International Foundation For Art Research (IFAR)
This article may not be published or printed elsewhere without the express permission of IFAR

September 11th:

Proceedings of an IFAR Symposium on
February 28, 2002

The Downtown Institutional Impact

by John Haworth

[John Haworth is Director, George Gustav Heye Center, Smithsonian National Museum of the American Indian. The Museum is located four blocks from Ground Zero.]

This past weekend my museum had Native American storytellers read to capacity crowds. The National Museum of the American Indian's Heye Center in lower Manhattan is on the rebound. Let me start by reading from the story Coyote in Love with a Star by Marty Kriepe de Montano. This children's book published by the museum tells the tender story of Coyote coming to New York. On the cover is a picture of Coyote with the shirt "WTC [World Trade Center] Rodent Control."

Coyote the trickster had an idea—he would change himself into a sunflower! He did and, sure enough, one of the flower sellers picked him up and put him in his basket. Safe among the flowers, Coyote boarded the train. When the train reached the last stop, everyone rushed out of the doors. Coyote changed back into himself and followed the crowd. Soon he was staring up at two huge towers that stretched to the sky. The lobby of the tower was packed with people going to work. Surely someone with all his skills could get hired too.

Coyote was right. He found a job, and it was in his field, too. He became the Rodent Control Officer in the World Trade Center. But he was always homesick. On clear nights, Coyote would escape the noise and hurry of the city by going up to the observation deck to watch the stars as they danced across the sky. Once, when the stars came very close, he noticed one star that was more beautiful that all the rest. She was so beautiful that Coyote fell in love with her. (p. 14)

Here is the "quick history" to put my museum in the context of New York City history and downtown:

My own "sound bite" is that the National Museum of the American Indian is about the People Who Were First Here, and—looking across the waterway—Ellis Island is about the People Who Came Here. The downtown New York cultural community—with significant museums focused primarily on history, architecture and cultural ideas—is second as a group only to our colleagues on Fifth Avenue [uptown]. Downtown itself is the third largest central business district in the country, and as we are recovering from 9/11, we need to celebrate, honor and support this cultural cluster. As the city, state, Mayor's Office, the Lower Manhattan Development Corporation, Regional Plan Association, and Municipal Arts Society, the American Institute of Architects, and others work through "What Next?", it is critical to have the cultural groups front and center in the rebuilding effort.

The building that houses my museum, the United States Custom House, itself was empty for about two decades. The custom agency itself moved into the World Trade Center.

In the 1980s there was considerable public discussion about the future of the Museum of the American Indian, once located at Audubon Terrace. Several options were put on the table, including moving the institution to Dallas, Texas. The compromise was a remarkable public-private partnership. The United States Congress passed legislation in 1989 to create the National Museum of the American Indian, and we currently are building a major museum on the National Mall in Washington. The Attorney General's Office in New York assured us that there also would be an ongoing—permanent—presence in New York. David Rockefeller was a strong advocate for the use of the U.S. Custom House as our New York headquarters. With the financial help of then Governor Mario Cuomo and then Mayor Ed Koch—certainly in difficult times financially for both the city and state—over $17 million was provided by the New York State and New York City governments toward the capital renovation of the Custom House to accommodate the museum. The architectural firm of Ehrenkrantz, Eckstut & Kuhn did the renovations—with considerable national recognition and kudos. Though we have federal operating support—allowing us to be one of a handful of NYC museums with a free public admission—there is an expectation that we raise private sector funds to support educational programs and exhibitions.

Continue to page 2