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Concluding its report, the advisory committee emphasized several program­matic improvements at the Society: the planning of major new public outreach programs and exhibitions, the exploration of affiliations with other cultural insti­tutions, the opening of a state-of-the-art paper conservation lab, and the improve­ment in private and public fundraising efforts. "The Society appears to have put aside the distractions caused by its financial crisis and its problems of last sum­mer. ... Its public image and reputation have markedly improved as the Society moves vigorously ahead." The Macomber report stressed that "the future success of the Society depends on the quality of its leadership, including the staff and the trustees." With the presentation of the report, the Society took steps to solidify that leadership.

Pursuing a bold agenda, 1989-1991

During the Macomber committee evaluation, the Society had been overseen by a transition chairman and an interim chief executive. Permanent leadership was now needed, and Albert Key, who had served as president (now called chair­man) of the board during the transition period, stepped down, and Norman Pearlstine (at the time managing editor of the Wall Street Journal) was elected to replace him. At that same meeting, Barbara Debs was named permanent president of the Society.

In an article in the New York Times announcing her appointment, Debs dis­cussed her efforts to revitalize the Society: "Apart from assuring financial stability and getting our collections in order, the next step is to make our collections com­pletely available to people so that we can be an active institution in the teaching of history. We want to create more and different public programs, and give the Society a new look with more creative installations."

Yarrow (1989a).

Though her public comments at the time were optimistic, her consultations with the Society's board made it strikingly clear that she had few illusions about the difficulty of the task that lay ahead. As was previously mentioned, she had specifically stated upon being named interim director that she did not want to be considered for the permanent post; however, the Society needed permanent leadership, and since the board had not even begun a search, she decided to accept the post.

As part of her employment contract, Debs required that the board express its commitment to a set of principles. These principles, which were recorded in the minutes, were as follows:

  • Recognition of the complexity and difficulty of the Society's situation andthat it cannot be "business as usual"
  • Recognition of the need for substantial fundraising for the Society over thelonger term and a commitment to work with Debs to give or get the neces­sary funds
  • Acknowledgment that deaccessioning alone will not solve the problems ofthe Society
  • Full support of the "Bridge Plan" as set forth in the draft of January 23,1989, presented to the board, and the chart presented at the recent meetingof the executive committee
  • Agreement to the need for strong staff and administrative support to enableDr. Debs to achieve her objectives
  • Agreement to work with Debs to elect more trustees to the board who willsupport the foregoing

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Source:  OpenStax, The new-york historical society: lessons from one nonprofit's long struggle for survival. OpenStax CNX. Mar 28, 2008 Download for free at http://cnx.org/content/col10518/1.1
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