July 29, 2010
Director, Schomburg Center for Research in Black Culture
In the three months that have passed since I announced my plans to retire as Director of the Center in February 2011, many questions have been raised about the Center’s future. Indeed, rumors have surfaced that I was being forced to retire so that The New York Public Library could take it over and run the place. Other rumors have been that the Center was going to close and that the Center’s collections were going to either be moved to 42nd Street or broken up and distributed to the branch libraries. There have also been concerns raised about the search for my successor. The purpose of today’s program is to report to you on the current status and future plans for the Center and most importantly, to hear from you some of your ideas about what the Center should be and should be doing in the future. We all look forward to hearing your thoughts and ideas about how the Schomburg Center can better serve you, the Harlem community and greater New York community, the nation and the world.
Now implicit in both the purpose of the program and my most recent comment is the answer to several of the questions and rumors that have been posed. First, the Schomburg Center is not going to close. Nor is it going to move from Harlem. And the collections of the Center are not moving anywhere either. And no, I am not being forced to retire nor am I being forced to do anything. Those of you who know me know that if I had been under pressure from anyone to force me to leave the Schomburg Center or frankly do anything against my will, you would have heard from me directly and I definitely would not be leaving or be even in a situation of [my leaving] being talked about, without some sort of a fight. That just isn’t me. No, my decision to leave was mine and mine alone. As I’ve said on numerous occasions, I, unlike some of my brothers on the continent, do not want to be President for Life. Actually I had planned to retire last year when I completed 25 years of service here and celebrated my 70th birthday, yes. But I decided to stay on an extra year or so, so that I could make sure there was a smooth, informed transition process. So I’m here and will be here until February when my successor takes over.
This evening’s program will begin with The New York Public Library’s statements on the current state of the Schomburg Center and its plans for the future. The Schomburg Center as you know, is and always has been a part of The New York Public Library. The Board of Trustees of The New York Public Library is the only Board of Directors that the Schomburg Center has. And the Director of the Schomburg Center, I, report to the President of The New York Public Library through the Andrew W. Mellon Director of The New York Public Library. Dr. Paul LeClerc, the President of the Library and Trustee Ray McGuire, a member of the Schomburg Search Committee, are here to update you on the status of the Center and the search. They will be followed by a panel of Schomburg users and supporters, those gathered at the table here, who will be presenting their “Reflections on the Schomburg Center,” as well as some individuals who are sitting here in the front of the audience. The floor will then be opened to you, the audience, for comments and questions. The rest of the program is yours.
And now, without further ado, it gives me great pleasure to welcome the President of The New York Public Library, Dr. Paul LeClerc.
President, New York Public Library
Thank you very very much, Howard. I think that the very best way to begin these very brief comments is to ask all of us to stand and give a great round of applause to Howard Dodson for the total brilliance he’s shown in leading this great library for 25 years.
We’re going to have many occasions to celebrate Howard and his legacy over the course of the next several months. But I want to be very public and very forthright in saying what a privilege it’s been for me (and for all of the colleagues that Howard has and the admirers that he has within the 2000 staff members of The New York Public Library) to have worked so closely with him over my 17 years at The New York Public Library.
Let me tell you how Howard and I first met, because I think it’s instructive of the place that this extraordinary Library holds in the hearts and the minds of people not only around New York and around America but indeed around the world.
From 1984 to 1988 I was the Provost of Baruch College of the City University system. Howard began his tenure here at the Schomburg in 1984 and so we overlapped in those respective jobs. And one of the units that reported to me as the Provost of Baruch College was the College art gallery. And it was located in the administration building and I went by it every morning and every afternoon because my office was quite nearby. And I noticed that the exhibits that were there attracted no one. They were exhibits of contemporary painting but rarely if ever would you see a student in there. And the population of Baruch at that point was about 16,000 students—probably at least about 60% of whom were people of color. So I called the director of the gallery and said “Look, you’re making a big mistake. What goes into that gallery has to reflect the cultural accomplishments and the artistic views and visions of the people who are represented in the student body.” And she wasn’t stupid. So what she did was to get in touch with Howard to bring an exhibit from the Schomburg of paintings and sculptures—this is the only library in our whole system that acquires paintings and sculptures—to the gallery of Baruch College. That was the biggest, most popular exhibit ever, I think probably until this day at that college. There were students in there all the time. There were at least 20 or 25 faculty members who brought their students repeatedly to that exhibit.
And so the central importance of this place isn’t limited. I’m going to talk about how the Schomburg is staying here. But it’s not limited in its impact simply to what happens in this building. Because the Schomburg is a worldwide organization in terms of what it sends out to the world both in terms of physical loans and exhibits as well as its massively important presence online.
So that was our first meeting and since then Howard has always been a person I’ve admired, whose judgment I’ve trusted and whose work here at the Schomburg has been impeccable. And he’s right—nobody tells Howard what to do. So you can believe it when he tells you that his decision to retire was his alone, just as my decision to retire from the presidency of The New York Public Library in June of 2011 is mine alone.
If you look at the Schomburg website you will see a very, very important document that’s online. It’s a comprehensive visioning statement that a number of specialists that Howard brought in saw as the appropriate future of the Schomburg. And if you look at the beginning of it—on the importance of the Schomburg and its location—there’s a direct quotation from me (in effect the comments I gave to the visioning committee when it met here in this landmark building). And I’m going to read to you just a few things that I hope will convince everyone that not only am I committed to this extraordinary place being here in Harlem in this very location, but many, many others are as well. And this is the quotation:
“This, the Schomburg, is the greatest library of its kind in the world. Its significance for people of color, is massive. Its level of recognition within the American and African American community as well as worldwide, is huge. Its brand is one that is sharply defined and highly valued and its role in the preservation and legacy of people of African origin is one of immense value that can never be overstated.”
So this is a very, very special place, and no one wants to see the Schomburg diminished in terms of its brilliance at all. There is no thought whatsoever of moving the Schomburg any place at all. This is the Schomburg, this where the Schomburg is going to be, as far as I’m concerned, forever.
Now Howard mentioned the Trustees of The New York Public Library, of which there are a couple here tonight. There’s one thing I don’t think is known within the community but I’d like to point it out, because I’m an employee of the Library and I can tell you this place is here to say. But you should know how deeply committed the Board of Trustees of The New York Public Library also is to the Schomburg, its place here and its place in the world.
The story you don’t know about is the following: About four years ago, four or five ago, the great great collection of Martin Luther King, Jr.’s papers were up for sale. They were held at Sotheby’s here in New York City. The price tag was $30 million to acquire them. What very few people know is that individual Trustees on their own, came to see me to say we want to buy the Martin Luther King, Jr. archive for the Schomburg. And these Trustees committed to put up $18 million of their own money for that acquisition. I then talked to two major foundations in New York, each of which was committed as well, and were willing to put up several million more dollars. And so ultimately we wound up within the range of $21–$22 million that we had committed with the vast majority coming from Board members—their idea. And we spent at least six months—it felt like five years—negotiating this acquisition. Ultimately, as you know, the City of Atlanta paid the full price of $30 million and the collection went there. But the Trustees of The New York Public Library and we the staff of The New York Public Library did everything we could to bring that collection here where we thought it should be.
Just one final comment about the collections at the Schomburg. I don’t think it’s generally known that the collections here represent the Library’s holdings of works by people and about people of African origin. The detail is significant. Here’s a vignette that tells a lot.
When I first went to work at the Library at 5th Avenue I was writing a speech and wanted to quote from a favorite poem of mine by Langston Hughes. And I said, “Get me a copy of the collected poems of Langston Hughes from the stacks.” And they said, “We don’t have it, you have to go the Schomburg to get it.” Now that means a lot. That means that we deliberately—what we collect throughout the Library system, the research libraries in particular—this is the place where we’re putting [those] collections. So the thought of us walking away from this really is inconceivable. This is where our heart is, this where our money is, this is where our mind is. And I say that from a corporate point of view. So I hope everybody relaxes [applause]—and that what Howard said, what I’ve said, reassures you about that commitment.
Thank you very, very much.