New York City is home to one of the most vibrant art scenes in the world. From the brilliant graffiti at SoHo to the many art galleries dotting Chelsea and the sheer number of museums across the city, art lovers are spoilt for choice. So when I was planning my trip, I knew I had to have some kind of a shortlist in place, or I’d probably go museum-happy!
First up was The Frick Collection. Founded by Pittsburgh coke and steel industrialist Henry Clay Frick, who bequeathed his New York residence and most of his art collection after his death, the museum has an excellent collection of early Italian gold-ground devotional paintings. Most of these are small panels depicting scenes from the Bible and from Jesus’ life, including Cimabue’s The Flagellation of Christ, Barna di Siena’s Christ Bearing the Cross, with a Dominican Friar and El Grecko’s Christ Driving the Money Changers from the Temple. Although some of these were quite interesting, and a lot were by painters I hadn’t even heard of, this style of paintings doesn’t interest me much. After a quick stroll through that room, I moved on to the Boucher Room.
This breathtaking room originally served as Mrs. Frick’s sitting room. Hanging on the walls are paintings by François Boucher, complemented with groupings of decorative art objects, including Vincennes and Sèvres porcelain, a writing table by Riesener and an elaborate dressing table by Carlin. And though this room was jaw-droopingly beautiful, I wonder just how comfortable it would have been in day-to-day usage. Surrounded by such exquisite works of art, wouldn’t you always be afraid of spilling or breaking something?
The other room that knocked the breath out of my lungs was the Fragonard Room. The dominant feature is The Progress of Love ensemble, which includes six floor-to-ceiling canvases — The Pursuit, The Meeting, The Lover Crowned, Love Letters, Love Triumphant and Reverie — four overdoors, and four slender panels of hollyhocks. For a while, I was dumb founded, my mind went blank, and my heart very nearly stopped beating. These were paintings that I had gazed at for hours in books. To imagine someone once having lived surrounded by these, and to be actually standing before the original canvases, was almost unbelievable.
The museum boasts other masterpieces such as Giovanni Bellini’s St. Francis in the Desert, Vermeer’s Mistress and Maid, Degas’ The Rehearsal, and Monet’s Vétheuil in Winter; as well as a beautiful collection of sculpture, furniture and brick-a-brac. Overall, the best thing about visiting The Frick Collection is that it feels like you’re visiting someone’s tastefully done up private home with an excellent collection of artwork, sculpture and furniture that you can see in a couple of hours without getting overwhelmed.
Contrast this with the Metropolitan Museum of Art, arguably New York’s largest museum. Spread over more than 7 square miles and home to over 3 million works of art, you’ll need at least a week (if not more) to look at everything on offer. If you’re a tourist, and an international one at that, chances are you won’t have that kind of time. To squeeze everything into one day, the only piece of advice I can give you is this: plan beforehand.
Before I even booked my tickets to New York, I had started listing and refining the galleries that I absolutely had to see. I started with a list that was a mile long. But when I actually reached the Met and took in its sheer size, that list quickly dwindled to two, maybe three departments that I had to see or I would cry. These included the Egyptian collection and the famed Temple of Dendur, the European masters, and the impressionists.
Of course, I couldn’t just go directly to those areas. That would be sacrilege! I spent a lot of time gawking at the European and Greek sculpture and sighing over the gorgeous rooms – like the English State Bedroom, Wainscoting from the Chapel of the Château de La Bastie d’Urfé, and The Lansdowne Room – that have been recreated within the Met. I took a quick trot through the arms and armory section, ran through (yes, ran) the Japanese room. I also managed to squeeze in some Islamic art, American stained glass and pottery along the way.
I know there’s a lot at the Met that I did not see, but some of it was closed, and some of it was uninteresting for me. The opportunity to see canvases by some of my favorite painters, to walk through the Temple of Dendur, examine some fine Egyptian artifacts up close and personal…to just be at the Met, was enough. Of course, I’d better start making a list of the other galleries that I would love to see if I do go back to New York!
Speaking of European masters, the Solomon R. Guggenheim’s Tannhauser collection, which includes works by Pissaro, Van Gogh, Monet, Manet and Picasso, was the main deciding factor for its inclusion on my list of museums to visit. However, the collection is housed in one largish room and has only a limited number of paintings on view. Apparently, the Guggenheim never puts its entire collection on display, instead letting out most of its space to showcase the works of different artists.
