International Center of Photography

 

NOTE: This is my original review of ICP in its old space on The Bowery. Here are my thoughts on their new home on Essex Street.

Edification value  3/5
Entertainment value  3/5
Should you go?  3/5
Time spent 71 minutes
Best thing I saw or learned The lobby boasts a large interactive screen that enables visitors to browse through the ICP’s digital image collection, sorted by timeline or via a large number of tags/keywords.  It’s fun to see what comes up, and how images connect across times and places.  

International Center of Photography

International Center of PhotographyThe International Center of Photography is one of two photo-specialist institutions in New York (the other being the Aperture Foundation).  It has a venerable history, founded in 1974 by the photographer Cornell Capa, the brother of even greater photographer Robert Capa.  It’s currently located on the Bowery, very close to the New Museum.

In addition to its museum space, the Center offers classes, a full-time school of photography, and events.

Ironically, the ICP does not allow photography inside its galleries.  I’m not certain whether that policy is general or just for the current show.  Regardless, I have a few shots of the lobby area and cafe, but that’s it.

The ICP Galleries

International Center of Photography features two moderately sized gallery spaces, as well as a small video screening area. Visitors begin in a bland rectangular space on the ground floor, then go downstairs to a similar space directly below.  I don’t have a lot to say about them — they are windowless and fairly generic, painted white when I visited. Continue reading “International Center of Photography”

The Frick Madison

Edification value
Entertainment value
Should you go?
Time spent 210 minutes
Best thing I saw or learned Bellini’s wonderful St. Francis in the Desert now has a room to itself, angled to one of the Breuer’s weird, skewed windows such that the light hits it exactly the way the light in the painting works. It’s like Bellini knew back in the 1470s that someday this room would exist, or like Breuer knew someday this painting would be in this spot. It gave me chills. Also, St. Francis in the Desert has one of the best oblivious donkeys in all of art.

Have you ever had a dear old friend, tell you that they planned to change up their entire look? Style, hair, clothes, the way they present themselves…the whole shebang. Have you ever worried that, even though you know they’ll be the same person underneath the superficial changes, you might like them… less? Maybe tried to talk them out of it? “You’re awesome just as you are! Don’t go changing!”

This has never happened to me with a person, but it’s very much how I reacted when the Frick Collection announced that while Stately Frick Manor is closed for a major renovation and expansion, Mr. Frick’s art would be on view in Marcel Breuer’s Brutalist building, originally home to the Whitney and lately venue for the Met’s experimental, defunct Met Breuer effort.

There’s no overstating the magnitude of the change, the cognitive shock of Henry Clay Frick’s lovely, genteel, incredibly tasteful collection of masterpieces recontextualized out of the home that’s been its home for over a century, and re-installed in one of the least friendly buildings in New York City. 

I feel like I should hate it. To be brutal(ist)ly honest, I wanted to hate it.

I loved it.

Possibly this is because it was my first art museum visit in 4 months. Maybe I was just starved for art…maybe you could’ve showed me anything and I would’ve gone into raptures. But I don’t think so.

Space: The Final Frontier

The clearest benefit of the move to the Breuer building is a ton of square footage to play with. I wonder if the Frick curators toyed with the idea of keeping everything more or less “where it was” — recreating the mansion’s rooms in the Breuer space. Like what they did with the Barnes Foundation in Philadelphia. That would have been a terrible idea. Probably.

Instead, for the first time ever, the Frick collection is arranged chronologically and thematically. That sort of pedagogy is out of fashion in museums and seems very retro, but it makes tons of sense, and it feels new, because we’ve never been able to see this art this way before.

For example, the Vermeers are in one place, creating arguably the best single roomful of art in New York City (prove me wrong!). Holbein’s Thomas Cromwell and Thomas More now glare eye to eye, no fireplace or stern St. Jerome separating them. I never realized how many Van Dycks the Frick Collection had til I saw them all in one place.

The extra space also creates more breathing room between pieces. As a result, there’s less sensory overload, and so more ability to focus. Works that were second-tier Frick treasures get attention, and the Frick’s best pieces get showcased in ways the mansion doesn’t allow.

What’s more, things that were perviously part of the scenery — the porcelains, the bronzes, the carpets — now get spotlights, literally, thrown on them. The porcelain room is a particular delight, and its very contemporary design made me stop and pay attention to those pieces in a way I never have before.

The other remarkable change is you can get closer to some pieces now, and the heights and sight lines are different. It’s a literal shift of perspective. To wit, I’ve never been a fan of the froufrou Fragonard room with its insipid cherubs. It’s still definitely not my fave, but seeing its panels anew on Madison, rearranged, I realized that at least some of those cherubs are violent. And therefore a little edgy.

What’s Stayed The Same

In terms of things that haven’t changed, the Frick has retained its no-photos policy. While I deeply respect that, this is an utterly photogenic, super-Instagrammable experience. Visitors will be tempted!

Also, The Frick’s retained its no-wall-text philosophy. You can pick up a free guide, or download a reasonably good Bloomberg-sponsored app, but if you want, it can be just you and the art. I admire that.

A Whole New World

The best art makes you see the world in a new way, and the best museums make you see art in a new way. However, for a place like the Frick, there are few opportunities (outside of their jewel-box special exhibitions) to let people see the collection anew. That’s okay when you’re as perfect as the Frick. But perfection breeds inertia, and a resistance to innovate. It takes some doing to overcome that.

I’m surprised at how pithy my original, 2017 Frick review is. But it says what it needed to say: Everyone needs to go to the Frick. And I wish it would never change.

The Frick Madison forces me to rethink part of that conclusion. Everyone definitely needs to go to the Frick Madison, most especially people who know and love the original. And I stand happily corrected about the “never change” part. I can’t wait to go back.

For Reference:

Address 945 Madison Avenue, Manhattan
Website https://www.frick.org/
Cost  General Admission:  $22. Advance tickets required
Other Relevant Links
  • Details on the Frick building project are here.

 

NY Museum Update – April 2021

It has been a while. But as things start to look (cautiously) up again, it feels like a good moment to end my Museum Project’s long hiatus, assess where things are, and hopefully point toward an optimistic future for museums.

To start, I took a quantitative look at where the New York museum world stands as of thirteen months after everything hastily shut down. 

The news isn’t great, but it could definitely be worse.

The Numbers, April 2021

  • 106 museums, or 53.5% of all the museums in New York, are currently open.
  • 7 museums are temporarily closed, generally not COVID-related.
  • 2 museums are closed and seeking new spaces. I’m treating these as “permanently closed” though hopefully they’ll be back.
  • 1 museum has permanently closed for non-COVID reasons: The Metropolitan Museum of Art has ended its Met:Breuer experiment.
  • However the Met’s loss is the Frick’s gain, as the Frick Madison counts as a new (albeit temporary) museum.
  • 1 museum, Art in General, has permanently closed due to COVID.
  • That leaves 81 museums, or 40.9%, closed due to the pandemic but, at least theoretically, planning to open again as things improve.
  • One museum, the Brooklyn Historical Society, has reorganized, merging with the Brooklyn Public Library to become the Center for Brooklyn History. I’ll be curious to see what it’s like when it reopens.

For those who like pie charts, here’s what the numbers look like:

Pie chart depicting New York museums

Even museums that are open are very different experiences than they were a year ago. The vast majority of New York institutions today require advance reservations or ticket purchases, usually for specific entry times. It’s a challenging moment to just drop into a museum on a whim. Very definitely visit a museum’s website or social media before you attempt to visit the place itself. Still, it’s nice that even some smaller, quirkier gems (welcome back, City Reliquary and Nicholas Roerich Museum) have survived. And we will hopefully see more spaces reopen their doors in the coming weeks and months.

To view a list of all the open museums, visit my database page.

Children’s Museum of Manhattan

Edification value 2/5
Entertainment value 2/5
Should you go? 2/5
Time spent 126 minutes
Best thing I saw or learned This multilayered architectural image that, if you look closely, it turns out incorporate TIE fighters into it. I know nothing about it — there was no wall text and I neglected to ask any of the staff who did it. But I liked it! 

Children's Museum of Manhattan

The Children’s Museum of Manhattan was founded in 1973, and makes its home in the former Holy Trinity Parochial School on Manhattan’s Upper West Side. I mostly make fun of museum acronym-based nicknames, but I kind of like “CMOM.” I just wish I liked the museum as much as its motherly acronym.

Children's Museum of Manhattan Exterior

CMOM is an odd mishmash of different things. If there’s a curatorial or organizational idea behind it, they keep it well hidden. Moreover, it’s not really clear from my visit there who the ideal visitor is. Well, I suppose the ideal visitors are harried New York parents who will pay anything to give their kids something to keep them occupied for a couple of hours. 

What’s on at CMOM

The museum currently hosts 7 exhibits spread across its 5 floors. A couple of floors are meant for specific ages, but most of the exhibits seem simultaneously too simple for older kids and too dense for younger ones. Is this for budding science nerds? Artsy kids? CMOM tries to be something for everyone, which I think is a mistake.

For instance, take “It’s About Time.” Here’s a bit of this small installation.

Children's Museum of Manhattan
Watch This?

Who’s likely to find this interesting? Besides the Bulova Watch Company, which is lauded by name (“Bulova: A Timely New York Story”) and not incidentally provided financial support for the installation. Too much wall text for a little kid; there’s some interactivity in the installation, but, why? I love a good anachronism as much as the next guy, but clockwork clocks and watches are not the most interesting or relevant technologies for a kid-oriented museum to showcase.

Tough to Digest

Super SprowtzThen there’s the Super Sprowtz, a short-lived effort from 7 years ago to use puppet vegetables to teach kids about nutrition. Though, evidently, not spelling. It still exists on YouTube, and at the Children’s Museum of Manhattan, but just about nowhere else. Gita Garlic is pretty cool, I’ll grant that (that’s Sammy Spinach to the left). But overall, it speaks to a place that has no clear sense of what kids like or how they think.

To be sure, there’s a lot to do here: a fake intestine kids can climb in (not as gross as it sounds), and the very well named “Royal Flush,” a giant toilet that teaches kids about poop (very much as gross as it sounds). 

Children's Museum of Manhattan - Royal Flush

Sleep and MoodBut then there’s this about sleep and sleep deprivation. I know I’ve asked before, but I’m compelled to ask again, who is likely to find this fun or interesting?

 

Brought to You By…

Another thing that disappointed me about CMOM was the degree to which exhibits are sponsored — like the Bulova Watch installation I mentioned previously. And not just in a subtle “brought to you by the letters J and L and by the number 3” way.

Here we have Nickelodeon bringing you the Dora and Diego explorer zone. It makes the Children’s Museum of Manhattan feel more like edutainment than education. Not that that’s bad, but I’m concerned about priorities, and it adds to the generally hodge-podge feel of the place.

Children's Museum of Manhattan - Diego

Oversized Playmobil characters in various professional guises lurk in the stairwell, giving the weird Lego knockoffs some product placement. CMOM is apparently very fine with that, but it bugged me. It doesn’t add anything — except possibly to make Playmobil less uncool in the eyes of visitors. And even that seems unlikely.

Bring Purell. Oceans of Purell

The other phrase I’d use to describe the feel of this institution is “slightly sticky.” Kids, man. They are gross creatures, and CMOM gets more little grubby munchkins visiting it than the place is equipped to clean up after. I am in no way a germophobe, and I visited well before the covid-19 outbreak (it’s taken me a while to sit down and write this post). However, I found myself wishing I’d brought a bottle of Purell with me when I visited, and I was thankful whenever I found a dispenser of the stuff.

The Art Center

By far my favorite bit of CMOM was the large space on the main floor devoted to art. It just hit me, this must have been the gym when this place was a school. Poetic justice to take the jock space and turn it over to the art kids. Anyway, CMOM has an artist-in-residence program, including some pieces on display and a bunch of hands-on art activities available. The day I visited, kids had a choice of collaging, textile art, and animation using the Play-Doh TOUCH app (but alas, no Play-Doh).

Art Center at CMOM

That said, New York boasts specialist institutions that do this better and more comprehensively than the Children’s Museum of Manhattan does. The Children’s Museum of the Arts in Tribeca and the Sugar Hill Children’s Museum of Art and Storytelling are both more creative, and less crowded, than this. 

Should You Take the Kids to CMOM?

The big thing CMOM has going for it is convenience. It’s smack on the Upper West Side. And its size makes it much easier to navigate than the nearby American Museum of Natural History. But I found it disappointing; it could and should be much better than it is. It’s confusing, it sells out readily to corporate sponsors, its exhibits seemed surprisingly out-of-date and (giant toilet notwithstanding) not terribly compelling to a young audience.

There’s fun to be had here, but there are many better kid-oriented museums in this city — I’d encourage parents to have the intestinal fortitude to seek them out.

Children's Museum of Manhattan
Intestinal Fortitude

For Reference:

Address 212 West 83rd Street, Manhattan
Website cmom.org
Cost  General Admission:  $15 (kids are also $15)
Other Relevant Links

 

Museum of the American Gangster

Edification value 2/5
Entertainment value 4/5
Should you go? 2/5
Time spent 108 minutes
Best thing I saw or learned I liked this dusty model rum runner, combined with Mimi’s commentary drawing a direct line from these boats to World War II PT boats and Kennedy’s wartime heroism.   

Museum of the American Gangster-Rum Runner
Rum Runner!

I arrived at the Museum of the American Gangster predisposed to dislike it. A small, threadbare operation by the sound of it, two modest rooms over a nautically-themed absinthe-specialist dive bar on St. Marks Place (with a fancy take-out-window sandwich shop embedded in it). Combine that premise with a steep $20 admission charge and it seemed sketchy — like the execrable Ground Zero Museum Workshop, a ploy to separate gullible museum-goers from their hard-earned cash.

Museum of the American Gangster-Entrance

And, yup, it’s that.

But it’s not just that. It’s also Mimi, the guide on the Sunday shortly before New Year’s when I took my tour. Mimi who gave a rather astonishing, 105-minute, note-free, free-associative, and fascinating history of the entire American project, from colonization through today, as viewed through the lens of organized crime and from the unapologetic perspective of a smart, funny, middle-aged, super-liberal, Jewish New Yorker.

I realize that description contains a fair amount of redundancy.

What I Saw at the Gangster Museum

The Gangster Museum is indeed basically two rooms, the size of a starter New York apartment (which in a past life it probably was). Very much of the Science Fair variety of exhibition: lots of photos, reproduction documents, and wall text with a few artifacts (old bottles, models, some bullets from the St. Valentine’s Day Massacre…Tommy gun) to liven things up.

Museum of the American Gangster-Tommy Gun

You can only visit on a tour — no wandering in off the street. For the first chunk of it, covering the early history of organized crime and booze and America, there are thankfully seats. The second part is about standing and peering at pictures on the walls. There’s not much of any time for self-guided exploration, but then again, there’s not much to explore.

Museum of the American Gangster-OfficeThe space is, to put it kindly, disheveled. A desk in at the front of the first room serves as the office, with various bits that should probably be thrown out or tidied up, just kind of out there. If you need a restroom break, visit the dive bar on the ground floor.

Eventually, the tour takes you down to said dive bar, which was a speakeasy during Prohibition, and which also now houses the old St Mark’s Theater, installed after the Prohibition days. Then you put on somewhat sketchy hard hats (are these things sanitized between visitors?) and go down to the basement, which is even sketchier, and gives you a great view into what the basement of an East Village apartment building that also contains a dive bar and trendy sandwich shop looks like.  Cluttered with utility pipes and ducts and wires and conduits dangerously everywhere.

Museum of the American Gangster-Basement
Typical East Village Basement

 

In the Prohibition days, the organized criminal who ran the enterprise kept his office down there, and you can see what the space is like today. It didn’t add much.

