Hispanic Society of America

Edification value 2/5
Entertainment value
Should you go? 2/5
Time spent 33 minutes
Best thing I saw or learned It’s a predictable choice but Hispanic Society’s Goya, “The Duchess of Alba,” from 1797, is a fantastic portrait.  I especially love that Goya inscribed his signature on the sandy shore where she’s standing. The Duchess unsubtly points a bejeweled finger toward his name.

Goya's Duchess of Alba, Detail
The Duchess gives Goya the finger

 

Iberian Dreams…

Like many other institutions around New York City, the Hispanic Society of America was founded by a rich guy who became obsessed with something. Think Gustav Heye and what is now the New York branch of the Smithsonian’s Museum of the American Indian, or Mr. Frick’s collection or Mr. Morgan’s library… Occasionally it was an obsessed rich woman, like Jacques Marchais’s thing for Tibetan Art or the artistic passions of Gertrude Vanderbilt Whitney

In the case of the Hispanic Society, the rich dude was Archer Milton Huntington. And the obsession was the art of the Iberian peninsula. Archer Milton Huntington opened his Spanish Museum in 1908, though he’d dreamed of having a museum of some kind since he was a boy. Born very rich, the story goes that as a young man Huntington fell in love with Hispanic art on a visit to Mexico, which sparked many trips to Spain, learning Spanish as well as Arabic, and becoming both a connoisseur of and an expert in the art and culture.

The Hispanic Society is located in a splendid Beaux-Arts building in Harlem, part of the Audubon Terrace campus. It’s an interesting quirk of fate that Spanish is much more likely to be spoken in the museum’s neighborhood today than when it opened there a century ago. The beautiful old building is a blessing and a curse: the museum closed for a massive renovation shortly before I started my museum project back in 2017, and remained closed right up until 2022.

Today, happily, it is in the first stages of reopening its doors. When I visited back in March, I saw a “best-of” selection of the museum’s collection, curated to demonstrate how its mission has evolved and expanded.

Nuestra casa es su casa

The exhibit on view when I visited was titled Nuestra casa, and split a small basement space into two sections. The first half focused on Archer Huntington’s dream for the museum, travels in Spain, and the foundations of the collection. The second half was titled “A collection without borders” and focused on the museum’s mission since the 1990s, when it started to greatly increase its holdings from Latin America.

The Hispanic Society argues that this is justified because of the huge cultural influences back and forth between Iberia and its colonial (or former colonial) holdings – the Spanish and Portuguese speaking worlds. And of course it wants to stay relevant in a cultural landscape much-changed since Huntington’s time.

I’m not convinced the exhibit really supported the “one big world of influences” argument. It was easy to see Spain and Portugal influencing art in their overseas territories; however, cultural influences in the other direction were much less clear. I think that’s a fault of the bifurcated curation; it didn’t let the Society’s classic collection and its more recent acquisitions really talk to one another.

The space was a let-down as well: a small, windowless room, interrupted by a row of six large columns, with walls painted in shades of ochre that play off the collection’s Goya.

Hispanic Society Interior

That said, the Hispanic Society’s greatest hits are indeed quite great, including a dynamite Velázquez and the aforementioned showstopping Goya portrait, along with El Greco, Zurbarán, and even a dark and murky Sargent. I had a less strong reaction to the art from the New World, though some small devotional sculptures from Equador, depicting what awaits after death, were almost Tibetan in their macabre exuberance.

Four Fates of Man
Manuel Chili, “The Four Fates of Man,” Ecuador, ca 1775

Should You Visit the Hispanic Society Museum?

I’m excited that the Hispanic Society seems to be (slowly) returning to life as a museum. Its important collection and beautiful building are valuable restorations to the cultural fabric of the city. 

However, the tiny current space doesn’t merit a trip. Having seen photos of what the building’s interiors look like I’m confident that will change when more of the place opens back up. I just hope it won’t be another five years before that happens. 

Hispanic Society Interior View

The Hispanic Society is worth a quick stop if you happen to be in that part of Harlem. It might make a good combination with the splendid Morris-Jumel Mansion, both historic buildings. It is also close to the Sugar Hill Children’s Museum of Art and Storytelling, and while kids may not enjoy the Hispanic Society, at least the small size means they won’t get too impatient. 

On a nice day it would be pleasant to just hang out in the piazza of Audubon Terrace and contemplate Don Quixote (yay), the conquistadors (boo), and El Cid (yay? boo? I don’t know…), all of whom are immortalized there. The Society once shared the terrace with the aforementioned American Indian Museum, as well as the American Numismatic Society. A mini Lincoln Center of museums and cultural institutions, now scattered across the City. The American Academy of Arts and Letters is still there, and occasionally opens for exhibitions.

Audubon Terrace Plaza
El Cid, by Anna Hyatt Huntington

Finally, those with an interest in modern or contemporary Hispanic art should also consider El Museo del Barrio, which didn’t impress me much but for the moment has far more to see than the Hispanic Society.

For Reference:

Address 613 W 155th Street, Manhattan
Website hispanicsociety.org
Cost  General Admission:  Free