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.
For those who like pie charts, here’s what the numbers look like:
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) have survived. And we will hopefully see more spaces reopen their doors in the coming weeks and months.
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!
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.
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.
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
Then 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).
But 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.
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).
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
The 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.
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
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.
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.
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.
80 Saint Marks Place, Manhattan (near First Avenue)
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.
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 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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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 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.
The 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.
For the record, though, you should definitely visit Poster House.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
Should You Visit the Milton Resnick and Pat Passlof Foundation?
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.
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!
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. He reminded me of the nameless canine taxidermied and memorialized at the Fire Museum.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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).
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.
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.
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.
101 Park Avenue, Manhattan (entrance on East 40th Street)
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.
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.
Art To Make
The 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.
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.
Art to See
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.
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.
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.
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.
898 St. Nicholas Avenue (at 155th Street), Manhattan
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?
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.
Occlupanids. That’s the word for those little plastic whatsits that keep the bags store-bought bread comes in closed. How many of those have you seen in your life? Used? Thrown out? Have you ever thought about them? And yet, each got made somewhere, and each serves a purpose. Mmuseumm devoted an exhibition in its tiny space to making me see these quotidian things for the first time.
Of the institutions I’ve defined as “museums” for my purposes, New York’s largest (in area not breadth) is the 478-acre Green-Wood Cemetery in Brooklyn. I’ve now, at the eleventh hour of my museum-visiting project, visited the smallest museum in New York, the simply named if imaginatively spelled Mmuseumm. Located in a converted freight elevator down a narrow street just south of Canal Street in the non-neighborhood between Tribeca and Chinatown, I’ve seen walk-in closets larger than this quirky institution.
But what a density of eccentricity it achieves in its petite space!
Mmuseumm describes itself as devoted to now. “Now,” reads the Mmuseumm brochure, “is always weird.” It goes on to claim that the Neanderthals probably found their “now” weird, as did people in the Middle Ages. Mmuseumm dissects some of that weirdness, putting it on display in an analytical, humorous, thoughtful way.
Mmuseumm opens each spring with a new collection — of small exhibitions related to the weirdness of now. Last year was “season 7.” As it’s essentially outdoors, it makes sense that it shuts down over the colder months.
How do I describe the Mmuseumm’s collection philosophy? I come back to my designated best thing: occlupanids. As I mentioned before, occlupanid is the fancy name for the plastic clip that holds a bread bag closed. Most of us, I wager, have never given them much thought, outside of checking if the rye on the shelf at Fairway is likely to still be good in a week. But occlupanids are a thing. You can organize them, analyze them, create a Holotypic Occlupanid Research Group (HORG) if you want to. It’s weird that these humble things are given a shelf in a museum. But no more weird than their existence in the first place.
Other exhibitions in the “Season 6, 2018” set included:
A study of standard consumer objects that were somehow deformed – the brochure description for “Nothing is Perfect” starts out “Humanity exists in a state of eror.”
Strange counterfeit brands that have sprung up in post-economic-collapse Venezuela.
Unexpected common items that have saved lives, and ones that were causes of death.
An array of devices people have deployed to fight snoring.
The security patterns that get printed inside envelopes so you can’t see the checks in them.
In sum, the fall 2018 roster included a mind-boggling fourteen exhibitions. On a thoughts-provoked-per-square-meter basis, Mmuseumm’s little space is quite possibly the densest of any museum in New York.
Among the 150-ish objects on view at the Mmuseumm during my visit was a small shelf space labelled “Nothing.” I appreciate an institution that defies the standard museum philosophy of being full of stuff, in favor of devoting a space (especially one in such a small space to begin with) to emptiness.
Should You Visit the Mmuseumm?
This place confounded me. I was all set to be put off by its archness, its twee, self-satisfied cleverness. And to dismiss Mmuseumm as not really a museum. I did leave pondering whether I’d had a museum experience, or just seen a clever piece of conceptual art, a wry commentary on museum-ology, quite possibly the first meta-museum I’ve visited.
Meta- or not, though, Mmuseumm is a museum. It tries to edify and entertain, and whether it is actually earnest or not, it comes across as on the level. In collecting ephemera, it reminds me of City Reliquery, though with a broader mandate and a much smaller space. I spoke a bit with the docent who was standing by to answer questions (there is also a phone-based audioguide and an awesome, exhaustive brochure), and she was super enthused about the place and its mission.
Also, two-or-so doors down the alley from the Mmuseumm is the even tinier Mmuseumm Rest Stop. I wouldn’t do my Christmas shopping there, but it featured funny and well-curated gifts, souvenirs, and snacks in counterpoint to the items on display.
I strongly recommend a visit to the Mmuseumm, particularly after you’ve been to many (like a couple hundred) more conventional museums. It encapsulates much of what I’ve come to think about what makes a good museum, and a meaningful museumgoing experience.
I didn’t spend much time there, but I loved Block Harbor, which combines a nautical theme with tons of blocks of all sizes and materials.
It’s taking me ages to review my last few museums. They’re mostly the children’s museums and scheduling visits with my friends with kids has proven tricky. So I was insanely pleased when I talked a good friend into taking her two kids to Staten Island with me on a gray Sunday afternoon.
The Staten Island Children’s Museum is a denizen of Snug Harbor, the former retirement home for old sailors that today serves as the borough’s convenient one-stop shop for cultural institutions, housing among other things: