One Zero Project Hitting Jackpot: Freedom Center

Long before the city’s cultural organizations were thinking about what they might do at Ground Zero, Tom Bernstein, the president of Chelsea Piers, made his pitch for a museum about freedom in a series of private meetings with city and state officials.

Mr. Bernstein had never founded a museum before; nor had the filmmaker friend he’d enlisted as a co-founder. But he was so convinced by the power of his idea that he figured the other stuff would fall into place.

Lou Tomson, then-president of the agency in charge of rebuilding, remembers being impressed with the idea. He also quickly perceived the museum’s potential to draw funding, especially with a well-connected entrepreneur like Mr. Bernstein at the helm: His partnership with George W. Bush’s friend and Lower Manhattan Development Corporation board member Roland Betts and his high-profile donations to the President’s re-election campaign, as well as his service to Mayor Michael Bloomberg’s transition team, all spoke well of his political and fund-raising acumen.

“He presented a really coherent plan showing what level of organization we could expect, what level of people would be involved, and its ability to raise funds,” Mr. Tomson told The Observer.

Already, five Fortune 500 corporations-including next-door neighbor American Express-and two of the nation’s largest foundations have stepped up to give early funding for Mr. Bernstein’s concept.

And it’s rapidly becoming clear that Mr. Bernstein’s freshman effort at museum building-not Larry Silverstein’s 4.3 million square feet of office space, or the memorial to those who died at the World Trade Center, which is projected to attract five million people to the site annually-is the unlikely cash cow of Ground Zero.

While the New York Times editorial board wrings its hands over building a temple to tub-thumping, the people responsible for rebuilding Ground Zero have discovered a prettier side to the International Freedom Center.

It will be a magnet to draw money to a 16-acre site that is somehow, even after $20 billion in federal aid, in need of revenue streams. The organization in charge of raising $500 million in private funds for the memorial and two cultural buildings is still in its “quiet phase” and its president, former Consumer Affairs Commissioner Gretchen Dykstra, just started work last week.

Luckily for Ms. Dykstra, however, Mr. Bernstein is the co-chair of the development committee for the World Trade Center Memorial Foundation.

“There will be lots of interest in the Freedom Center,” said Ms. Dykstra. “The contacts he makes will be helpful for the whole project. It’s wonderful he’s on the board this way.”

The way the foundation is structured means that Mr. Bernstein’s pleas for money won’t focus narrowly on the serene, wooden pavilion building that his museum is meant to share with the Drawing Center, the plans for which were unveiled May 19. He and his colleagues at the foundation will need to raise enough money for the memorial first, because the memorial will be built first-early next year. Mr. Bernstein said that while he will be raising money for his operational budget separately, he has turned what he thought would be a $250 million campaign specifically for the Freedom Center’s building into part of the larger campaign for all the nonprofit projects at Ground Zero.

“These corporations realize that the site will be a magnet for revitalizing downtown,” Mr. Bernstein said in an interview this week at Chelsea Piers. “Because of the nature of this project, there is a very large pool to draw on-very large. It was a national and international event. People from 92 countries died in the attack.”

Getting one of the four spots at Ground Zero would be a boon to any cultural institution, especially one, like the Freedom Center, that didn’t even exist before Sept. 11. The competition was tight: More than 100 organizations applied to the LMDC. The ability of the Freedom Center to attract donors came up often in meetings set to discuss the applicants, even as more established museums dropped out of the running. Some well-known institutions-including the New-York Historical Society-withdrew from the race, unwilling or unable to put together the financial plan and evidence of backing demanded by the LMDC, the rebuilding agency that Mr. Tomson headed until early 2002. In the end, it was a subcommittee of the LMDC, along with city and state commissions on the arts, which selected the four winners, using, among other criteria, the organizations’ ability to raise funds.

The full board, on which Mr. Betts sits, didn’t step in until later, after the public announcement was made, according to LMDC spokeswoman Joanna Rose.

The genesis of the Freedom Center came about in late 2001, at a time when ideas about freedom, museums and filmmaking were knocking about in Mr. Bernstein’s head. He had just joined the board of the United States Holocaust Memorial Museum in Washington, D.C., and had learned that the museum used a filmmaker to design its exhibits in order to impose a narrative structure. Mr. Bernstein had also just met Peter and Philip Kunhardt, brothers who had produced a number of documentaries for public television, including one called Freedom: A History of US.

As they were trying to figure out a way to bring something positive to the site of such extensive destruction, they came up with the idea of creating a center to study freedom. Peter Kunhardt is credited as the center’s co-founder and is its executive director; his brother Philip is the editorial director.

When word of the museum reached the press in 2003, it was immediately seen as little more than a potential outlet for propaganda for the Bush administration. That was partly because Mr. Bernstein contributed to the Bush-Cheney campaign and because his business partner at Chelsea Piers, Roland Betts, was a friend of the President. The center’s Web site even includes, among its list of important documents, the President’s 2005 Inaugural Address, right up there with Magna Carta and the Declaration of the Rights of Man.

