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15.10.12

Vartan Gregorian and the New York Public Library

Jacob Bernstein
 
As a frequent user of the New York Public Library, we offer an excerpt of the lengthy article "The Education of Tony Marx," which centers mainly on the career of historian Vartan Gregorian as president of the Library in the 1980s.

In 1981, the New York Public Library, broke and facing a slew of terrible options, hired Mr. Gregorian, an Armenian academic and an expert in Asian studies, to help rescue the place.
“When I accepted the presidency, someone told me to see a psychiatrist,” he recalled in a recent interview. “Because we were bankrupt.”
At his first meeting, the agenda was how to shut down the branches, sell off the collections and charge the public admission at the central library.
It was time for a savior, and one arrived in the form of Brooke Astor, the socialite and philanthropist, then in her late 70s, but still a formidable force on the city’s social scene, which she would remain almost until her death at 105 in 2007.
Mrs. Astor had recently been sidelined at the Metropolitan Museum of Art and was looking for something to do. “They’d invoked a clause making her an emeritus and she didn’t feel very emeritus at all,” said the journalist Meryl Gordon, who wrote the biography “Mrs. Astor Regrets.”
So Mrs. Astor called Mr. Gregorian, and they joined forces with Richard Salomon and Andrew Heiskell (a former chief executive of Time Inc.) to begin a huge fund-raising effort. Soon enough, in came big donors like the real estate developer Marshall Rose, and the heiress Celeste Bartos. The library began holding increasingly high-profile readings with authors and started giving galas like the library Lions dinner, which had its first event later that year.
Tables cost $10,000 each, and the guest list (much of which came from Mrs. Astor’s formidable Rolodex) rivaled any state dinner. Look over there: it’s Jacqueline Kennedy Onassis! And a hop, skip and a jump away, Norman Mailer and Arthur Schlesinger Jr. Not to mention countless other Social X-rays, who, to quote Ms. Gordon, “realized that if they donated to the library, they’d get invited to dinner.”
In short order, junkies disappeared from the steps of the central library, the facade was cleaned up and scores of curators were hired. Services at the branches around the city improved considerably.
The library was a hot institution, one that bestowed upon its benefactors a decided social cachet — something that future presidents would come to rely on. (On Oct. 22, as a fund-raiser for the library, the board will stage a reading of works by Nora Ephron, this reporter’s mother.) 
n 1989, after Mr. Gregorian left to become the president of Brown University (he’s now the president of the Carnegie Corporation), the organization was taken over by the Rev. Timothy S. Healy, a Jesuit priest and former president of Georgetown University, who three years into the job died of a heart attack. As his successor, the board tapped Paul LeClerc, a Voltaire scholar with prodigious fund-raising skills.
Over the next few years, the library raised $100 million in donations to open the Science and Business Library at 34th Street and Madison Avenue. In 2001, the organization completed a $38 million renovation of the performing arts library at Lincoln Center.
But with the financial crisis of 2008 came severe budget cuts from the city. The science library and the mid-Manhattan branch (on 39th Street) fell into disrepair. The size of the research staff declined by almost 30 percent. Meanwhile, the main branch at 42nd and Fifth was being closed down with increasing frequency for corporate events — a necessary fund-raising move but one that rankled staff members, some of whom complained that a monument to intellectual life was turning into a nightclub.
Even a $100 million gift from the financier Stephen Schwarzman, earmarked for the upgrade of the central building, did little to quell a sense among the rank and file that the library board was perhaps more interested in the building’s housing than the books inside it.
What to make of Kanye West’s appearance at a Paper Magazine gala celebrating the magazine’s 25th anniversary? Or the fact that at a 2011 Thom Browne fashion show, in the Edna Barnes Salomon Room, there were models kneeling before a makeshift altar as Gregorian chants blared? An indication that the library was successfully moving into the 21st century, or proof that it had totally, completely, lost its way?
“We began to say that it was going to be Cipriani Fifth Avenue,” recalled one recently retired senior administrator, who asked to remain anonymous because of a separation agreement he signed with the library.
“I’d be in the elevator and there’d be a blond girl in a little black dress who worked in development escorting people around and saying, ‘You have to mention in your release that this is in the Stephen A. Schwarzman building.’ I can’t tell you how many times we dismantled really serious pieces of equipment that cost us millions of dollars to acquire so that we could have a free rein for, oh, runway shows during the February and September fashion weeks.”

"The New York Times," October 11, 2012

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