The Municipal Art Society of New York (MAS) has a proud history but today is a broken organization. It was founded in 1893 to modernize and professionalize city government, and in the 20th century it led the charge for better planning and historic preservation in the city. In the society’s “glory days” of the 1960s and 70s it helped save Grand Central Terminal, Radio City Music Hall, and the Jefferson Market Courthouse in Greenwich Village. It also helped win passage of the city’s landmark law. But its own website stops listing its achievements or milestones in 2012 with the convening of a planning group studying East Midtown. Since that time, the organization has sputtered to remain relevant, making controversial decisions and reinventing itself in a changing city. In a 2015 editorial, we wrote, “What was once one of the fiercest and most devoted New York City organizations that would litigate when it thought the best interests of the city were threatened, has now become a defanged real estate and developer-led organization that serves as a cheerleader for major development.”
In retrospect, the beginning of this period of uncertainty started when it moved out of the Urban Center in the Madison Avenue Villard Houses and received a multi-million dollar settlement for leaving before its lease expired. It then moved into the Steinway building on 57th Street until it was paid again to leave that building early and received yet another financial settlement. While any nonprofit would be thrilled to receive huge financial gifts like this, the MAS board relied too heavily on these on windfalls and did not continue to raise the money needed to keep the organization strong. Then, in 2014, it moved into another larger (but much needed) space in the Look Building on Madison Avenue, where the rent is a reported $600,000 a year. The board, while it has had several generous members, stopped raising the funds needed to keep the organization healthy and robust. Furthermore, it did not continue to develop a board of directors with the appropriate mix of well-connected advocates and wealthy contributors.
But financial issues are not the only problem for the MAS and its board of directors. Over the last month, we have been reporting on the board’s decision to fire its third director—President Gina Pollara—and hire yet another leader: Elizabeth Goldstein from the California State Parks Foundation. We reported on an open letter from the City Club, another civic organization (with many former MAS leaders in its leadership) that asked the board to “to defer any action with regard to President Gina Pollara,” because, it continued, to “move forward with this action would be an unhappy step backward and a display of internal governance disarray at MAS.” But the letter also asked the MAS board to “consider an independent review of governance and management structure accepting one of the following alternatives to pursue: appointment of a balanced committee of emeritus directors; retention of an outside professional consultant (such as McKinsey); or consultation with an experienced non-profit organization professional.” We agree with the City Club that it is time for the MAS board of directors to be more transparent about its actions, change how it views its fiduciary responsibilities, and rethink its board structure and decision-making process.
Finally, the MAS board has not only mismanaged its mandate to stand up for New York but should explain its management of the Gina Pollara presidency.
According to sources, Pollara asked the board when she began her term to give her a year to re-engage with the community that they depended on for funding and memberships. In the year of her presidency, she reportedly brought in nearly $1 million to the society. Pollara seemed be on track to making this happen after she canceled “The MAS Summit,” its largely irrelevant two-day non-event of tweets and advertorials for MAS board members and their friends. Instead, Pollara created a successful (and less expensive to convene) one-day summit that engaged with and discussed important and controversial issues in New York in 2016. The board has been mysterious about why it fired Pollara, and while it doesn’t have to explain all of its decisions, hiring yet another president makes one wonder if the members are serious about continuing to be a civic organization worthy of respect—and financial support. We hope Goldstein can make the society respected and relevant again, but she has serious bridges to build in the New York preservation and planning communities. And she has to have the ability to work with its board.