But Mr. Bernstein has also given money to Democratic Senators Charles Schumer, Harry Reid and Barack Obama. And even before the controversy began, he’d begun to round up a wide array of advisors from various political points of view. More recently, he has announced that universities will organize evening seminars led by their professors.

The center’s name, Mr. Bernstein said, doesn’t mean that it will endorse the President’s way of interpreting Sept. 11.

“Some people think that it was an attack on freedom,” he said. “Other people think that because of the attack, their freedom was challenged.”

Mr. Bernstein has asked one of the people who fall squarely into the latter category to serve as an advisor: Anthony Romero, executive director of the American Civil Liberties Union, who in lawsuits and media campaigns has assailed the Bush administration’s treatment of detainees from Afghanistan and Iraq.

Mr. Romero knew Mr. Bernstein from before-the Chelsea Piers president is also the president of the board of directors of Human Rights First, formerly the Lawyers Committee for Human Rights. The Romero name, needless to say, gives the project tremendous credibility.

“No one fully knows why the attacks came on the U.S.,” Mr. Romero told The Observer this week. “What is clear is that the center stands for our core principles and values, and that, in the aftermath of 9/11-unfortunately-our government has forgotten those very same values. And so, in a very interesting way, the center may provide a place where you remind the American people, and maybe even the government, of the importance of freedom, liberty and equality.”

The content of the museum is still being worked out. The four-story space will contain a Freedom Walk that tells the history of the concept, flanked by galleries devoted to different struggles for freedom. A mock picture of the inside of the museum shows large photographs hanging from the ceiling, one showing a Ukrainian voter flashing the victory sign, à la Nixon, and the other capturing the Reverend Martin Luther King Jr. and President Lyndon Johnson deep in contemplation. Other names that have been floated include Nelson Mandela, Susan B. Anthony and even Mother (“Fight Like Hell”) Jones.

The Freedom Center expects one and a half to two million visitors a year, each paying, on average, $6. (Full adult admission is expected to be $9 when the museum opens in 2009, Mr. Bernstein said.) The rest of the museum’s $15 million to $20 million budget will come from donations.

Mr. Romero, who has had several meetings and telephone conversations with Mr. Bernstein and the Kunhardts, said that he would keep pushing for some mention in the museum’s exhibits of how civil liberties in this country have been curtailed since Sept. 11.

“The events of 9/11 had an impact not just on world events, but they had an effect on home as well,” he said. “We have to be as willing to look at some of that impact as on what happened at Ground Zero and overseas. We can use it as an opportunity to discuss what’s gone on in this country.”

The list of advisors includes such brand names as Harvard professors Henry Louis Gates Jr. and Orlando Patterson; Vaclav Havel’s pal Timothy Garton Ash; and Newsweek’s Fareed Zakaria. The Kunhardts met some of these experts while producing PBS documentaries and will re-interview them to prepare the museum’s content. In addition, nine universities and the Aspen Institute, the nonprofit think tank headed by Walter Isaacson, have agreed to organize evening lectures by their professors. And leading international organizations will be able to use space at the center to reach visitors.

“There will be millions of people visiting Ground Zero,” Mr. Bernstein said. “This creates an enormous educational opportunity.”

Still, the idea of the museum seems as large and vague as its namesake concept. Even its various advisors have significantly different interpretations about what the Freedom Center is all about.

Columbia University historian Kenneth T. Jackson sees it as a history museum-in no small part because he wanted a history museum at Ground Zero in the first place and discussed a possible collaboration with the heads of other history institutions in the city while he was still president of the New-York Historical Society.

“Many of the figures that are to be focused upon are historical figures, so it is history,” Mr. Jackson said. “I wish there was an aspect that talked about New York City. It was no accident that the terrorists attacked New York City and not the University of Michigan football stadium, which holds more people.”

Another local luminary, Robert Yaro, president of the Regional Plan Association, which was intimately involved in lobbying for a livable Ground Zero, is also listed as an advisor, though he says he has played less of a role. Nonetheless, he is reassured that the center will steer clear of propaganda.

“The general concern some people have is that this is going to become a plug for the Bush administration,” Mr. Yaro said. “My sense is that it’s never been that; it’s anything but that. It’s not about the policies of this administration or any administration. Look at the people involved: They are people who are involved in promoting human rights all over the world.”

In the meantime, the Freedom Center seems to be winning converts. Manhattan District Attorney Robert Morgenthau was quoted as criticizing the center for replicating other museums pertaining to human rights, including Ellis Island and the Museum of Jewish Heritage, of which he is the chairman. But Mr. Morgenthau not only appeared at the press conference last week unveiling the building design; he permitted the conference to be held in his museum.

An executive staff member of one of the finalists in the LMDC contest said that he has come to understand the appeal it will have. Eric Siegel, the executive vice president for programs and planning at the New York Hall of Science, said that he believes his institution lost out in part because of the Freedom Center’s superior political connections-to LMDC board member Roland Betts, as well as to the Mayor.

Nonetheless, Mr. Siegel believes that the Freedom Center will likely turn out to be quite popular for visitors.

“The question is, what will the intellectual context be for this Freedom Museum?” he said. “It’s a magnet for people to investigate that question. But how well they will execute that idea is another matter.”