently when they were brought to light in the song “Your Obedient Servant” from the hit Broadway musical Hamilton.

The Fenimore plans to design a virtual gallery of the Hamilton-Burr Collection and offer four programs. Two of these programs, for professionals of small historical societies and libraries with archival collections in Suffolk County, will use the printed publication and digitization of the Hamilton-Burr duel letters as a case study. For teachers, the museum will provide lesson plans for inclusion on its free, online educational portal, Harvest of History, and offer two online distance learning sessions exclusively to social studies teachers in Suffolk County as a means to support and encourage active use of these dynamic resources in the classroom.

The press release also notes the continued support for the New York State History Day school program.

At this point, there is really no reason to pursue the fate of the NYSHA any further.  As Professor Lisa Keller of the New York Academy of History and the New York History journal put it in her comment in response to my post:

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.

The Fenimore Art Museum and Farmers’ Museum will continue to function as museums serving those specific niches. The statewide activities including the state history conference and state journal will pass to the New York State Historian. The history awards may fall by the wayside unless the State Historian office can pick up the tab or some other arrangement is made. Exactly where the Regents and its Museum Advisory Council are in all this is not clear. The good thing is these changes move to a more robust New York State Historian office; the downside is it still leaves the New York State history community rudderless without a venue or vehicle through which to advocate for 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 or call me at 607-547-1413 if would like to discuss this matter further. Thank you for your attention and interest.


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