Published: November 22, 2011
If the history of New York City, the state and the nation is one of immigration, diversity, conflict and compromise, then the exhibits in the newly renovated galleries at the New-York Historical Society tell it eloquently.
Relevancy is the keyword that resonates throughout, with fine art and decorative arts, craftsmanship and innovation being the tip of an iceberg that inspires thought and conversation. In short, the renewed site is a triumph of vision.
Two hundred and seven years ago, a similar vision was in play, due in large part to the efforts of a banker, art patron and supporter of free education named John Pintard. He was joined at the first meeting of the historical society by an exclusive group of ten of New York’s most prominent achievers that included Mayor DeWitt Clinton.
Within nine years, the society had printed its first catalog. That publication noted that it owned 4,265 books, 234 volumes of US documents, 119 almanacs, 130 titles of newspapers, 134 maps along with 30 miscellaneous views, the start of a manuscript collection, several oil portraits and 38 engraved portraits.
Today, the museum houses more than 1.6 million pieces of art, including 800 works of representational sculpture, 500 items of furniture ranging from a chair owned by Marie Antoinette to a pair of 1960s Bertoia chairs. The drawings collection has been mounting since 1816.
Collections within collections include John James Audubon’s preparatory watercolors for The Birds of America and Rufus Grider’s scholarly and annotated drawings of the Mohawk Valley. Among the decorative arts holdings are George Washington’s camp bed from Valley Forge, one of the world’s largest collections of Tiffany lamps and glassworks and the desk at which Clement Clarke Moore penned “A Visit from Saint Nicholas.”
Despite the wealth of its holdings, the society has, at various times, lacked the support it needed. For instance, in the 1970s and 1980s, access to its collections was limited to professional researchers. Then, in 1995, under the direction of Betsy Gotbaum, funding from grants restored general access to the collections. By then, the society had become a well-kept secret.
Nevertheless, following years brought moments of glory. The landmark exhibit “Clara Driscoll and the Tiffany Girls” opened up new scholarship on the subject. The quarterly rotation of Audubon’s work kept audiences coming back.
In 2005, the New-York Historical Society was among the more than 400 New York City arts and social service institutions benefiting from a $20 million grant from the Carnegie Corporation, made possible through a donation by the city’s Mayor Michael Bloomberg.
And then, in 2008, under the direction of president and chief executive officer Louise Mirrer, the society launched a $65 million renovation. It was the cornerstone of a new strategy to create a “radically different” visitor experience. The new direction allows for a dynamic presentation of social, political and aesthetic history as it evolved from pre-colonial times through today’s political, social and artistic movements.
The convergence of the paths of history is immediately apparent. Just inside the newly widened doors on Central Park West, a life-size statue of Abraham Lincoln offers welcome. Around the corner, at the 77th Street entrance, a bronze of Frederick Douglass echoes the sentiment.
“Revolution! The World Reborn” follows through on the exploration of political cross thoughts prevalent between 1763 and the end of the Napoleonic Wars. “Revolution!” compares the protests in America, France and Haiti and †for the first time †explains the story of the Eighteenth Century as a global narrative. The exhibition exposes treasured paintings, historical documents, maps and manuscripts in the telling. Technology, of course, takes its place in the story with audiovisual presentations and interactive learning stations. All of which embody the new course of the New-York Historical Society’s mission.
Moving farther into the building, collections that had once been relegated to warrens and warehouses now have the space needed to spread their influence.
Chief among these is the 11-by-7-foot narrative “Return of the 69th (Irish) Regiment, N.Y.S.M. From the Seat of War.” (The seat of war was the first Battle of Bull Run, which the troops had lost.) Created by Louis Lang, the oil on canvas depicts the events of the morning of July 27, 1861, when a crowd amassed along the bay to greet returning soldiers. Lang captured them all: dignitaries, newsboys, grieving widows, the soldiers themselves.
While the painting is the centerpiece of “Making American Taste: Narrative Art for a New Democracy,” it is an interesting aside that the painting is debuting during the sesquicentennial year of the Civil War.
The back story of the painting †donated by Lang in 1886, on display until sometime after World War II and then lost, only to be unearthed in pieces in 1977 before being recently restored †reflects the society’s renewed emphasis on honoring that which it has.
Among the fine art displayed in “Making American Taste” are works by Benjamin West, Asher B. Durand, William Sidney Mount and Eastman Johnson, names familiar to all. And then there is the reintegration of paintings by Daniel Huntington, Henry Peters and T.H. Matheson, artists who have been virtually ignored in current American art surveys.
History repeating history seems to be the underlying current of the exhibition running concurrently. “Freedom Now” captures the Civil Rights era and the rise of such figures as Muhammad Ali. It will stir the souls of viewers who expect the past to be much farther removed from their reality.
Throughout the decades, the New-York Historical Society has amassed the finest. John James Audubon’s preparatory watercolor studies for the 435 plates in The Birds of America were bought from Audubon’s wife Lucy Bakewell Audubon. The collection has been an ongoing exhibition, rotated quarterly. For the next two years, the Audubon niche will showcase selections that have not been exhibited for years.
Other works to emerge from the permanent collection include Christian Köhler’s “Germania (The Awakening of Germania in the Year 1848).” An allegory of the German people’s struggle for democracy, it was sent to New York for safekeeping after the failed revolutions of 1848. It entered the society’s collections in 1882 and hung in the stairwell of New-York Historical Society’s Second Avenue home. It had been on loan to the Deutsches Historisches Museum since 1998 before reinstallation.
The Henry Luce III Center for American Culture on the fourth floor offers access to more than 40,000 objects from the permanent collection. From American paintings to Tiffany lamps and historical touchstones like the draft wheel that was at the center of the New York riots, viewers now have an opportunity to view collections formerly kept in offsite storage.
Also of note in the Luce Center is the Congregation Shearith Israel Collection of maps, liturgical treasures, documents and artifacts. Established in 1654 with the arrival of 23 refugees of Sephardic ancestry from Recife, Brazil, the congregation was the foundation of religious diversity here.
The treasures will continue to flow from their vaults to the exhibition halls. “Stories in Silver: Four Centuries of Silver in New York” is slated to open on May 4. The exhibition will feature 150 of the society’s most aesthetically compelling pieces, culled from collection of more than 2,500 objects. The survey will be accompanied by the publication of Stories in Sterling , a reference for silver scholars and collectors.
Meanwhile, society exhibitions that traveled during the hiatus are coming back to their home turf. Among these are 45 iconic works from the Hudson River School painters. Ironically, while the rest of the country has enjoyed the works, New Yorkers have been deprived of several works that have not been on display locally in half a century. Among them are Thomas Cole’s five-part series “The Course of Empire,” plus works by John F. Kensett, Albert Bierstadt, Jasper F. Cropsey and Asher B. Durand. The “Return of the Hudson River School: Nature and the American Vision” opens on August 31.
In mixing the aspects of history with social history, including an exhibition on beer craft in New York, the society has not neglected children. Perhaps now more than ever before, with technology keeping youngsters grounded in the present, there is a profound need for a link to understanding the past. To that end, the renovation provides access for children with the 4,000-square-foot DiMenna Children’s History Museum.
The history of the New-York Historical Society and its strategic positioning via renovation as the place where history lives is a story that continues to evolve.
The New-York Historical Society is at 170 Central Park West at Richard Gilder Way (West 77th Street). It is open Tuesday through Thursday, 10 am to 6 pm. On Friday, it remains open until 8 pm and on Sunday the hours are 11 am to 5 pm. For details, www.nyhistory.org or 212-873-3400.
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