One year ago I took a look at the state of museums in mid-pandemic New York. At that point, 106 of the museums I track in my database were open in some capacity. Now I’m back (it’s been a while) with a look at New York museums post-pandemic (hopefully).
One year later, the situation pandemic-wise and museum-wise has improved significantly: As of April 2022, 160 museums are open in New York City. That’s 80% of the museums I’m currently tracking.
The Bad News
Twenty-four New York museums post-pandemic remain closed due to COVID. They’ve still got websites and sound like they’ll reopen, eventually. This list includes major national historic sites like Hamilton Grange and The General Grant National Memorial (aka Grant’s Tomb), which presumably will come back. But it’s starting to seem unlikely that smaller institutions that closed due to COVID and haven’t reopened will return.
Another ten museums are currently closed for non-pandemic reasons — construction, between exhibitions, etc.
I’ve updated my museum database, showing which museums are open as of April 2022.
As always in these complicated times, do not take my word for whether a museum is open or not. Please check before you go. While many places have relaxed requirements around buying tickets in advance, museum opening hours and the requirements for masks or proof of vaccination remain highly variable.
I’ve not been keeping nearly as up-to-date on the New York museum landscape as I would like to — life and job have had a funny way of getting in the way of this project.
However, as we dive headlong into whatever new madness 2023 will bring, I’m happy to say that the museum outlook in New York City is very bright. By my count there are currently 180 museums open in New York as of February. By comparison, I had 197 museums in my database pre-pandemic. Early 2021 saw just 105 museums open; in April of 2022 the number was up to 160.
Most hopeful of all are the brand-new museums opening up around New York. My current tally of 180 museums includes three that are new in the past few months: the Jackie Robinson Museum in Tribeca (above, review coming soon), the Bronx Children’s Museum (leaving Queens the only borough without a children’s museum), and the Museum of Broadway near Times Square (below).
The new AMNH wing, called the Gilder Center, will open this week, and I look forward to visiting it in person. In my review I called Natural History a museum of museums, since its halls contain some exhibits that seem untouched since the place opened, and others at the cutting edge of museum design (whatever that meant the year they opened). I expect the new building, which looks much more Flintstones than Jetsons (see this Untapped Cities article for more), is going to feel very 2020s to people who view it 50 years from now.
It’s taken a while, but I’m excited by the renaissance of the New York museum scene. It’s hard to believe I’ve been keeping an eye on it since 2017. Hopefully this will finally be the year when I’ll be able to say that I’ve been to all the museums in New York City. At least until the next new one opens its doors.
This 2015 tapestry by Michael Smith, titled “Excuse Me I am looking for the Fountain of Youth!” delighted me. Who makes tapestries? But this one was full of wonderful narrative details including skinny dipping bunnies, errant knights, and a TSA metal detector.
A Hall of Fame for Great Artists
Imagine the 250 greatest living creators of art and literature had a club, and you could only join it if one of them nominated you. Once you’re in, you’re in for life, and you and the other 249 greatest creators would get together and, I don’t even know what. Hob-nob, soiree, cotillion, give prizes to one another and possibly to other artists who aren’t quite 250-worthy, but hey, you keep trying there.
That’s the American Academy of Arts and Letters, founded in 1898. Except that in 2020 it graciously upped its ranks (or, from another point of view, lowered its standards) to 300.
It somewhat reminds me of the Hall of Fame for Great Americans, except the Academy’s 250 (or 300) don’t have bronze busts. They do, however, have a neat clubhouse up in Harlem, part of the Audubon Terrace complex that also houses the Hispanic Society.
A Space on Audubon Terrace
Mere mortals mostly don’t get to visit the Academy. However, periodically, the place does open up for special exhibitions. I have always managed to miss them, right up until this year, when I finally made a visit.
The Academy’s gallery spaces are lovely, in a slightly-gone-to-seed way. They comprise two mirror-image Beaux-Arts pavilions facing one another across the brick plaza of the Terrace.
Their interiors range from darkened rooms for video installations to spaces bright with skylights or windows (overlooking the atmospheric Trinity Cemetery and Mausoleum, no less).
I tend to think contemporary art works best in older spaces. The contrast of old and new works better for me than, say, an austere, whitewashed concrete box. So the slightly shabby pavilions held great appeal. Moreover, I appreciated how thoughtfully the curators used the variety of spaces at their disposal.
I saw the Academy’s 2022 Invitational Exhibition of Visual Arts, a sort of mini-Whitney-biennial of contemporary artists that the Academy’s members like. Future member recruitment?
The description said that although there was no intentional theme, nonetheless, “[i]n many cases, the finished works destabilize, even disregard, old disciplinary questions rooted in hierarchy—is it a painting or a sculpture; art or craft? Instead, they opt for plenitude, for and, and, and. ” Indeed, the show included nearly three dozen artists working in eclectic materials: ceramics and glass, sculpture and video, the aforementioned tapestry, and even upholstery (see Loveseat).
These kinds of exhibits are always hit-or-miss, and so I was pleasantly surprised at how much of the show was a hit for me. It helped that most pieces in this show were lighthearted, clever, and often quite beautiful. For example, I loved Judy Fox’s slightly creepy, biomorphic, technicolor terra cotta pieces that looked like something out of a Jeff VanderMeer book.