During my visit to New York, most of the museum was given over to the Lee Ufran: Marking Infinity exhibit. Some of the pieces on display were interesting, but most of them left me unmoved. There were multiple canvases with one line painted either horizontally or vertically, in the middle of the canvas or on the side. It apparently shows the passage of time. But anyone – and I mean even my 5-year old niece – could have painted that line across a canvas and passed it off as the passage of time. I mean, really?
There were also numerous installations of boulders and metal sheets in different groupings and placements, boulders with cotton, with wire…I heard the audio commentaries on the pieces, but I still couldn’t figure out why anyone would want to pay good money to see something like this. Call me an ignoramus if you must, but I do not understand modern art. End of topic.
And so, when I came home after that visit, I moaned and groaned about the whole experience. And the wee sis made me strike MoMA off the list, saying that’s a lot more of the same stuff. I now think it might have been a mistake to not see MoMA, but I was running out of time, and didn’t want to waste money and time to go through another set of canvases and installations that I just wouldn’t get.
Far removed from the heady world of classical paintings is The Museum of the American Indian. The museum is housed in the Alexander Hamilton U.S. Custom House, which is rich in architectural detail and is one of the finest examples of Beaux Arts architecture in New York. At the main entrance are four huge sculptures of seated female figures representing America, Asia, Europe and Africa – the major trading partners of the US. Above the columns of the main facade are 12 statues representing the sea powers of Europe and the Mediterranean, while above the main-floor windows are sculptures representing the different races.
The exterior elegance does little to prepare you for the gorgeous interiors. The rotunda dome in the main lobby is decorated with two series of murals – one depicting early sea explorers and the other tracing the course of a ship entering the New York harbor. We scheduled our visit to coincide with the Building Tours (45 min.–1 hr. Monday & Friday: 1 PM; Tuesday : 3PM), which took us through the Collection room, where captains had to come in to pay taxes, and the gorgeous Collector’s Reception Room with oak-paneled walls and Tiffany lamps. This room is only opened up for this particular tour, which gives you a more in-depth understanding of the history and significance of the building.
During the time of my visit, the museum also had a special exhibition showcasing the work of internationally renowned glass artist Preston Singletary. Titled Echoes, Fire, and Shadows, the 54 glass objects displayed Preston’s interpretation of Tlingit myths and legends. There were some stunning samples of his work, including a huge glass scuplture titled Clan House, which shows the interior of a Tlinglit longhouse.
The other galleries in the museum showcase various objects of cultural, historical and aesthetic importance, such as tunics, chief blankets, headdresses, jewellery, shoes, and pottery. On weekdays, the Insider Tour (2–3 PM, except federal holidays) – an interactive session with a Cultural Interpreter – offers an insight into Native American life and crafts such as beading, music, textiles and traditional foods.
And finally, onto two completely different museums – Madame Tussauds and The Museum of Sex.
Located in Times Square, Madame Tussauds brings you up close and personal with the who’s who of celebrities. The Opening Night Party and Gallery are incredible spaces, bringing you face-to-face with Hollywood stars like Brad Pitt and Angelina Jolie, Robert Pattison, Julia Roberts and more. The Gallery features numerous historical and political figures, including The Oval Office Desk with President Obama and Michelle Obama standing attendance, and the White House press room. The Spirit of New York is the newest interactive exhibit celebrating everything, well, New York! From classic movie scenes to daily New York life, there’s a little bit of everything in this space.
And finally, the Museum of Sex . Do I really need to say anything about what you can expect here? ;-) I’ll just tell you about two of the best exhibits I saw there: Action: Sex and the Moving Image – an audio-visual walk-through of the visual history of sex on the screen, from the first kiss caught on film through to the rise of the modern porn industry; and the Comics Stripped exhibit, which explores the limitless sexual imagination of comic artists from the 1930s through to the present using humor, scandal and fantasy.
Of course, there are so many, many more museums that you can explore in New York City. But if you’re pressed for time, these should certainly be on your must-see list!
Do you have a favorite New York (or other) museum not listed here? Let me know in the comments!
You might also like: