Statue of Liberty Museum

Edification value  3/5
Entertainment value  4/5
Should you go?  4/5
Time spent 37 minutes (in the museum; far longer getting to and wandering around Liberty Island)
Best thing I saw or learned I keep coming back to a pair of quotations. One was from an editorial from the Black-owned Cleveland Gazette from Nov. 27, 1886, that read, “Shove the Bartholdi Statue, torch and all, into the ocean until the ‘liberty’ of this country [exists for the] colored man.” Alongside that was a quote from Lillie Devereux Blake, president of the New York State Woman Suffrage Association, who said, “In erecting a Statue of Liberty embodied as a woman in a land where no woman has political liberty, men have shown a delightful inconsistency.” Cheers to this museum for celebrating the statue and what she means, while acknowledging that not everyone agreed, even back in 1886, that liberty was a done deal.

Note: This review updates my review of the old Statue of Liberty Museum, dating from 2018, when the museum was located inside the Liberty’s pedestal.

Why Liberty?

We do not live in terribly allegorical times. Alas, this era rewards bluntness over allusion, and literalism rather than metaphor. How, then, can can one explain the enduring popularity of “Liberty Enlightening the World,” a very allegorical and symbolic symbol indeed, standing on an island in New York Harbor? 

Liberty Enlightening the World
Lady Liberty

Because, judging from the insane queues of people who had journeyed from every corner of the world to go visit her inconvenient island, Lady Liberty remains exceedingly popular.

It’s stranger still because, when you think about it, “Liberty Enlightening the World” is a particularly 19th century sort of idea, obsolete in times where many both in the United States and outside it would question the mission statement.

With those thoughts on my mind, I semi-patiently queued, scrummed, went through airport-style security and boarded a ferry to cross the harbor to visit her, and the museum that tells her story.

The Statue’s Story

Surely everyone knows the story of the Statue of Liberty. Gift from France, colossal, New York Harbor. Immigrants. Lifting her lamp beside the golden door. Yadda yadda yadda.

The museum highlights five instrumental people, also immortalized in statues on Liberty Island:

  • Edouard de Laboulaye:  who dreamed her
  • Auguste Bartholdi:  who designed her
  • Gustav Eiffel:  who engineered her
  • Joseph Pulitzer: who raised the money to give her a place to stand
  • Emma Lazarus: who gave her her soul
 

Statues of the key figures in the creation of the Statue of Liberty, Liberty Island

Old Statue, New-ish Museum

The Statue of Liberty Museum occupies a purpose-built, very modern building on the northern edge of Liberty Island, as far from the statue as one can get without plunging into the harbor. Opened in 2019, it boasts a green roof, ample space for accommodating the huddled masses from the ferry, and fantastic views toward Manhattan, as well as of Lady Liberty’s rear.

Statue of Liberty Museum, Liberty Island, New York

The museum tells the story of the genesis, engineering, construction, and gifting of the statue, as well as her absolutely iconic role as a symbol of freedom, democracy, New York City, and the United States. Among other treasures, it includes the statue’s original lit-from-within torch, replaced during the 1986 rehabilitation of the Statue.

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Paley Center Museum

Edification value 2/5
Entertainment value 3/5
Should you go? 2/5
Time spent 53 minutes
Best thing I saw or learned Super Bowl ads - AppleThe Super Bowl exhibit’s walk down advertising memory lane was deeply nostalgic to me. Amid Cindy Crawford selling Pepsi and a baby selling a brokerage, Apple’s 1984 ad, introducing the Mac, stands out as possibly the most revered commercial of all time. Also, why did anyone think Spuds McKenzie was a good idea?

Once Upon a Paley

Once upon a time, New York City was home to a Museum of Broadcasting. In 1975, William S. Paley founded an institution to preserve TV and radio programming. (The other company he founded was CBS.) In 1976, his Museum of Broadcasting opened its doors. “Broadcasting” feels like a technological fossil these days, appropriate for a museum. But it was the heart and soul of society in the late 20th century. 

Paley Center for MediaIn 1991, the institution renamed itself the Museum of Television & Radio, since even then increasing amounts of TV was distributed in ways that had nothing to do with “broadcasting.” The same year the museum moved into a fun, Philip Johnson-designed post-modernist building, which is meant to resemble an old-timey radio. 

In the early 2000s the museum rebranded as the Paley Center for Media. For a decade or so it offered a library and an event space known for putting on interesting talks with the television creators and stars. Recently, however, the Paley Center re-opened its museum, so of course I visited.

The Paley Center today has a medium-sized gallery space on its ground floor, and a small space upstairs. It’s also home to a video game gallery (available for rental for kids’ parties) and a library containing video monitors where visitors can access any of 160,000 television and radio programs and ads in the collection. So, it’s kind of like Hulu.

TOld time televisionshe current iteration of the Paley Museum doesn’t have a permanent collection, although there are a few adorable antique TV sets on display in the library. Instead, it hosts temporary exhibitions on timely topics. To wit, when I visited in early February, the Super Bowl. And, in a nod to Black History Month, props and costumes from the Nat Geo “Genius” miniseries about Malcolm X and Martin Luther King, Jr., in a modest second floor gallery.

The Gridiron

They really got into football

The Super Bowl took over the Paley Center the day I visited, one week before the Chiefs and 49ers faced off. The entry space featured a huge video screen showing highlights of halftime musical performances, and the elevator lobby was fully wrapped, and included Katy Perry’s halftime show outfit (from XLIV), along a shark and a beach ball.Katy Perry's halftime show costume, plus shark and beach ball

As befits a museum of broadcasting, the exhibit was less about the game of football itself, and more about the unofficial secular holiday and cultural phenomenon the Super Bowl has evolved into, with growing mass audiences, iconic advertising, and the previously mentioned halftime show spectacular, all getting at least as much attention as the games themselves. 

The curators took a sensible chronological approach, with stats on each of the LVIII games along the top (who played, final score, TV audience size).  Wall texts offered details on how the Super Bowl evolved, with images and video. Artifacts livened things up: balls and jerseys, helmets, playbooks, and, climax of the exhibition, the actual Vince Lombardi Trophy. (A reproduction belonging to the New York Giants was on display the day I visited, as the actual Trophy had important duties off in Vegas.).

Game balls and winning moments
This exhibit had a lot of balls

Downstairs, another space featured a selection of game balls, as well as a chunk of the set from the Super Bowl LV Halftime Show, with a choice of sparkling red jackets, should visitors wish to cosplay as The Weeknd. I did not see anyone do that while I was there. And the Paley Center’s theater ran historic Super Bowl games and/or ads, in case visitors wanted to revisit past high points.

Madonna's Half Time Show, Super Bowl XLVI, 2012
Football is a mystery…

Curatorial Questions

The exhibition was co-presented by the NFL and the Pro Football Hall of Fame. I suspect that is why all signs of Super Bowl controversy were scrubbed out of the narrative. Janet Jackson and Justin Timberlake were absent from the big halftime show screen. Not a word about concussions, either. Or team names that seem leftovers from an earlier, cruder era.

The exhibit made much of the patriotism of Super Bowl XXXVI in 2002. 9/11 casualties’ names streamed on a screen behind U2 at Halftime, which feels a little cringe-y now. However, it said nothing about players taking a knee during the National Anthem in the wake of Black Lives Matter. Ironic, given that Black History Month was the other thing the Paley Center was ostensibly honoring when I visited.

I would have hoped for some acknowledgement that the Super Bowl isn’t an unalloyed marvel. It’s possible to celebrate something even while acknowledging its flaws, and their exclusion is a notable miss.

Paley Center Super Bowl exhibit
Nothing but good times and soaring audiences and ad revenues here…

Should you visit the Paley Center Museum?

Unless you’re an old-school TV fan, or some sort of insane museum completist, it’s hard to recommend the Paley Center. Twenty bucks is a high price for the relatively small museum space, so it’s not worth just dropping in.

The institution knows its mass-media subject better than just about anyone else. But its “rah-rah, no problems here” approach to the Super Bowl exhibit, although fun, raises questions of objectivity and curation. Even if a future exhibition subject were to interest me, I’d wonder who was shaping the content, and what kind of slant it might have.

If you want a museum of popular culture, the Museum of Broadway in Times Square, the Museum of the Moving Image in Queens and the exhibit spaces at the Performing Arts Library at Lincoln Center are all far more worth your time and money.

Bethpage Long Island rates the Paley Center "best of New York City"Then again, the town of Bethpage on Long Island, which for some reason feels qualified to weigh in on New York City museums, rated the Paley Center a “best museum and best children’s party place” in New York in 2023. So…you may want to take that into account as you evaluate whether you should visit.

The Paley Center’s library of 160,000 old television shows and commercials was revolutionary in the early 90s. In today’s world of infinite streaming, it’s much less impressive. Speaking of old commercials, it reminds me of this 1999 ad from a long-defunct phone company. I suspect there’s much old television programming on the Paley Center hard drives that’s not available anywhere else. Maybe there are lost treasures waiting for a reboot. Or maybe it’s just a lot of poorly acted, standard definition time wasters brimming with casual racism and outdated views of women. I think I’ll stick with Hulu.

For Reference:

Address 25 West 52nd Street, Manhattan
Website https://www.paleycenter.org/
Cost  General Admission:  $20
Other Relevant Links

 

Museum of Broadway

Edification value 4/5
Entertainment value
Should you go? 3/5
Time spent 137 minutes
Best thing I saw or learned The “Oklahoma!” exhibit contains a small, framed, handwritten scrap of paper that contains every rhyme Oscar Hammerstein could think of for “surry,” including “occur he,” “furry,” “chauffeur-y,” and “arbitrury” [sic]. It’s not my favorite song but the peek it provides into his songwriting process delights me. 

Attempts to rhyme by Oscar Hammerstein

When I discovered New York was getting a Museum of Broadway my first reaction was “Wait, why don’t we have one of those already?” It seems an obvious and overdue subject for a New York museum. I felt a little on the fence about it given my aversion to “museum in name only” experiential entertainment offerings. If they hand out flyers for it in Times Square, and charge $69 for “daily anytime entry,” can it be a legitimate museum? But, I figured I should take a look.

The Museum of Broadway is appropriately on West 45th Street between 6th Avenue and Broadway. It would be amazing if it were in a defunct theater, but instead it occupies four windowless floors of what I’d guess used to be office space. Very friendly staff greet visitors on the ground floor, then send them up three flights of stairs (there’s an elevator if needed) to start the museum experience.

Ease on down the exhaustive wall timeline

Like an IKEA, visitors to the Museum of Broadway follow a very directed journey. While people can meander at their own pace, there’s only ever one way to go. Instead of a series of gallery spaces, the bulk of a Museum of Broadway visit consists of a sequence of rooms and hallways that offer a chronological tour of the New York theater scene from its earliest days to the present. 

Visitors arrive at the top floor and spend a quick minute getting a welcome from a docent and a quick quiz: What makes a Broadway theater a Broadway theater? That’s followed by a welcome video promoting the awesomeness of live theater, and then visitors are turned loose at  the start of the timeline, in about 1890.

The earliest history of theater/theatre in New York CityThe timeline panels are text heavy and extremely detailed. Some of the early ones distinguish between plays and musicals, but later panels tend to run together, as though the curators realized they were running out of both time and space. No sane visitor has a prayer of reading all of them. Rather, I suppose, you just look for things that catch your eye, favorite shows or stars, or key moments in Broadway history. Frank Langella in Seascape, 1975, at the Museum of Broadway

For example, in the midst of a busy panel covering the mid-1970s I was stopped in my tracks by a picture of Frank Langella and Maureen Ackerman dressed as giant lizards (!) in a 1975 Edward Albee (!!) play called “Seascape” that somehow won the Pulitzer Prize (!!!). If more Broadway shows had giant lizards in them, I’d probably see more Broadway shows. “Godzilla: The Musical,” anyone?

Timeline sections are very smartly punctuated by installations related to specific shows or (in a few cases) people. These feature specially commissioned art, actual costumes, props, or other artifacts, and occasionally video interviews and interactive features. And, perhaps inevitably, prompts that this spot or that spot would be great opportunities to take a selfie.

Stars of the show

These show-focused installations were generally fantastic. I won’t spoil them all, but will share a few personal highlights.

Museum of Broadway: Sondheim wordplay

  • An anagram crossword puzzle that makes a fitting tribute to Stephen Sondheim.Museum of Broadway: Lion King costume
  • A couple of Julie Taymor’s fantastic puppets from “The Lion King.”
  • In honor of the longest-running show in Broadway history, an art piece consisting of 13,981 crystals (one for each performance!) suspended in such a way that if you stand in the exact right spot they form the Phantom of the Opera’s mask. As obsessive and magical as Andrew Lloyd Webber himself.

Museum of Broadway: the Phantom in crystals

 

Acts II and III

Museum of Broadway: Hamilton swagThe timeline sequence is quite long, taking up the first two floors of the museum. Eventually visitors arrive at the present, which features a model set for “Wicked” and a couple of costumes from “Hamilton.” That makes this the most self-referential entry yet on the Hamilton Museum Tour of NYC. (Other notable stops include Hamilton Grange, the Morris-Jumel Mansion, and Trinity Church.)

The timeline ends with a few empty columns for 2023, 2024, and 2025, suggesting that either the museum, Broadway, New York City, humanity, or the planet only has a few years to go. We’ll see.

I wonder about the amount of time and space spent on Broadway’s relatively ancient history. Broadway’s post-90s, post-Disney renaissance felt rushed, which I found odd given that’s the era most visitors are most likely to know and connect with.  

Museum of Broadway: props. Specifically, sausages
Prop sausages

The floor below the timeline sections shifts gears. It combines multimedia, interactive displays, and artifacts to break down all the behind-the-scenes parts of a production.  Different sections illuminate writing, props, costumes, scenery, lighting, and all the rest of the many pieces that make up a theatrical production.

For those who dream of producing, directing, or even marketing (yep, marketers get love, too) a show, this section provides provides immense, even overwhelming, amounts of information on how the sausage gets made.Museum of Broadway: all about costume designers

Visitors then descend one final staircase to the ground floor and exit through an inevitable gift shop.

Museum of Broadway: Exit through the gift shop

Should you visit the Museum of Broadway?

Museum of Broadway: all the roles that go into making a theater productionThe Museum of Broadway was created with passion and love — obsession may not be too strong a word — for its subject. This is a place geared for people who love the theater, and who already know something about it. On the other hand, total novices may be bewildered or bored. Moreover, although worlds better than those cynical, experiential quasi-museums that separate tourists from their money, this is unquestionably one of New York’s most expensive museums.

Nonetheless, the Museum of Broadway delivers a mix of erudition, surprises and delights, and showbiz pizazz. I’m not the biggest Broadway fan and still spent over two engaging hours there. Anyone who was a theater kid in high school, who gets excited when they get tickets to a show, or who has a shoebox full of old Playbills, will find a visit worthwhile.

That said, I do mean “a visit.” The biggest downside to the timeline layout is it makes for a fairly static experience. There is a small space for temporary exhibits. Currently it features “Chicago,” which at 26 years is (post-Phantom) Broadway’s longest running show. But unless the curators find ways to change things up periodically, I’m not sure that even big Broadway fans will feel much need to see this show a second time.

Museum of Broadway: Lifecycle of a Broadway Show

For Reference:

Address 145 West 45th Street, Manhattan
Website https://www.themuseumofbroadway.com/
Cost General Admission:  $34-$41 or more (!!) My advice: take advantage of the discount on Tuesdays and avoid the service charge by not buying tickets in advance.
Other Relevant Links

 

Hispanic Society of America

Edification value 4/5
Entertainment value 3/5
Should you go? 3/5
Time spent 60 minutes
Best thing I saw or learned Sorolla’s entire mural series (which I write about below) was easily the best thing. However if I had to pick just one panel, I’d go with Seville/The Dance, which evokes Carmen… the happy, carefree parts, not the stabby misogynistic ones. My little internet photo does not do it justice!

Joaquín Sorolla, Seville, The Dance, from the Hispanic Society mural series

Note: I first visited the Hispanic Society in May of 2022. I revised my review in July 2023 as the Society has continued its reopening. The original review is here.

Iberian Dreams…

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

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

Hispanic Society Museum and Library, Exterior, New York

 

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 over 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 until 2022.

Recently, the Hispanic Society entered the second phase of its reopening, following the teaser “we’re back” exhibition that I saw in its basement last year.

Hispanic Society Main Entrance (under construction)

Soto and Sorolla

The Hispanic Society has now reopened two spaces: its Main Court and the Sorolla Room. The Main Court has two levels (though only the ground floor is currently open) and is something like a roofed-over medieval cloister, featuring an open space surrounded by ornate archways and a small corridor running around the perimeter under the mezzanine. It is an exciting space, though its relatively small size limits what the Society can exhibit there.

Hispanic Society interior

Nevertheless, the cleverness of the Hispanic Society’s reopening exhibit belied its small space.

Joaquín Sorolla y Bastida was a famous Spanish painter (“the most esteemed and renowned Spanish painter of his era,” per a wall text) who died in 1923. Jesús Soto was a Venezuelan abstractionist who made highly formal geometric sculptures who was born in 1923. That coincidental birth/death centennial year provides a somewhat tenuous justification for exhibiting their work together. However, each artist was interesting in his own right, and together they bridge the old Hispanic Society/ new Hispanic Society philosophy regarding curation and collecting.

That philosophy, by the way, has evolved from a focus mainly on the Old World to including the New, and from classic and retrospective to embracing contemporary work.

Hispanic Society's Sorolla and Soto exhibit, 2023, New York

 

I appreciated the way the Hispanic Society installed Sorolla’s bourgeois society portraits in the arches of its Main Court. Floating in space they echoed the 3D, geometric, sculptural layering of Soto’s work.

Jesús Rafael Soto, Untitled

The Sorolla Room

The Sorolla Room is something else. Much like the Spanish Inquisition, I was not expecting it. Back in 1909, the Hispanic Society held the first major US exhibit of Joaquín Sorolla’s work. Based on the success of that show, Archer Milton Huntington commissioned Sorolla to create a series of murals depicting life in España, installed in the eponymous room.

Joaquín Sorolla y Bastida's Vision of Spain murals at The Hispanic Society

The murals are a delight — packed with regional detail. Colorful and exotic, they combine mundane scenes with holidays and festivals. I might feel concern that they’re a bit too exoticizing, but, hey, Sorolla was Spanish, I think it’s safe to assume he knew what he was painting. I want to take a guided tour of these murals, or at least come back and visit many more times.

The  Hispanic Society installed another exhibit in the Sorolla room, entitled “Jewels in a Gem,” featuring the work of Luz Camino, a contemporary Spanish jewelry designer. This worked surprisingly well. The installation was designed to leave the murals unimpeded and the jewelry complemented what was on the walls — sometimes directly. For example, I appreciated the fishbone earrings in a case juxtaposed with a fish market scene.

Luz Camino, fishbone earrings at the Hispanic Society

Fish Market from Sorolla's Vision of Spain murals, Hispanic SocietyCamino’s work reminds me of early 20th century jewelry by Lalique or Cartier. It draws heavily on nature, but also has a healthy dose of humor. I don’t know who would want enamel and gold earrings lovingly shaped into popcorn, but I respect that person.

Although full of beautiful things, my one nitpick is the exhibit would have been richer had it included some of Camino’s notebooks, design sketches, and other preparatory work — I love seeing inside a designer’s creative process. 

Luz Camino, popcorn earrings

Should You Visit the Hispanic Society Museum?

I’m excited that the Hispanic Society has continued its return to life as a museum. Its important collection and beautiful building are invaluable restorations to the New York’s cultural fabric. 

With this phase of its reopening, the Hispanic Society has gone from being “worth a quick stop if you happen to be in that part of Harlem” (quoting myself from 2022) to being well worth a trip. The Sorolla murals are arguably the closest thing Manhattan offers to a visit to Spain. (Mercado Little Spain at Hudson Yards is the other contender…)

The Hispanic Society would 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 if you’ve got kids in tow. 

Hispanic Society of America Stairway
Upstairs coming soon (I hope)

I chatted with a friendly guard who said that the Society expects to have more gallery space open by autumn. I’m already excited about making another visit.

Hopefully part of the longer-term plan will make the pleasant piazza of Audubon Terrace more inviting, too. An al fresco café or tapas bar would be fantastic there (where’s José Andrés when you need him?!). Sculptures on the terrace immortalize Don Quixote (yay), the conquistadors (boo), and El Cid (I think he’s a “yay” but your mileage may vary…). The terrace was once a sort of Lincoln Center of cultural institutions, featuring the American Indian Museum, the American Numismatic Society, and the American Academy of Arts and Letters. That last one is still there, and occasionally open for exhibitions, too.

Audubon Terrace Plaza
El Cid, by Anna Hyatt Huntington

 

For Reference:

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

 

Fotografiska

Edification value 2/5
Entertainment value 4/5
Should you go? 2/5
Time spent 88 minutes
Best thing I saw or learned My favorite picture in Fotografiska’s hip hop show is this iconic 1998 shot of Missy Elliott by Christian Witkin. It hits that perfect balance between posed and spontaneous, and she comes across as confident as hell.

Missy Elliott portrait at Fotografiska's hip hop show

At some point I’ll write a story about the superlative museums of New York. I don’t mean the best, but things like the smallest, the quirkiest, (which may well be one and the same), the oldest and so on. Fotografiska, a museum focused on photography, earns an unexpected superlative: It is the darkest museum I have visited in all of New York. I saw two different exhibitions there and both were lit very similarly: spotlights on photographs (and other work) in otherwise deep gloom.

Fotografiska, typical interior
Fotografiska, typical interior

 

It’s dramatic and unexpected — and a refreshing change to visit a museum where it’s actively challenging to take a selfie — or to take pictures for a museum review. But what else do I think about it?

A Snapshot of Fotografiska

Early in this project, I defined museums as non-profit organizations, thereby deliberately excluding museum-in-name-only experiential entertainment zones like the Museum of Ice Cream. I have been on the fence about Fotografiska since it opened in 2019.

Fotografiska is a mini museum empire, with outposts in Stockholm, Berlin, Shanghai, Miami, and Tallinn in addition to New York. It self-describes as “a destination to discover world-class photography, eclectic programming, elevated dining and surprising new perspectives,” and I’m pretty sure they’re in it to make money. And yet it also does use the m-word, and serious publications write about its shows.  So into the darkness I plunged.

Fotografiska's Renaissance revival NYC building

Fotografiska’s New York outpost occupies a landmark 1800s Renaissance Revival, former church mission house on Park Avenue South. The building’s interior was thoroughly transformed to house several floors of windowless gallery space and one of the fanciest restaurants at a New York museum, in keeping with the “elevated dining” part of the mandate.

Hip Hop Hooray

Fotografiska Hip Hop Exhibition, portrait of Biggie SmallsThe main show at Fotografiska when I visited celebrated the photography of hip hop, which is turning 50 years old this year. (Exact birthdate: August 11, 1973.) The show was organized into five zones:  an origins section, three geographic sections (East Coast, West Coast, and Southern, naturally), and a “hip hop today” closer. While breezy, hagiographic wall text introduced each section, there wasn’t a lot beyond that, and I really wanted more exposition.

Each photo did have a label identifying the photographer, the subject and date. Sometimes — too rarely — those labels also said something about the context of a photo, the when and why it was taken, which was a treat. Despite this, beyond identifying them by name the exhibition said nothing about the photographers of hip hop. It felt like a miss that a show in a museum of photography failed to focus on the artists behind the camera as well as those in front of it.

Fotografiska image of Jay Z
Chris Buck photo of Jay-Z from 1998, from a series that imagined what Jay-Z would be doing if he weren’t one of the most famous entertainers on the planet

There’s a great Vice article that interviewed three of the photographers featured in this exhibition about how they created specific images, including Christian Witkin on the one of Missy Elliott. It’s a big failing to me that those stories weren’t told as part of the show.

Even the title of the exhibition: “Hip Hop: Conscious/Unconscious” promised something that Fotografiska didn’t deliver. I’d love to have learned more about the process of imagemaking; how much of each of these pictures were “unconscious” capturing of moments versus consciously constructed images. I left feeling I’d seen a bunch of fantastic photos. And that was it. 

Second best thing I saw or learned at Fotografiska: Madonna and the Beastie Boys played Radio City Music Hall on June 6, 1985, almost exactly 38 years (and a handful of days) before I wrote this. I have no further comment on that, except: cool photo (by John Cheuse).

Beastie Boys publicity photo outside Radio City Music Hall

Sound and Fury

The second show at Fotografiska also disappointed. Titled “Listen Until You Hear,” I was intrigued by the cognitive dissonance of a photography show attempting to address to an aural phenomenon. However, that’s not what this was. Although all six contemporary artists in the exhibition included photography as part of their practices, much of the show featured videos and sculpture, which feels like cheating. It tried to coin”visual listening” but I’m unconvinced that’s a thing. 

I can imagine a great museum show about hearing and listening. The Rubin Museum pulled one off a few years ago. But this wasn’t it.

Should You Visit Fotografiska?

It’s hard to recommend Fotografiska as a museum. It’s very sceney and very cool. It has a distinct downtown vibe. And a museum of photography that’s so dark you can’t take good pictures there has an irony that I admire.

Fotografiska lobby and gift shop

However, both of the exhibitions I saw there felt like they were just for fun. And, particularly given the price of admission, that’s not enough to justify a visit.

If you like photography, there are several better museums in New York City. The International Center of Photography and the Aperture Foundation (currently closed because it’s moving) are both better, as well as much cheaper. The delightful Alice Austen House in Staten Island is also great if you like early street photography.

For Reference:

Address 281 Park Avenue South, Manhattan
Website https://www.fotografiska.com/
Cost  General Admission:  $30
Other Relevant Links
  • Verōnika, Fotografiska’s fancy restaurant
  • Bootleg recording of that 1985 Madonna concert at Radio City Music Hall (YouTube)
  • The birthplace (and birthdate of hip hop

 

Center for Italian Modern Art

Edification value 4/5
Entertainment value 3/5
Should you go? 3/5
Time spent 83 minutes
Best thing I saw or learned Punt e Mes poster at Center for Italian Modern ArtMany years ago I saw Punt e Mes listed on a menu at a fancy cocktail bar described along the lines of “If you know, you know.” Punt e Mes is an excellent Italian vermouth. Its name is dialect for punto e mezzo, a point and a half— meaning one part bitter, half a part sweet. This poster elegantly depicts the concept. If you didn’t know before, now you do.

Knowledge Gap

How did I not know about the Center for Italian Modern Art? I love Italy and I love art. I am reasonably fond of modernity. And centers are generally okay with me, too. This is one of those places that has been quietly doing cool things just a bit under my radar. In fact, I only know about it because I received a Poster House email announcing a tour of the current exhibit.

Center for Italian Modern Art, exterior

The Center for Italian Modern Art (inevitably, “CIMA,” but at least it’s pronounced “chee-ma”) occupies a light-filled fourth floor SoHo loft space. I expect it is a coincidence that it’s just around the corner from the last vestiges of Manhattan’s Little Italy, which has been eroding steadily since well before I moved to New York City. Still, it’s an interesting confluence of things Italian. 

Center for Italian Modern Art, interior with fireplace

CIMA’s exhibition space is compact, consisting mainly of a gallery area that boasts lovely wood floors, an appropriately sleek and modern ornamental fireplaceCenter for Italian Modern Art's very modern kitchen, and huge windows. A hallway widens into a smaller rear gallery, passing a beautiful modern kitchen with a plethora of Pantone espresso cups. Offices and a coat room are tucked behind discreet doors.

Although limited in square footage, it’s comfortable, with chairs and couches and that very nice kitchen lending a homey touch.

Posters Galore

Center for Italian Modern Art, interiorThe exhibition when I visited the Center for Italian Modern Art focused on posters made between the 1920s and the 1950s. It examined the interplay between the worlds of high art and commercial advertising, starting with the Italian futurists and cubists. It concluded with two pieces by Mimmo Rotella, who was something of an Italian anti-Warhol, taking actual posters and folding, spindling, and mutilating them into artworks that say things about capitalism and consumerism. Not generally positive things. 

Arranged chronologically, the exhibition touched on tremendous changes in advertising from the pre-war period, the rise of Italian Fascism, and through to postwar reconstruction.

Although there was little in the way of wall texts, CIMA is part of the growing network of organizations that leverage the Bloomberg Connects app, and so offered descriptions of key pieces via mobile. There was also a catalog for sale.

I want to go on about the variety of techniques Italian midcentury poster designers used (some cool photomontages here). I could also reflect on the changing dynamics between corporate brand identities and creative artistic impulses  But mostly I want to rave about how awesome these posters were. Not to fixate on alcohol, but an early, cubist-inflected Campari advertisement definitely caught my eye. 

Campari poster at the Center for Italian Modern Art

Lucio Fontana for Lloyd Triestino: Express service for the whole worldThe show also included a poster by Lucio Fontana, who is far better known as an artist than a graphic designer. His 1935 poster for Lloyd Triestino ship lines sleekly conveys speed and modernity. And it also hints at the linear slashes in canvas that would later make him famous. (Apologies for the inadvertent selfie in my photo.)

I could go on… I haven’t even mentioned Olivetti yet, and that’s a shame. Only an Italian company could make a typewriter into a fashion accessory.

Andare o non andare?

The Center for Italian Modern Art puts on two shows a year. Its hours are limited and moreover it requires an appointment, so no just dropping in spontaneously in the midst of a SoHo shopping spree. Its smallish space means anything CIMA does will be focused and fairly limited in scope.

Center for Italian Modern Art, interiorThat said, I was extremely impressed with the curation of the poster show — not to mention the beauty of the pieces they selected. Flipping through CIMA’s past catalogs left me vexed that I missed this place on my initial list of New York museums. On the brighter side, I’m happy that I know about it now. I will keep an eye on CIMA and I’m looking forward to seeing what it puts on next.

Anyone who likes cose italiane, or modern art, should look out for this place as well.

 

For Reference:

Address 421 Broome Street, 4th Floor, Manhattan
Website https://www.italianmodernart.org/
Cost General Admission:  $10; $15 for a tour. All visits by appointment only
Other Relevant Links

 

Gilder Center for Science, Education, and Innovation at the American Museum of Natural History

Edification value N/A
Entertainment value N/A
Should you go? N/A
Time spent 51 minutes
Best thing I saw or learned In the display of the museum’s collections, I characteristically especially liked the plethora of bats.Bats!

Much has changed among New York museums since I started systematically visiting them. I’ve revised the list multiple times, and I have visited several that were not part of my initial plan. I’ve also revisited ones that have expanded or changed. The American Museum of Natural History recently opened the Gilder Center for Science, Education, and Innovation, a vast new wing of the venerable institution, and its biggest change since it replaced the old planetarium with the spiffy sphere-in-a-clear-glass-box of the Rose Center over twenty years ago.

Gilder Center interior

I visited the Gilder Center during its member-only opening weekend. Rather than re-review the whole museum, I have some impressions of the new space, and its likely impact on the rest of the institution.

Sexy, Sexy Curves

Gilder Center interiorThe Gilder Center is a very, very, very sexy building. It’d be easy to dismiss its biomorphic, asymmetrical forms as Flintstones architecture, or aping termites or some other social insect. And those are valid brickbats. But, seriously, look at these curves. This is the most Instagrammable new museum space New York has seen since someone last showed off a Yayoi Kusama Infinity Room.

(Perhaps times have changed enough that I should revert to “photogenic” rather than Instagrammable — but I stand by that statement either way…)

And these snapshots are me only half trying – imagine the photos someone with a good camera who really studies the light and angles will be able to take. The building’s forms come from deliberately rough concrete, sprayed layer by layer following what must’ve been insanely complex plans to look like it just sort of accidentally formed the way it did.

Gilder Center interior view

There’s an argument to be made that museums aren’t supposed to be sexy. Except for the Museum of Sex, of course. Certainly if this were an art museum there’d be a valid gripe of the building upstaging the art (I’m looking at you, Frank Gehry). But that doesn’t apply to science museums. Moreover, unlike many other flamboyant recent museum buildings, Gilder keeps its sexiness largely under wraps. The calm façade resembles cut stone — like upthrust sedimentary rock layers — fitting with the scale and massing of the rest of the Columbus Avenue side of the building. Indeed, it may be too calm, like a tech startup corporate headquarters. At least it runs no risk of upstaging the Neoclassical if recently de-Roosevelt-ed Central Park West entrance.

Gilder Center exterior view

Raisons d’etre

The two things that the Natural History Museum most desperately needed were more space and more connections between far-flung parts of the place. Important halls like Gems and Minerals have long been culs-de-sac, fun to discover but hard to get back out of. The Gilder Center was precision crafted to address both of those issues, as well as creating new exhibit spaces.

Gilder’s wayfinding and signage are great, although they doesn’t follow the pattern of the rest of the museum. Then again, I love AMNH for its glorious inconsistencies.  Stairways are easy to find and, like the Rose Center, the windows in this wing will also help visitors orient themselves.

AMNH also needed more research space, and, apparently, a library, which is by far my favorite space in the new building. On the top floor, it appears to have a concrete tree in the middle. Tree of Knowledge? Tree of Life? Anyway, it evokes Saarinen’s landmark TWA terminal at JFK, with sleek midcentury-esque furniture to match. Like most visitors I probably won’t use it, and only glimpsed it through the glass door. But, wow, I’d like to research some science in there.

The Library at the Gilder Center
Sexy library

Bugs, Mycelia, Whales and More

Leafcutter ants at the Gilder Center
What could go wrong with introducing a colony of ravenous, leaf-chewing, fungus-growing ants in the middle of Manhattan?

The Gilder Center also houses several new exhibits. Most notably, the Museum now has a permanent insect exhibit, praising the myriad of ecosystem services provided by our arthropod friends. Displays feature the Insects of New York and a living colony of leafcutter ants. I fear them getting out and eating Central Park or something and I hope AMNH’s entomologists thought that through. The museum now also has a permanent space for frolicking with live butterflies, though even on the member preview day the line for that was long enough that I skipped it.

There’s also a series of displays about AMNH’s unparalleled collection of objects catalogued and tagged and stored (often after being killed and stuffed or formaldehyded) for future researchers. This takes up one wall across multiple floors and is really fun. It offers a sort of Cliffs Notes version of the museum itself. Reinforcing that this place drives ongoing important research are a couple of spaces where visitors can peek in on scientists at work. I would not want to put up with that were I on the staff, but hopefully exhibitionist researchers will enjoy it.

Lightshow!
The light fantastic

And finally, there’s an interactive, immersive space called Invisible Worlds. This is, essentially, an excuse for kids to run around and burn off energy. It tells several stories: about the mycelial networks that underpin forests, the neurons that make our brains run, and the web of life that comprises plankton. Each of these includes moments that invite visitors to stomp on lights on the floor, or create patterns as lights follow their movements.  Lacking a conventional playground, this is a clever way to bleed off some hyperactivity and perhaps make other parts of AMNH calmer as a result. You could also hold a pretty awesome rave in there, assuming raves are still a thing.

Final thoughts on the Gilder Center

I went to the Gilder Center a skeptic. It’s such showy architecture. Biomorphic curves look good (sometimes) but do they do anything to help people get from Point A to Point B? And yet, it won me over.

Gilder’s thoughtful connections make the rest of AMNH far easier to navigate. As with the Rose Center, when you’re in the space you always know where you are. Hopefully traffic patterns in the rest of the museum will improve in the coming weeks. That said, who knows whether the Gilder Center’s 230,000 new square feet will mitigate the crowds or end up just as overcrowded as the rest of the museum. For now, I’m cautiously optimistic.

AMNH Gilder CenterThe Gilder Center also represents AMNH looking at itself via the view of the collections, and also literally, as new windows peer out at the red brick facade of the older building.

On the downside, the Gilder adds some things I’m not sure the museum needed. For example, there’s a show-off grand staircase/ bleacher affair in the lobby that was cool the first time I saw one but now seems an overused architectural trick. Also a fancy new restaurant. And I’m unconvinced about the whole “live scientists on display” element.

While I’m being critical, I’m also not sure how this architecture is going to age. I have a feeling that in twenty years Gilder will look “so 2020s” to people. And who knows how easy or hard it’s going to be to maintain the rough concrete – I expect those beautiful biomorphic surfaces are going to collect dust like nobody’s business.

However, frivolous features and maintenance challenges feel like small quibbles. For the moment, I love what they’ve done with the place.

Gilder Center bleacher staircase

For Reference:

Address 415 Columbus Avenue, Manhattan
Website https://www.amnh.org/exhibitions/permanent/gilder-center
Cost  General Admission:  $28 for adults (pay what you will for residents of NY, NJ, and CT)
Other Relevant Links

 

Jackie Robinson Museum

Edification value 3/5
Entertainment value 2/5
Should you go? 2/5
Time spent 74 minutes
Best thing I saw or learned In 1956 the Brooklyn Dodgers made a goodwill tour of Japan. It’s a footnote to Jackie Robinson’s story but I loved the display containing photos, tickets, and other souvenirs from that trip. Jackie Robinson / Dodgers program in Japanese

I grew up a fan of both science fiction and dry English humor. As a result, whenever I see the number 42 I immediately think of the Answer to the Ultimate Question of Life, the Universe, and Everything. 