Should You Visit the American Academy of Arts and Letters?
The Academy’s raison d’être is unfashionable these days. Elitism and exclusivity aren’t really a good look. However, I think elitism, after a fashion, is due for a comeback, and so I am very happy that the Academy still exists, and seems to be going strong.
The entrance to one of the two Academy pavilions features a pair of handsome, old-school bronze doors, with naked cherubim and the personifications of Inspiration (girl) and Drama (guy), along with the sentiment, “By the gates of art we enter the temple of happiness.” However, the pediment of the same building bears a different perspective: “All passes, art alone untiring stays to us.”
While art isn’t always (and shouldn’t always be) about making people happy, positioning museums as temples of untiring happiness is no bad thing, especially in an era when happiness feels in especially short supply.
The Academy boasts great old spaces for viewing new art, and Audubon Terrace is an unexpected architectural gem. I’d definitely recommend visiting the next time the Academy opens its doors.
It’s a predictable choice but Hispanic Society’s Goya, “The Duchess of Alba,” from 1797, is a fantastic portrait. I especially love that Goya inscribed his signature on the sandy shore where she’s standing. The Duchess unsubtly points a bejeweled finger toward his name.
In the case of the Hispanic Society, the rich dude was Archer Milton Huntington. And the obsession was the art of the Iberian peninsula. Archer Milton Huntington opened his Spanish Museum in 1908, though he’d dreamed of having a museum of some kind since he was a boy. Born very rich, the story goes that as a young man Huntington fell in love with Hispanic art on a visit to Mexico, which sparked many trips to Spain, learning Spanish as well as Arabic, and becoming both a connoisseur of and an expert in the art and culture.
The Hispanic Society is located in a splendid Beaux-Arts building in Harlem, part of the Audubon Terrace campus. It’s an interesting quirk of fate that Spanish is much more likely to be spoken in the museum’s neighborhood today than when it opened there a century ago. The beautiful old building is a blessing and a curse: the museum closed for a massive renovation shortly before I started my museum project back in 2017, and remained closed right up until 2022.
Today, happily, it is in the first stages of reopening its doors. When I visited back in March, I saw a “best-of” selection of the museum’s collection, curated to demonstrate how its mission has evolved and expanded.
Nuestra casa es su casa
The exhibit on view when I visited was titled Nuestra casa, and split a small basement space into two sections. The first half focused on Archer Huntington’s dream for the museum, travels in Spain, and the foundations of the collection. The second half was titled “A collection without borders” and focused on the museum’s mission since the 1990s, when it started to greatly increase its holdings from Latin America.
The Hispanic Society argues that this is justified because of the huge cultural influences back and forth between Iberia and its colonial (or former colonial) holdings – the Spanish and Portuguese speaking worlds. And of course it wants to stay relevant in a cultural landscape much-changed since Huntington’s time.
I’m not convinced the exhibit really supported the “one big world of influences” argument. It was easy to see Spain and Portugal influencing art in their overseas territories; however, cultural influences in the other direction were much less clear. I think that’s a fault of the bifurcated curation; it didn’t let the Society’s classic collection and its more recent acquisitions really talk to one another.
The space was a let-down as well: a small, windowless room, interrupted by a row of six large columns, with walls painted in shades of ochre that play off the collection’s Goya.
That said, the Hispanic Society’s greatest hits are indeed quite great, including a dynamite Velázquez and the aforementioned showstopping Goya portrait, along with El Greco, Zurbarán, and even a dark and murky Sargent. I had a less strong reaction to the art from the New World, though some small devotional sculptures from Equador, depicting what awaits after death, were almost Tibetan in their macabre exuberance.
Should You Visit the Hispanic Society Museum?
I’m excited that the Hispanic Society seems to be (slowly) returning to life as a museum. Its important collection and beautiful building are valuable restorations to the cultural fabric of the city.
However, the tiny current space doesn’t merit a trip. Having seen photos of what the building’s interiors look like I’m confident that will change when more of the place opens back up. I just hope it won’t be another five years before that happens.
The Hispanic Society is worth a quick stop if you happen to be in that part of Harlem. It might make a good combination with the splendid Morris-Jumel Mansion, both historic buildings. It is also close to the Sugar Hill Children’s Museum of Art and Storytelling, and while kids may not enjoy the Hispanic Society, at least the small size means they won’t get too impatient.
On a nice day it would be pleasant to just hang out in the piazza of Audubon Terrace and contemplate Don Quixote (yay), the conquistadors (boo), and El Cid (yay? boo? I don’t know…), all of whom are immortalized there. The Society once shared the terrace with the aforementioned American Indian Museum, as well as the American Numismatic Society. A mini Lincoln Center of museums and cultural institutions, now scattered across the City. The American Academy of Arts and Letters is still there, and occasionally opens for exhibitions.
Finally, those with an interest in modern or contemporary Hispanic art should also consider El Museo del Barrio, which didn’t impress me much but for the moment has far more to see than the Hispanic Society.
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.
Should you go?
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.
The 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”
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.
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 and Nicholas Roerich Museum) 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.