What I Heard at the Gangster Museum

I’m not going to try to reconstruct the Gangster Museum spiel from my notes. You need to hear it firsthand. Some highlights of what we covered, though:

  • The triangle slave trade
  • Women’s rights and the dawn of Prohibition
  • Southern plantations as Auschwitz
  • Rum Runners and Kennedy’s WWII Heroics
  • Prescription Booze
  • The Dawn of the Cocktail
  • The Chemist Wars as Extrajudicial Killing — or “Assisted Suicide”
  • Prohibition was just for the poor

And then we finally got to gangsters. This review is already long enough but two of my particular favorite quotes from the gangster part were: 

  • Arnold Rothstein (real gangster): “I think we can do crime better.”
  • Omar Little (fictional gangster): “You come at the king, you best not miss.”

We rolled right over our allotted tour time and still barely had time for the history of the building. As it was Mimi turned away a guy who arrived for the 2:30 tour — sent him to the bar for a hot apple cider, because she wasn’t finished with us yet.

Museum of the American Gangster-Interior

We learned of lost safes, buried in concrete. The speakeasy turned theater, the lost office, the whole building an “improvised explosive device” should the Feds come knocking. Escape tunnels and expired Italian dinners (locked in said safes).

I can’t even.

There was a whole heck of a lot left out. No real conversation about organized crime post-Prohibition, or certainly not post-WWII.

Nothing about the potentially awesome, deep topic of organized crime in popular culture. Though Mimi did talk about the ways that early gangsters masterfully manipulated their images in popular culture — at least until their extralegal activities got too bloody or grandiose for their generosity or outsized personalities to balance.

I left exhausted and excited in a way I hardly expected from a two-room, threadbare, quasi-museum.

Museum of the American Gangster-Interior

Is The Museum of the American Gangster a Hit?

Rarely in the course of my museum project have I found myself so stymied by the bottom line. Generally, it’s an easy “go” or “don’t go.” Or a “go if you’re into so-and-so topic.” The Museum of the American Gangster isn’t a good museum — it’s not worth it if you approach it as one, even if you’re into organized crime.

But think of this place, instead, as a theatrical experience. Your reaction to it will completely depend on your guide and whether you click with that person. I can only speak for Mimi, who reminded me why I love this city in all its quirky, passionate, fascinating diversity.

Note also that there’s a Groupon deal seemingly always available that gets you in two-for-one. Do that. Even for Mimi, I have trouble recommending spending $20 on the Gangster Museum.

Museum of the American Gangster-Exterior

 

For Reference:

Address 80 Saint Marks Place, Manhattan (near First Avenue)
Website museumoftheamericangangster.org
Cost  General Admission:  $20, check website for guided tour times. Note, check Groupon for a 2 for one deal.
Other Relevant Links

 

Poster House

Edification value 4/5
Entertainment value 4/5
Should you go? 4/5
Time spent 173 minutes (including lingering at the café)
Best thing I saw or learned Alfonse Mucha created lots of lovely ladies, but among the loveliest were the ladies who populate his dreamy, dusky series, “The Moon and the Stars.” My photo does not do them justice.Mucha - The Stars

In a city that has a museum for everything from dogs to Enrico Caruso it’s somewhat surprising that we’ve lacked a museum for posters. Remedying that shortcoming is Poster House, which opened in July.

Poster House

Poster House occupies a storefront in an early 1900s building on West 23rd Street. Old-school New Yorkers with a certain computational bent will recognize the building as the former home of Tekserve, the City’s original Mecca for all things Apple, before Apple itself moved in with its glass cubes, converted post offices, Grand Central balconies, and sundry other retail experiences. Tech retail’s loss is museum’s gain.

Within, visitors will find two floors of gallery spaces, along with the requisite café (quite a good one at that) and gift shop. The architecture is a really interesting hybrid, with the old 19th century columns and high ceilings preserved, but with highly contemporary concrete and blond wood interventions to define the interior spaces and jazz the place up. It’s a combination that could easily go wrong, but to my mind it’s one of New York’s most successful recently repurposed museum spaces.

Poster House
In the moo for posters!

Although the museum has a collection, given its fairly finite space and the delicate nature of posters themselves it’s going to host changing shows, rather than having anything permanently on display.

Mucho Mucha

Poster House
Poster House’s Main Gallery

Poster House opted to inaugurate its space with a show devoted to the early work of Alfonse Mucha, a perfect subject for the institution. Mucha helped define the modern poster, as well as epitomizing art nouveau.  Even if you don’t know who Mucha was, you’ve almost certainly seen his work — or homages, pastiches, or derivatives thereof. His deeply detailed, ornate, floral, curvy designs and the dreamy ladies with flowing, “macaroni” hair who populated them have influenced art and design straight through to the present.

The exhibition, titled “Art Nouveau/ Nouvelle Femme,” argued that Mucha’s depictions of women, graceful slightly naughty semi-nudes that nonetheless managed to be demure at the same time, represented a big break with past depictions of women in advertising. The curator describes Mucha women as (in their way, for their time) strong and active, in contrast to the “submissive advertising ladies” (quoting the exhibition note) of earlier posters. The show opens with Mucha’s work with the actress Sarah Bernhardt, his first big break, a successful partnership, and an influence on how Mucha saw and depicted women later in his career.

Poster House
Three of Mucha’s Bernhardt Posters

 

Mucha Winter
A Mucha Winter

I love the allegorical nature of Mucha’s work. These are not allegorical times. I sort of miss an era when a woman could embody the continents or the seasons or the concept of Liberty.  Or a brand of biscuit or bicycle.

On that note, Mucha did a set of seasonal ladies for a calendar and I swear it looks like Winter is about to eat a little bird. I expect she’s just blowing on the poor thing to warm it up. But in my mind, Winter’s hungry.

