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Lunch at the Tribeca Grill with: Louise Mirrer

Published by The New York Sun on 2005-06-10

Louise Mirrer's idea of relaxation is to show up Saturdays and Sundays at the New-York Historical Society.

"I'm not the sort to sit at the beach and stare at the water," she said over lunch. "Going to the Society is such a joy. It has millions of documents, including the largest collection of American Revolutionary-era papers. It has one of the best collections of Hudson River paintings. It has an incredible collection of historical photographs. But it's not an antiquarian society. It's really the center of American culture. I just love going there."

Her delight - and weekend visits - could be explained by the fact that Ms. Mirrer is the 201-year-old Society's president and CEO. She took office a year ago, after the Society's board - which consists of New York's financial and social elite - induced her to come over from the City University of New York, where she was executive vice chancellor for academic affairs.

She arrived at a time when the Society - the city's oldest museum - was in turmoil. There had been several firings. A major art critic said that the Society was " betting questionably that expensive blockbusters will save the place rather than destroy it."

Ms. Mirrer's mandate was to strengthen the Society's financial base; widen its already-formidable collections; develop corollary revenue-generating enterprises through vigorous marketing; and re-position the organization on New York's radar so that the institution became a genuinely must-visit place.

She has pursued that mandate with characteristic vigor and velocity. Those assets had enabled her earlier to race through the University of Pennsylvania and graduate magna cum laude, and then obtain a double Ph.D. in Spanish and Humanities from Stanford University. Along the way she acquired a diploma in linguistics at Cambridge University in Britain, and also reinforced her French and Portuguese.

And she found time to write several books.

Such accomplishments were noticed by the Society's supporters. They had been alarmed by its declining audience, and its shaky finances. They were concerned about its capacity to acquire new collections.

Ms. Mirrer, in fact, has boldly increased the Society's annual budget from $10 million to $15 million.

"My work is also facilitated by the fact that people usually do think of the Society when they're planning to give historical documents or collections," Ms. Mirrer said. "They - and the sponsors of our various lectures and other activities - know that if you want to understand American history, there's no better place than the New-York Historical Society."

In fact, she said, the "New-York" part of the Society's name was a bit of a misnomer.

"Our collections and displays are genuinely national," Ms. Mirrer said, citing the recent exhibit on Alexander Hamilton, the first American Treasury secretary, a personal favorite among historical figures.

"Hamilton, who was educated at what became Columbia University, realized, as every good immigrant to New York realizes, what you need to do to succeed here - apply one's intelligence to make changes," she said. "His story has resonated very much with me."

It has resonated, at least partly, because ever since her high school days on Long Island, Ms. Mirrer has been fired by ambition. After getting her doctorates, she returned to the New York area to teach at Fordham University, and became chair of its division of humanities, "figuring out a way to make the jobs of academic a little easier," as she put it.

From Fordham it was on to the University of Minnesota-Twin Cities, where she held joint appointments as professor in the departments of Spanish and Portuguese and comparative literature. Ms. Mirrer also served as vice provost for arts, sciences and engineering.

"What did I know about engineering? Very little. What did I know about management? Even less," Ms. Mirrer said. "So I read books, talked to lots of academic administrators, and quickly learned skills. I learned how important it was for an administrator to surround oneself with talented people, how important it was to maintain an open channel of communication. I also learned how to make tough decisions that didn't come naturally to me - such as telling someone that they'd be better off some place else. But I found that I really liked to engage with people - and that I was good at it."

Her people skills have proved invaluable at the Society. When the board asked her how she would change the venerable institution, Ms. Mirrer told them: "I believe that the New York Historical Society should be the main national center for discussion and debate on American history. It should help the public gain a better understanding of historical issues that continue to shape our society. I will work to make the Society that center."

Included in her plans is the establishment of several new educational initiatives. One involved competitive fellowships for two young historians; the first recipients are now on board at the Society. She is also planning to inaugurate a pre-school history program. These programs are being instituted because of her successful fundraising.

"The Society cannot afford to be at the margins, it needs to be at the center of New York's cultural life," Ms. Mirrer said. "I found that the original mission to focus on American history had been modified to focus much more on New York City. I feel very positive about New York, but I also feel that the Society's collection doesn't really support a mission focused narrowly on New York. I am committed to making the Society a destination for people who want to understand our collective history."

Pranay Gupte,
Senior Writer and Global-Affairs Columnist

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