42 - 9 - 5 : Jackie Robinson's numbers as a professional athleteIf instead I had grown up in Brooklyn and been a fan of baseball, the number 42 would’ve had a similarly huge and cosmic significance. It was Jackie Robinson’s number when he played for the Brooklyn Dodgers from 1947 to 1956.

That significance of 42 is explored in detail at one of New York City’s newest museums (as of April 2023), the Jackie Robinson Museum, located somewhat unexpectedly in Soho. 

Jackie Robinson Museum

Texts and timelines

The Jackie Robinson Museum occupies a bright ground floor space at the corner of Canal and Varick Streets. It’s something of a shame, actually, as the south-facing windows are almost entirely blocked by displays. A bit of daylight sneaks around them, but the design diminishes some the potential awesomeness of the space.

The museum comprises two main galleries: One devoted to Robinson the man and the other to Robinson the athlete. Smaller spaces invite visitors to “speak out, stand up!” (in a stairwell) and highlight Jackie Robinson in pop culture (by the restrooms). The curators take a role-based approach to Robinson’s life: soldier, activist, entrepreneur, family man, and of course athlete. Each of those pillars of the man is represented by a literal pillar in the museum, summarized by nice little infographics of key stats: “Jackie by the Numbers.”

There's a lot to read at the Jackie Robinson Museum

Infographics notwithstanding, the museum is extremely text-heavy — it felt like reading a Jackie Robinson biography printed on the walls (the photo here is typical). Indeed, it surprised me how little video the museum uses. (More on that in a moment.)

Beyond the copious amounts of text, each gallery contains a giant wall-filling timeline, one for Robinson’s life and one for his sports career.

Timeline of Jackie Robinson's life and times
Timeline blocking a view of Canal Street

Where’s Jackie Robinson?

If there was one thing missing from the Jackie Robinson Museum it’s, surprisingly, Jackie Robinson himself. For sure, there are lots of photos of him, and memorabilia, and quotations in wall texts. But for a very famous person who must’ve given countless radio and television interviews — the museum says that he even starred in his own biopic — there’s very little of that in the Jackie Robinson Museum.

It’s a notable contrast to the presence of Louis Armstrong that fills the wonderful Louis Armstrong House in Queens. Louis’s self-recorded audio journals bring the place to life. Here, Robinson doesn’t tell his own story so much as have it told for him, and the experience is poorer for it.

Wall of multimedia recordings of interviews about Jackie Robinson

It’s not that the place is against media. There’s a whole corner of interactive tablets featuring  public figures delivering encomiums to Jackie Robinson’s general awesomeness, but not Robinson himself.

I’m never one to advocate for tech for its own sake, but in this metaversal age, if there’s any New York museum that could justify a tasteful holographic re-creation of its raison d’etre, it’s this museum.

The museum does include a fun, interactive, multi-sensory recreation of Ebbets Field (the Dodgers’ legendary stadium in Flatbush). So the curators thought along these lines.

A taste of Ebbets Field
Multimedia, interactive, Ebbets Field

Should you visit the Jackie Robinson Museum?

Old-school Brooklynites, Dodgers fans, and fans of historic moments in racial integration will definitely want to visit the Jackie Robinson Museum. Fans of Jackie Robinson’s story should also visit the awesome City Reliquary, which houses a lighthearted shrine to the man.

The museum does its job. I learned a significant amount about a historical figure I didn’t know all that much about –beyond his key historic achievement. However, I wish the narrative struck a better balance between the history and the fun, and with a lot less to read.

And when it comes to fun, the Jackie Robinson Museum swings and misses. For sure, the difficult, painful challenges of fighting racism and integrating Major League Baseball are stories this museum needs to tell. But this is also a story about baseball, and Chock Full O’Nuts coffee (When he retired from the Dodgers, Robinson became a VP there, the first Black vice president of a major American company), and being one of the most famous athletes in the world. It’s not that the Jackie Robinson Museum ignored the triumphs in Jackie Robinson’s life. It’s just that the balance felt off, and the man himself felt strangely absent. And that makes it hard to recommend to anyone with a merely casual interest.

Jackie Robinson Apple Ad

For Reference:

Address 75 Varick Street, Manhattan
Website jackierobinsonmuseum.org
Cost  General Admission:  $18
Other Relevant Links

 

American Academy of Arts and Letters

Edification value 3/5
Entertainment value 3/5
Should you go? 3/5
Time spent 37 minutes
Best thing I saw or learned 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. Michael Smith Tapestry

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.

American Academy of Arts and Letters
Pavilion Number One

 

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.

American Academy of Arts and Letters
Pavilion Number Two
Trinity Church Cemetery
A view to die for

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.

American Academy of Arts and Letters

Invitational Only

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? 

American Academy
Carl D’Alvia, Loveseat, 2021

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. 

ThAmerican Academy Bronze Doorse 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.

For Reference:

Address 633 West 155th Street, Manhattan
Website https://artsandletters.org
Cost  General Admission:  Free
Other Relevant Links

 

Hispanic Society of America

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

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

 

Note: This is my original review of the Hispanic Society, published on May 14, 2022. The museum has re-opened more since then, and I’m happy to have updated the review here.

Iberian Dreams…

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

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

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

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

Nuestra casa es su casa

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

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

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

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

Hispanic Society Interior

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

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

Should You Visit the Hispanic Society Museum?

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

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

Hispanic Society Interior View

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

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

Audubon Terrace Plaza
El Cid, by Anna Hyatt Huntington

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

For Reference:

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