This exhibit bodes well for future shows at Poster House. It had something to say beyond “check out the pretty ladies,” and it made its argument well. And it doesn’t hurt that the works were indeed very lovely.

Poster House

If I’m Cyan I’m Dyin’

The other inaugural show at Poster House could not have been more diverse from Mucha. I suspect the curators deliberately sought a subject to demonstrate the breadth of posters as an art and craft. And so a tiny jewel box of a gallery featured a mini-retrospective of the work of Cyan, an East Berlin graphic design firm from the 1990s that went a little nuts with desktop publishing software when it first became available in the former Eastern Bloc. Cyan’s posters feature amazing combinations of colors and layers. They make the viewer keep looking again and again, always seeing new things. 

Poster House
Cyan posters at Poster House

This exhibit taught me something new, and, like Cyan’s posters themselves, packed dense, interesting ideas into a teensy little space.

Other Things to See

Poster House Poster Design
I made this!

Poster House also includes several interactive elements. I spent time with the ‘design your own poster’ feature, which walks through major poster styles, types and purposes. Mine is, I freely admit, pretty horrible. That’s why I review museums instead of designing posters. But if Boris Karloff had been a Mucha girl, it would have looked something like this.

Poster House also has an Instagrammy photobooth, wherein visitors can insert themselves into classic posters.

And a small kids area, with poster-related activities for young ones.

Poster HouseThe gift shop also merits a bit more of a mention than I’ve given it — it’s quite good, and gives another impression of the slicker, more modern aspect of the interior design.

Should You Visit Poster House?

For a museum devoted to an advertising medium, Poster House seems oddly under-marketed.  Its 23rd Street façade, which should be super-inviting, instead has featureless black glass. If I didn’t know it there was a museum inside, I would just walk by.

The place was very empty on the random weekend afternoon that I visited, soon after its grand opening. I was surprised that more curious New Yorker’s weren’t there. That’s especially true given the Mucha show. He’s pretty popular these days, and eminently Instagrammable.

I hope that the relative emptiness is just because it’s still new and working out its publicity, marketing, and advertising plans. This place deserves to be more popular.

That said, and realizing I’ve just written an emphatically “you should go!” review, I would be happy if Poster House stayed under the radar for a while. Nothing like being in-the-know for a superior small museum experience — as well as a good café in the Flatiron district — that’s not overwhelmed by its own popularity.

Poster House
Poster House Café

 

For the record, though, you should definitely visit Poster House.

For Reference:

Address 119 West 23rd Street, Manhattan
Website posterhouse.org
Cost  General Admission:  $12
Other Relevant Links

 

Milton Resnick and Pat Passlof Foundation

Edification value 3/5
Entertainment value 2/5
Should you go? 2/5
Time spent 40 minutes
Best thing I saw or learned I appreciated the arrows penciled on the sides of Andrew Spence’s paintings (themselves rather nice, too), orienting curators, gallery staff, and curious viewers as to which way is up.Resnick Foundation

Milton Resnick and Pat Passlof were a husband-and-wife team of New York-based abstract expressionists, working alongside de Kooning and Ad Reinhardt. I have to confess I’d never heard of either of them before visiting their museum. Which, in my Joe-centric way leads me to conclude they were less successful than say Pollock or Krasner, but maybe they’re just under my radar.

In any case, following Resnick’s death in 2004 and Passlof’s in 2011, a foundation was created to further their legacy. Eight years later, that foundation recently finished transforming Resnick’s old home and studio into a moderately sized art museum.

Resnick Foundation Exterior

Temple Resnick

The Resnick-Passlof Foundation’s building was a modest-yet-classic Lower East Side synagogue until 1963, when the couple moved in. Resnick, who favored really large canvases, painted in what used to be the congregation’s meeting space. I wonder what it looked like in its art-creating prime, as it’s entirely different now. 

Indeed, not much of the building as it was remains following a thorough transformation to stabilize the place and conform with building codes and modern museum design principles.  It’s definitely not an experience like the fantastic Judd or Renee and Chaim Gross Foundations, where you get a sense of the artists as people as well as their work.

Instead the Resnick~Passlof Foundation offers three floors of galleries: two small in  scale, and the old congregation meeting area now a big, exciting space complete with tall windows, wood floors, fancy new staircase, and grand piano.

Resnick Foundation Interior

On an in-between floor, mostly Foundation offices, visitors can peek into a tiny, meticulously preserved studio that Resnick used late in his life, when infirmity forced him to work in different media and at a far smaller scale. That one spot gives a sense of Resnick the person.

What I Saw

The intent with the Resnick+Passlof Foundation is not to solely show off the work of those two artists. Instead the smaller galleries will at least sometimes host exhibits of  other artists’ work, in  conversation with Resnicks (and eventually Passlofs). 

The current show is called “Doing What Comes Naturally: Seven Painters in Their Prime” — a group show of contemporary abstract artists of various flavors.

The soaring congregation gallery hosts nine Resnicks, including “Elephant,” his biggest work.  All are very textural, with thick impasto paint that reminded me of lava flows or brownie batter. I like that kind of painting, but I always feel tempted to touch it!

Which I did not do.

There’s very little information about Resnick or about the works, just some minimal wall texts. As an outsider to this couple and their art, I would have benefited greatly from an audio guide or some other aid.

The fourth floor gallery charmed me by having a skylight, and a ceiling that is far from level — it reminded me of those illusion rooms where if you stand at one end you’re a giant and at the other end teensy.

