Paul Gunther, keeper of a cultural flame, dies at 65

Paul Gunther, a passionate and incisive advocate for the arts and architecture in New York’s nonprofit preservation organizations, died ...


Paul Gunther, a passionate and incisive advocate for the arts and architecture in New York’s nonprofit preservation organizations, died Sunday in Manhattan. He was 65 years old.

His death, in a hospital, was confirmed by his longtime partner, Joel Sanders, an architect and professor at the Yale School of Architecture. The cause was injuries sustained six days earlier from what authorities said was a suicide attempt.

Mr. Gunther has held influential but relatively low-key and unrecognized positions in the rarefied arts world, but his impact on everyday New York culture has been profound.

He helped preserve New York neglected public monuments and its neglected heritage in two museums, and worked to ensure that the redeveloped Times Square would retain its incandescent advertising, saving the area from turning into a mere office tower complex.

Until the beginning of the year, Mr. Gunther was the managing director of the Gracie Mansion Conservancya nonprofit corporation created to preserve and revitalize the former 18th-century country retreat on Manhattan’s Upper East Side, which also serves as the official residence of New York’s mayors and a public museum and gallery.

“Paul had this incredible sense of history,” said Chirlane McCray, the wife of former mayor Bill de Blasio, under whose administration Mr Gunther served.

“He was humble, he said what he thought,” said Ms. McCray, who hired Mr. Gunther to fulfill her commitment to expand the mansion’s programming. She added, “Every exhibit at Gracie Mansion was about all of New York, not just the people who had lived there.”

Before leading the reserve from 2015, Mr Gunther was chairman of the New York-based company Institute of Classical Architecture and Art from 2003 to 2015; Director of Development then Vice President of Institutional Advancement for the New York Historical Society from 2001 to 2003; Director of Development and American Liaison of the American Center in Paris from 1991 to 1994; and director of development and public affairs for the New York City Municipal Art Society from 1986 to 1991.

“As Director of Development for these nonprofit organizations, he was transformative in the way he not only gave them financial strength and security, but helped them define and refine their mission and work,” said Randall Bourscheidt, a friend and former colleague who was deputy culture commissioner. affairs under Mayor Edward I. Koch and later president of the nonprofit Alliance for the Arts.

Paul William Gunther was born on October 24, 1956 in Rochester, New York. His father, Kenneth W. Gunther, was a physicist and inventor at what became Xerox Corp. His mother, Nancy (Burrows) Gunther, was a city clerk in Penfield, NY, outside of Rochester.

Besides Professor Sanders, director of JSA/MIXdesign, an architecture and design studio in New York, Mr. Gunther is survived by his mother and a sister, Laurie Gunther Fellows.

He graduated from Yale University with a BA in Art History in 1978 and attended Jesus College, University of Oxford for one semester under the auspices of the English Speaking Union.

He then worked for the Cultural Affairs Commissioner of New York, Henry Geldzahleras a special assistant under the Koch administration, from 1978 to 1981. From 1982 to 1986, he was vice-president of George Trescher Associates, the fundraising company for some of New York’s leading charities and businesses.

“He instantly became a New Yorker,” said Kent L Barwick, the former president of the Municipal Art Society. “He looked down on people who didn’t treat the city with the respect it deserved.”

Beginning in 1987, Mr. Gunther – along with the city’s Parks and Recreation Department, the Art Commission and another organizer, Phyllis Samitz Cohen – was instrumental in creating an effort by the Municipal Art Society to seek private funders to support the public monuments and murals that the city could no longer afford to maintain. Among other projects, the group raised $275,000 to restore the Columbus Statue at Columbus Circle in Manhattan and $40,250 to repair the Lincoln Statue in Prospect Park in Brooklyn.

“He was central to everything the Municipal Art Society was doing at that time,” Mr Barwick said.

One of the things he did was ensure that the much publicized modernization of the city Times Square required developers to continue decorating even new buildings with the kind of dramatic signage that had distinguished the Great White Way for a century.

When the New York Historical Society could barely pay its utility bills and its museum and library were in a dying state, said Betsy Gotbaum, who was recruited to save the institution as president, Mr. Gunther “was one of the reasons we were able to save him.

“He had brilliant ideas, things you would never have thought of,” she said.

Mr. Gunther is the author, with Gay Giordano, of two books: “New York Living: Reinventing Home” (2018) and “Illusion in Design: New Trends in Architecture and Interiors” (2022).

In April, he was appointed general manager of the Oysterponds Historical Society in Orient, NY, on the North Fork of Long Island.

Mr. Gunther was complicated, “aware of his own and others’ flaws, and self-deprecating,” Mr. Barwick said. “Apparently,” he added, “self-mockery got the better of him.”

David W. Dunlap, a friend and former New York Times reporter, once said of Mr. Gunther that “having a conversation with Paul can be as exhilarating as navigating hairpin bends through a mountain pass. mountain in a finely tuned roadster”.

He added: “Scholarship is just one of the ways in which Paul – whose own life is set in the last half of the 20th century – seems to embody some of the best qualities of the 19th.”

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Newsrust - US Top News: Paul Gunther, keeper of a cultural flame, dies at 65
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