Sunday, December 17, 2017

NYS Loses Its Historical Association; Long Had Ties Locally

fenimore art museum

We recently learned that the New York State Historical Association, which has played a key role in protecting New York’s historic sites and artifacts for more than a century, is now defunct, having officially been absorbed by the Fenimore Art Museum in Cooperstown. It is safe to assume that the museum will not retain the Association’s mission, that of promoting and preserving history throughout New York State.

Lake George residents have a special interest in the former Association, in part because it was founded on Lake George in 1899, met annually at the Fort William Henry Hotel and counted residents like John Boulton Simpson among its first trustees. It also had its first permanent headquarters in Ticonderoga’s Hancock House, built specifically for that purpose by Horace A. Moses in 1926. 

Of greater importance, without the New York State Historical Association, there would be little of Fort George or the Lake George Battlefield left today. New York State had begun to acquire the parcels that comprise the parks in the 1890s, but had little idea of what could or should be done with them.

The Historical Association stepped in and assumed responsibility for maintaining the sites. Under the association’s auspices, the stone bastion was rebuilt and the bronze statues honoring Sir William Johnson and King Hendrick, Isaac Jogues and the Native Americans were installed.

The association assumed responsibility not only for protecting the sites but promoting them, as a 1930 editorial in the Lake George Mirror acknowledged. “An officer of the New York State Historical Association told the Mirror editor a few days ago that something could be done at Fort George Park if the people of this section would only ask for it,” editor Art Knight wrote.

By “something,” the officer and Knight meant a reconstructed fort and a museum to house artifacts similar to that of Fort Ticonderoga’s, which was already attracting 80,000 visitors a year.

New York State’s Conservation Department ultimately became the sites’ steward, but the New York Historical Association continued to play an active role in promoting awareness of New York’s history.

During its prime, historian Bruce Dearstyne has written, the association “managed a research library, operated Seminars on American Culture in the summer, offered programs to train teachers in state history, sponsored a statewide network of Yorker Clubs to stimulate interest in state and local history in the schools, hosted National History Day, and published or co-published a number of scholarly works.”

Because no organization now fulfills those functions, a group of distinguished historians and former state officials have signed a public letter to state legislators urging them to demand the Fenimore Art Museum preserve not simply the name of NYSHA but its duties and responsibilities as well.

Lake George residents in particular, who cherish their history and respect the association’s role in preserving it, might wish to convey that same message to New York State Senator Betty Little and Assemblyman Dan Stec.

Photo of Fenimore Art Museum (courtesy Wikimedia User Beyond My Ken).

A version of this editorial was first published in the Lake George Mirror. Subscribe to the Lake George Mirror here.

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Anthony F. Hall is the editor and publisher of the Lake George Mirror.

Anthony grew up in Warrensburg and after an education that included studying with beat poet Gregory Corso on an island in the Aegean, crewing a schooner in Hawaii, traveling through Greece and Turkey studying Byzantine art and archeology, and a stint at Lehman Brothers, he returned to the Adirondacks and took a job with legendary state senator Ron Stafford.

In 1998, Anthony and his wife Lisa acquired the Lake George Mirror, once part of a chain of weekly newspapers owned by his father Rob Hall.

Established in the 1880s, the Mirror is America’s oldest resort newspaper.

10 Responses

  1. Chris says:

    I’m assuming that the NYHA was a private and privately funded organization that couldn’t raise money to keep it viable, probably over several years?

    • John Warren says:

      NYSHA was one of the state’s most well-funded and financially secure historical organizations. It had a charter from the State Ed Depart.

  2. Naj Wikoff says:

    What a shame. NYSHA provided many valuable services to the Wyckoff Farmhouse Museum in Brooklyn, NY. I wonder what went wrong.

  3. Tom Baker says:

    Seems like Lake George needs to have its own historical society again.

  4. Emilie Eury says:

    Remember too that NYSHA were supposed to be stewards of the Hancock House in Ticonderoga . . . sounds like they are dumping all their responsibilities in order to be an elite art museum

  5. Merry says:

    Given that the Fenimore Art Museum will continue to operate the NY History Archives in its own building next to the art museum, theoretically as it has always operated, could someone please explain why and how the art museum Board closed the existing Association. Is there a clearer explanation of what led to this decision by the Fenimore? Did the Association cost the art museum money? As another option, why can’t the Association regroup as a new 501c3?

    • John Warren says:

      The answer to these questions can be found in the links provided in this story, and in the response provided by the former NYSHA president contained therein.

  6. Paul S. D'Ambrosio says:

    This is in response to a letter that was sent in October to a group of historians across New York. The letter 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 of 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 the letter 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 you 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

  7. Glenn L. Pearsall says:

    Maybe it is time to re-constitute it and bring it back to the Lake George Region.

  8. […] NYS Loses Its Historical Association; Long Had Ties Locally […]

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