Resnick Foundation

Piano Recital and Guide

As I was making my way downstairs from the 4th floor gallery, I heard piano music. At first I thought the staff had plugged an iPhone into the audio system, but then I discovered gentleman sitting at the shiny grand piano in the congregation gallery and just casually playing. I love a free concert. I stopped and listened to him for a while, and later struck up a conversation.

The pianist was Geoffrey Dorfman, a Foundation Trustee and Resnick biographer. Basically the best possible person a sub rosa museum reviewer could speak with. He was super nice, and shared some insights into the conversion of the space, the time and cost to stabilize it and make it accessible (adding a better elevator, the new staircase, restrooms, etc.) as well as the crazy amount of cost ($4,000) and trouble it was to get “Elephant” (pictured below) into place. It involved slicing a long, skinny hole in the floor.

Elephant, By Milton Resnick
Jumbo-Sized Painting

Should You Visit the Milton Resnick and Pat Passlof Foundation?

Resnick Foundation Facade

I liked the Resnick*Passlof Foundation less than I expected, because there’s less of Resnick and Passlof there than I was expecting. I was glad I got to talk with Mr. Dorfman — even a short conversation with someone who knew the man and the place was far more enlightening than what the Foundation offers a casual and non-expert visitor.

Although it is a lovely jewel box of a museum, it has very little to evoke the place Resnick and Passlof lived and worked. Even some “before” photos of what the spaces looked like in Resnick and Passlof’s time would’ve been a great help in that regard.

Having seen Resnick’s work, I’m still not sure of his position in the pantheon of Abstract Expressionists. If you’re an AbEx fan, of if you were on a first-name basis with Pat and Milton, by all means go. Otherwise you’ll see more and learn more about that period by visiting MoMA.

That said, the architecture is neat, and it’s free!  And this stretch of the Lower East Side is home to two other institutions that combine for a fun, thematic afternoon. The outstanding Eldridge Street Synagogue is just a few blocks away. And the obscure, community-focused museum of the Kehila Kedosha Synagogue is also nearby.  A trifecta of synagogues in various states of use and adaptation.

Resnick Foundation

Also, if you visit the Resnick/Passlof Foundation and you want a bite after, I strongly recommend Vanessa’s Dumpling House, just up the street. Cheap and delicious!

For Reference:

Address 87 Eldridge Street, Manhattan
Website resnickpasslof.org
Cost  General Admission:  Free
Other Relevant Links

American Kennel Club Museum of the Dog

Museum of the Dog
Edification value 3/5
Entertainment value 3/5
Should you go? 2/5
Time spent 52 minutes
Best thing I saw or learned There’s only one actual dog at the Museum of the Dog — or a former one, anyway. Belgrave Joe died in 1888, and is the prototype Fox Terrier. And the mascot of the AKC Library.Museum of the Dog He reminded me of the nameless canine taxidermied and memorialized at the Fire Museum.

Museum of the Dog

A Museum That’s Gone to the Dogs

The American Kennel Club Museum of the Dog is one of the newest museums in New York City, having opened in an office building lobby space near Grand Central in May of 2019. The Museum’s prior incarnation was located in St. Louis, but its move back to the Big Apple represents a homecoming for an institution based here from  its founding in 1982 until 1987.

The museum is split over two airy, brightly lit floors with large windows looking onto East 40th Street.  The design cleverly maximizes the limited floorspace, with temporary walls for paintings standing at a diagonal to the floorplan, and a series of library-style archival storage racks upstairs that visitors can look through.

Museum of the Dog

Ironically, dogs are not allowed.

The museum unsurprisingly collects caniniana (I just made that word up). What’s on display is mainly art — paintings and a multistory vitrine of small knicknacks and sculptures. It also includes a very few artifacts, like a charming carousel animal carved like a parakeet. Okay, carved like a dog.

Museum of the Dog
Looff Factory, “Queen” Carousel Piece, from 1890, mastiff breed.

If I had to characterize the paintings, I’d say they were mostly fairly mediocre, and in most other museums would be relegated to study collections or dusty back rooms (indeed, I speculate dusty back rooms of other museums may even be the source of some of the collection). But, hey, they’ve got a dog in them, so here they are stars of the show. One particular favorite of mine featured what I declare to be the world’s most windswept poodle, out on the moors somewhere.

Museum of the Dog
Maud Earl. Ch. Nunsoe Duc de la Terrace of Blakeen. 1935. I assume that’s the dog’s name but who knows? Poodle.

Who’s a Good Museum? Who’s a Good Museum?

The Museum of the Dog, like the AKC, is devoted to dogs, and their raising, training and breeding. Actually, almost exclusively the latter. Rather than dogs as companions, or dogs as living creatures, much of what’s on display speaks to dogs as objects that humans have shaped and molded over generations to create an astonishing array of variously lovable, weird, practical, and unlikely breeds.

One interactive element consists of a tabletop screen that with little dogs walking along it. Drag one to a doghouse and the table gives you all sorts of facts and lore about the breed.

Museum of the Dog

There’s other interactivity as well. A kiosk snaps a visitor’s selfie and then identifies a breed of dog they resemble. I got tagged as a German Pinscher, which I suppose I’ll take. At least I’m not a pug in its machine vision eyes. Though my ears are definitely not that pointy.

The museum also contains the AKC’s modest library, including everything from children’s literature to a book on the art of Beagling (I did not make that word up).

