Monday, March 27, 2006

Hispanic Society Board Endorses Plan to Leave Washington Heights for Downtown

Date: Mon, 27 Mar 2006 03:32:38 EST
Subject: FYI: Hispanic Society Museum Poised to Leave Uptown for Downtown

In case you missed this article in the New York Times last Thursday:
Hispanic Society Board Endorses Plan to Leave Washington Heights for Downtown

March 23, 2006

Hispanic Society Board Endorses Plan to Leave Washington Heights for Downtown

The Hispanic Society of America, home to one of the largest collections of Hispanic cultural material outside Spain, has decided to move downtown from Washington Heights to draw more visitors and acquire the space it needs to display its art and artifacts.

Since its founding in 1904, the society has been on Audubon Terrace, a stately row of Beaux-Arts buildings near Broadway at 155th Street. Its board has been looking at real estate and development proposals in Battery Park, Chelsea and Midtown, but has no fixed area in mind, said the chairman, George B. Moore.

"We would prefer to build rather than have to remake an existing building, given the specific needs for displaying our diverse collection," said Mr. Moore, a vice president at Merrill Lynch. "But you've also got to be realistic. Land is expensive."

Nicole Bengiveno/The New York Times

The central gallery of the Hispanic Society
of America, which is proceeding with
plans to move from its historic home on
Audubon Terrace.

Mr. Moore said that a proposal to move ahead with relocation plans received unanimous support from trustees at a meeting last month at the Prado Museum in Madrid. The two institutions have a close association.

The acceleration of plans was reported this week in The Art Newspaper.

Mr. Moore said that Bernardino Le�n, the Spanish secretary of state for foreign affairs, had indicated that the Spanish government might pledge a large sum to help the society move, but that any gift would have to be approved by Parliament.

With about a million objects, the Hispanic Society's collection addresses nearly every aspect of culture in Spain, Portugal, the Philippines and Latin America.

Highlights include paintings by Goya, Vel�zquez, El Greco, Zurbar�n, Ribera and Murillo, as well as one of the world's top collections of lusterware produced in the style of Moorish Spain. It also has more than 175,000 photographs and over 300,000 rare books, maps and illuminated manuscripts dating as far back as the 11th century.

Yet the society has always had a low profile in Manhattan and attracted relatively few visitors, although admission is free. Mitchell Codding, the director, said it drew about 20,000 visitors a year, about half of them in school groups.

"Part of the problem for us is our location here at 155th Street and Broadway," said Mr. Codding, standing in the main gallery room on a midweek day around noon. Not a visitor was in sight. "We are too far off the beaten museum or tourist track."

The Audubon Terrace complex was built just after the turn of the 20th century by Archer M. Huntington (1870-1955), a railroad magnate's son who wanted to create a cultural oasis for Hamilton Heights and Washington Heights. (The block is named for John James Audubon, the painter and naturalist, whose farm included the site.)

Originally it also included the American Academy of Arts and Letters, the American Numismatic Society, the American Geographical Society and what was then called the Museum of the American Indian-Heye Foundation.

Of those, only the American Academy of Arts and Letters and the Hispanic Society remain, joined by Boriuca College.

The society was initially conceived as a library, but Huntington added steadily to the collection until it embraced art and artifacts that traverse all of Hispanic culture.
"This place was never meant to house anything like the number or variety of objects that we have," Mr. Codding said. He pointed to an assortment of 16th-century alabaster tomb sculptures from Cu�llar, Spain, that are stored in pieces on the floor and along the walls of an alcove. "When properly installed, they rise over 30 feet," he said.

The public display areas lack climate control, there are no elevators and storage is inadequate, he added. Museum offices are below ground, where 28 full-time and 8 part-time employees work in small, poorly lighted rooms. Boxes of books and papers line the corridors and walls. "We can't go on like this," Mr. Codding said.

"When the building was built a century ago, there was already little space for staff: there was Huntington's office, and one for the librarian, and that was it," he said. "Huntington kept expanding the collection, but no attention was paid to areas for storage and administration."

Trustees had mulled the possibility of expanding on the current site, but found that it was not feasible. "We can't go down as we are on bedrock, and we can't go up as this is a city landmark building," Mr. Codding said. "So the only realistic option is for us to relocate."

The society owns and occupies three buildings at Audubon Terrace. Mr. Codding said that the society would probably sell the buildings and some land it owns nearby to help finance a relocation. Audubon Terrace as a whole was designated a historic district in 1979 by the New York City Landmarks Preservation Commission, which means that no changes can be made to the facades without the commission's permission.

Mr. Moore said that the society might need to raise as much as $300 million, citing the costs of buying land and constructing a building and a need to double the museum's endowment of about $65 million, which covers most of the society's annual $3 million operating budget.

In addition to the Spanish government, the society will appeal to individuals and foundations in Spain, the United States and Latin America for donations, Mr. Moore said. The society enjoys a far higher profile in Spain, even attracting Spain's royal heir, Felipe de Borb�n, the Prince of Asturias, who visited in 2004.

Speaking in New York that year at the society's Centennial Gala, at the Metropolitan Club, the prince praised the "variety" and "quality" of the society's collection, adding that a visit to the museum was "a must for any visitor to this city with any interest in our art."

The society is working with a museum consultant on a strategic plan to assess its requirements for any new building. The study is expected to be completed in June.

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