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The Battle over New York State and Local History Gets Ugly

The new legislative season is upon us. That means it is time to start lobbying. What are the history community “asks”? What is it the history community would like to see happen? For the museums the answer is clear. There is a Museum Education Act. Erika Sanger, Executive Director of the Museum Association of New York (MANY) has been keeping the museum community, which includes history museums, apprised of the political situation as the bill winds its way through the legislative process.

Other sectors of the state also are advancing their “asks.”  March 5th is Park Advocacy Day. On that day, people from around the state will meet in Albany under the auspices of Parks & Trails NY in partnership with the New York State Office of Parks, Recreation, and Historic Preservation (NYSOPRHP) to lobby legislators on specific legislation, mainly the budget.  March 12th is Tourism Industry Coalition advocacy day where that sector will lobby. Needless to say over the course of the session, numerous others sectors will lobby as well.

What about the history community? The history community has no “asks.” The history community has no advocacy day. The history community has no state organization to organize the state history community. One might think that once upon a time the New York State Historical Association (NYSHA) would take the lead but it didn’t and has officially withdrawn from any role in the history community except as a museum in its own right.

The withdrawal of NYSHA with its legal name change has been the subject of some recent posts. The situation now is ugly and with no hope of resolution. The recent chain of events began with a letter posted here by Ken Jackson, Columbia University and founder of the New York Academy of History, signed by dozens of people in history community both in and out of New York State. That letter lead to a reply by Paul D’Ambrosio, Fenimore Art Museum, also posted here.

His response didn’t go over so well with one reader. Normally, I would not post an anonymous comment but how many concerned New York State Historians are there in Chestertown who have been involved with NYSHA? His comment originally posted on New York History Blog which had reposted my original blog is presented below:

Paul is gaslighting here.

The letter above is signed by the President of the Society of American Historians and a Past President of the Organization of American Historians; two former trustees of the New York State Historical Association and nine Editorial Board members of NYSHA’s journal New York History; the current and former Chairs of the New York Council for the Humanities (now Humanities New York); the President emeritus and a former Executive Vice-President and Library Director of The New-York Historical Society; the President, former President, and Secretary of the New York Academy of History; the founders of the New Netherland Research Center, the Jacob Leisler Institute, and Gotham Center for New York City History; a Retired New York State Deputy Commissioner for Historic Preservation; a Senior Historian emeritus of the New York State Education Department; a former Manhattan Borough Historian; two Pulitzer Prize winners and a National Book Award recipient, and most of New York State’s most distinguished historians.

Let’s review what they are asking for:

“We ask you as an important public official to contact Paul D’Ambrosio (email to: or phone (607) 547-1400) and the Board of Directors (Douglas E. Evelyn, Kathleen Flanagan, Nellie Gipson, Shelley Graham, Robert S. Hanft, Josef E. Jelinek, Erna Morgan McReynolds, Anne G. Older, Jeffrey H. Pressman MD, Thomas O. Putnam, John B. Stetson, Ellen Tillapaugh, Richard Vanison, and Charles B. Kieler) of the newly-named Fenimore Art Museum to urge them to take actions to preserve not simply the name NYSHA, which he insists belongs to FAM, but also the duties and responsibilities of NYSHA. Please urge him to do the following: 

  1. Continue NYSHA as an organization with real functions;
  2. Enable New York History to keep publishing by placing it in the hands of a reliable not-for profit publisher who will invest in it and expand it;
  3. Resurrect education programs for public school students;
  4. Request that NYSHA strengthen its ties with the State Historian office, the State Museum, the New York Academy of History, and local historians/librarians, to ensure a real and active state network;
  5. Continue all other established activities such as the Dixon Ryan Fox Prize.”


I would encourage readers to read the original announcement which outlines what has in fact happened to what was the New York State Historical Association.

Personally, I think the comment is of no value except to vent or to have the objections listed for the record. I don’t doubt the depth of passion, sincerity of conviction, or extent of hostility by the author towards Paul D’Ambrosio. What I question is the benefit of writing. The Fenimore Art Museum when it legally was NYSHA was a failure as a leader in the history community. Why would you want to try to force it be something it has no interest in doing and no ability to succeed at it? NYSHA can’t be reformed; it is time to move on.

The same applies to the December response by Ken Jackson to Paul’s response to Ken’s initial letter.

It gives me no pleasure to write this letter.  For years, even decades, I loved Cooperstown – its 1950s style Main Street, its grand hotel, its picturesque lake, its spectacular golf course, its famous Hall of Fame, and its quirky bookstores.  And I was especially fond of the New York State Historical Association – its lectures, its week-long seminars, its unforgettable journal editor (Wendell Tripp), its grand headquarters, and its tradition of excellence in all that it did.

 But that was then.  Since you took over the presidency of NYSHA in 2011 and since Jane Clark ended her term as board chair more than a decade ago, NYSHA has gone steadily downhill.  In particular, you have been a terrible steward for the institution.  I would go further and say that you have said one thing and done another and been duplicitous and dishonest at every turn.  I know of no one who has done more to undermine history in the Empire State than you have.

 Allow me to respond to your “Dear Colleague” letter of 29 November. 

  1. You complain that you were not allowed to comment on my general letter of 15 October. How laughable. You changed the name of a century-old institution in the middle of the night without consulting anyone in the history community, but you want me to consult you prior to writing a letter protesting your nefarious, unjustifiable, and despicable action.  The fact that the Board of Regents and the Internal Revenue Service have somehow endorsed your moves only proves that they had no idea what they were doing.
  1. You argue that the name change from the New York State Historical Association to the Fenimore Art Museum was intended to remove confusion with the New-York Historical Society in Manhattan. How odd that the two institutions managed to survive for more than one hundred years in the same state without suffering the consequences.  But in any case you should wish for such confusion.  Although it has (or did have) a smaller endowment than NYSHA, it has at least ten times your impact, your attendance, your programming, your educational outreach, and your influence.  It has a larger and more valuable art collection than NYSHA.  But the NYHS has never denied that it is first and foremost about history.
  1. You boast of 7,000 school children visits every year. I will not waste our time by reminding you that that is not a number to boast about.  In fact, you have eviscerated your education staff, which no longer has a respected leader or professionally trained educators.  And your commitment to National History Day is similar to your other windbag claims.  It is paid for by New York State taxpayers and hangs on the coattails of the national organization.  NYSHA formerly was involved in teacher education with in-service and pre-service programs and with a highly-regarded statewide teacher’s conference.  No more.
  1. You speak of your “vital resource” research library of 100,000 volumes. First-class libraries add that many books every year, but you would not know that because you do not care about the library, as evidenced by your piecemeal reduction of its staff.  Now there is little professional work that the survivors can perform, such as accessioning materials, working with patrons, and responding to research questions.  Uncatalogued documents are stored in any empty space.  One former staff member estimated the backlog to be about thirty years, and that was several years ago when you had more library employees.
  1. You refer to The Farmers’ Museum as a “prominent history museum.” Surely you jest.  It is not a farm, and was never a village.  It is a bunch of old structures dragged from different places and cobbled together into some kind of imaginary arrangement.  It is really a zombie museum with no director, curator, or Ph.D. trained educator.  I actually like the place and think it probably works for elementary school children, but a prominent place it is not.
  1. Then, there is the quarterly journal, New York History, the one serious enterprise that solidified NYSHA’s claim to represent a big state with a great tradition. Unfortunately, you have slowly strangled the journal as well.  You eliminated the print version and then moved it briefly to SUNY Oneonta.  Now you are moving it to Albany and plan to divest it completely in 2019.  You made a deal for the State Historian to edit and care for it, but he has no staff, no budget, and no reputation in the field.  You did not consult the editorial board, many of whose members had served for decades without compensation, about your plans.  Why was this a stealth decision?  Meanwhile, you continue to publish a glossy, four-color magazine, Heritage, which is expensive to print and distribute.  The state has many art history publications, but only one periodical which represents the entire state.
  1. Finally, and most importantly, there is the little matter of the endowment. Two years ago, NYSHA had an endowment of about $50 million, which would make it among the wealthiest historical societies in the United States (and more by the way than the more successful New York Historical Society).  Somehow, those monies have been transferred to the Fenimore Art Museum, which is an institution of an entirely different color.  You say it will teach history through art, but no serious person thinks that is the only or best way to teach history.  And in any case, over many decades, that money, most of it from Stephen Clark, was given to the NEW YORK STATE HISTORICAL ASSOCIATION, not the Fenimore Art Museum.  I do not think I am alone in wondering how this bait and switch happened, but I suspect there is more to be said on the issue.

I could go on and on about all of the things you should have done to celebrate and recognize the history of this great state.  It saddens me.  But you are correct about one thing.  The history of New York State is far too important to be left to any institution that you might lead.


Kenneth T. Jackson
Jacques Barzun Professor of History, Columbia University
Director, Herbert H. Lehman Center for American History, Columbia University
President, New York Academy of History
President Emeritus, New-York Historical Society
Former trustee, New York State Historical Association

Let’s assume as with the anonymous comment above that everything Ken writes is true both on a personal level and as a performance analysis, so what? Unless legal action of some kind is contemplated, there is nothing anyone can do to force Paul D’Ambrosio and the organization he leads to take a leadership role in the state history community. It seems more likely that he and his board have no such interest and there is no way to compel them to develop one. Why even try? Instead of wasting any time and effort and trying to transform the Fenimore Art Museum into an effective NYSHA, the history community is better off saying good riddance and creating an alternative: the New York Association for State and Local History NYASLH), a name suggested by Doug Kendall, Hartwick College, in partnership with the American Association for State and Local History (AASLH).  But that is a subject for another post.    

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