Museum of the Dog
The Dog Library

Speaking of beagling, I was grateful that in a rare moment of showing a dog as an exemplar of popular culture, rather than an object, the curators had a single Peanuts comic on display.

Museum of the Dog

Should You Visit the Museum of the Dog?

The AKC Museum of the Dog is a perfectly nice little museum. It’s very well designed, makes great use of its space, and doesn’t overwhelm the visitor. It’s a fun tribute to dogs, albeit one that’s very heavy on forgettable (except for that poodle) paintings and curios as the expression of dog.

Museum of the Dog
Museum design that outshines the collection

The emphasis on dogs as breeds, as objects that humans create and curate, took some of the joy out of the subject for me. I hope future exhibits look more at dogs in other lights, but given what the AKC does for a living, I’m not optimistic about that.

I’m not sure who the Museum of the Dog wants as its audience. It’s a natural topic for a kid-focused institution, but aside from a rather boring interactive dog training simulator and an activity area in the library there’s not much here that would appeal to kids.

Fundamentally, if you’re an AKC member you should absolutely go — you’re self-selected (I’d almost say bred) to love it. If you deeply love dogs, deeply, you might like it, too. For everyone else, $15 feels steep for what they have on display and what you learn.

Museum of the Dog
J. Alden Weir, “Words of Comfort,” 1887. Bloodhound and French bulldog

For Reference:

Address 101 Park Avenue, Manhattan (entrance on East 40th Street)
Website museumofthedog.org
Cost  General Admission:  $15

 

Sugar Hill Children’s Museum of Art and Storytelling

Sugar Hill Children's Museum of Art and Storytelling
Edification value 3/5
Entertainment value 4/5
Should you go? 3/5
Time spent 79 minutes
Best thing I saw or learned Yuken Teruya’s complex, captivating, thought-provoking constructions made from and contained within shopping bags. My very favorite were “Constellation,” a series of intricate night skies — a universe in a discarded Barney’s bag.

Even before you get to it, the Sugar Hill Children’s Museum of Art and Storytelling makes a strong and unexpected impression. It occupies an airy, light-filled, below-ground space in a distinctive building — an utterly modern, 2014 low-income apartment house that looks like anything but low-income housing. The building was designed by Sir David Adjaye, who also designed Washington, DC’s National Museum of African American History.

Sugar Hill Children's Museum of Art and Storytelling

The Sugar Hill Museum, which refreshingly does not have a “SHCMo…” acronym, was a key programmatic element of the building, along with a preschool and a community art gallery.

The place knows its audience. I appreciated its kid’s-eye-level sign that explains not a list of “don’ts,” but “rules for being cool” while visiting.  I don’t know if that works, but I appreciate the gesture.

Sugar Hill Children's Museum of Art and Storytelling

 

Art To Make

Sugar Hill Children's Museum of Art and StorytellingThe Sugar Hill Museum, knowing its audience, splits its programming very evenly between art to look at (in several gallery spaces and a studio) and art to make in a main multipurpose space and what I’ll call a sort of art lab.  There’s blocks to stack, a wall you can paint (with water — it’s kind of fun to watch your graffiti disappear slowly as it dries), leaves to color and other things to make.

Sugar Hill Children's Museum of Art and Storytelling

The museum also has an artist-in-residence program.  Currently the artist is Damian Davis, who makes layered collages bolted together out of shapes cut from plastic. Playing off his work, a group activity during my visit involved letting young visitors assemble their own layered creations with a variety of precut shapes, in soft foam. It was clever, and when we visited Mr. Davis in the studio the kids I was with were excited to talk with him about their creations.

Sugar Hill Children's Museum of Art and Storytelling

Art to See

Sugar Hill Children's Museum of Art and Storytelling
Fernando Tamburini, “The Flying Town,” 2016

The first piece of art a visitor sees at the Sugar Hill Children’s Museum of Art and Storytelling is a charming array of floating houses that animates the light well that makes the subterranean space feel, well, above ground.

In addition to the artist-in-residence’s studio, two rooms hold temporary exhibitions. The museum curates those to reflect themes of the neighborhood, as well as subject matter suited to the target audience. When I visited one gallery hosted the works of Faith Ringgold, an activist, but also a children’s book author and illustrator. Her work does a great job of raising issues of cultural and political history in a kid-friendly way. 

Sugar Hill Children's Museum of Art and Storytelling
Faith Ringgold at the Sugar Hill Children’s Museum

The other gallery, a narrow space well suited to small shows and short attention spans, is where the museum showed Yuken Teruya’s work. Obsessively, beautifully cut and folded trees made from paper bags comment eloquently on consumerism and the environment, while being beautiful at the same time. The kids I was with were as fascinated by these pieces as I was.

Sugar Hill Children's Museum of Art and Storytelling
Yuken Teruya at the Sugar Hill Children’s Museum

Should You Visit the Sugar Hill Children’s Museum of Art and Storytelling?

The Sugar Hill Museum designs its programming primarily for children ages 3-8. But I think even a slightly older kid, if they like art, would enjoy it, at least for a while. It’s not overwhelming, which is great. You can go, spend an hour or two, make something neat, see some art, talk to an artist, hear a fortuitous jazz concert, and be done.

It’s an unexpected space, in a noteworthy building. And the curators do a good job keeping grown-ups engaged along with the young ones.

Most importantly, I think the museum is — rarity in today’s New York — something of a hidden gem as well. My borrowed kids and their mom and I went for the museum’s free third-Sunday day and yet while there were a healthy number of kids and caregivers there, it was not at all overrun.

Sugar Hill Children's Museum of Art and Storytelling
Unexpected Jazz Concert

I came away completely impressed at how well the museum executes its mandate. It could just be a smaller clone of the Children’s Museum of the Arts, but instead it’s distinctive, vibrant, and really, just a lovely, welcoming space in which to see and create art.  I recommend it for anyone with kids.

For Reference:

Address 898 St. Nicholas Avenue (at 155th Street), Manhattan
Website sugarhillmuseum.org
Cost  General Admission:  $7
Other Relevant Links

 

Museum of Contemporary African Diasporan Arts

Edification value 2/5
Entertainment value 3/5
Should you go? 2/5
Time spent 34 minutes
Best thing I saw or learned
Salt-n-Pepa

This 1987 Janette Beckman photograph of Salt-n-Pepa, because it’s awesome and because I’d kind of forgotten about them and was happy to be reminded.

The Museum of Contemporary African Diasporan Arts, inevitably acronymed into “MoCADA,” occupies a very small exhibition space on the ground floor of the James E. Davis Arts Building in downtown Brooklyn. Not Mmuseumm small, but still, quite small. Perhaps 1,500 square feet of interior, ground-floor space with no natural light, MoCADA has a makeshift, improvised feel to it.

The institution is twenty years old in 2019, and started out of its founder’s NYU graduate thesis.  So, happy birthday, MoCADA! Its location is critical to its raison d’etre, for Laurie Angela Cumbo’s thesis held that a museum of its type in Central Brooklyn could help the community economically, socially, and aesthetically.

Fashion and Resistance

The exhibition I saw at the Museum of Contemporary African Diasporan Arts was called “Styles of Resistance: From the Corner to the Catwalk,” and looked at African American street fashion from the 1980s until roughly today. Given the tiny space, the show was necessarily a very, very, very broad overview of hip hop fashion, along with associated art, personalities, and protest. Very multimedia, it went beyond clothes to include video, paintings, photographs, a couple of sculptures or assemblages, and t-shirts.

One thing that puzzled me about the show was the mannequins, many of which were beat-up and decidedly the wrong color. I suppose it was a curatorial nod to a makeshift, repurposing ethos. 

Words on a Wall

In reviewing nearly 200 museums for this project I honestly thought I’d seen it all in museums, But I don’t believe I’ve been to another museum that features hand-written wall texts.  It was surprising how personal I found it. Given how much I have thought about wall texts in the course of my museum adventure, it was refreshing to see a different approach.

On the other hand, the handwritten texts meant there weren’t many texts at all, which left me lost.  On the positive side, I’m open to an exhibition that errs on the side of showing not telling. But as someone who doesn’t know much about hip hop fashion or its role in African American political and cultural discourse I felt lost.

Other good stuff

I really appreciated the exhibition soundtrack – a compilation of hip hop and news broadcasts that ranged from agita over hoodies to 9/11 to the election of Barack Obama.  It effectively established a mood and contextualized the works on display.

I did not see a single “do not touch” sign in the whole space. Not that I think touching was encouraged. But, as with the handwritten signage, it reinforced the sort of intimacy MoCADA encourages with the subject it covers and the objects it displays.

And I liked some aspects of the makeshift space. Wall panels mounted on wheels and hinges could swing out from the walls of the room to flexibly define or redefine the space as needed–a clever touch.

The Reach and the Grasp

Alas, Styles of Resistance had a reach that far exceeded its grasp.  The Museum of Contemporary African Diasporan Arts’s small space severely limits what it can—or should—do.  It might have pulled off a show on the origins of hip hop fashion.  Trying to cover from the 1980s to the present required that it ignore and omit much.  I saw some sample outfits, and some good fashion photography, but I don’t know much more than I did before my visit.  It made me long for a place like the thoughtful, super-comprehensive Museum at FIT to cover this topic.

The museum’s limited space and resources also meant it ducked some of the things that this topic needs to address. For example, it’s hard to think about African American fashion or culture without talking about influences or appropriation. 

There was a kimono by Studio 189 included among the garments on display.  Why a kimono?  And is that okay?  The exhibit made me think about that, but it certainly didn’t give me context or information or a point of view. Similarly, it had nothing to say about white designers borrowing from street fashion — nor street fashion’s love of high-end designer logos and labels.

I left wanting more.

Should you visit the Museum of Contemporary African Diasporan Arts? 

MoCADA has a distinct voice to it, but at the moment a very small space. It also feels like it has a shoestring budget.  If you are completest visiting all the African-American-focused museums in the City, by all means go.  If you like your museums scrappy then it should also be on your list.

But I’m not sure.  It’s scrappy, but possibly too scrappy? 

Of the African-American-focused museums of New York City, the Studio Museum in Harlem, Louis Armstrong House, Lewis Lattimer House, the Schomburg Center, Weeksville Heritage Center, and the somber African Burial Ground are all more must-visit institutions than this.

That may change. MoCADA is set to move to a fancy new space in a fancy new building in the near future. Gentrification silver lining or a co-opting of a community institution by wealthy real estate forces? You decide. This museum covers an important topic, though I don’t expect it will ever compete with better established institutions with similar mission statements. For now I wouldn’t recommend MoCADA unless you’ve got a very pressing reason to see the place or a specific show there.

For Reference:

Address 80 Hanson Place, Brooklyn
Website mocada.org
Cost  General Admission:  $8
Other Relevant Links
  • 300 Ashland, luxury rentals and future home of MoCADA.