Neue Galerie

Edification value  4/5
Entertainment value  4/5
Should you go?  4/5
Time spent 101 minutes
Best thing I saw or learned Café Sabarsky comes as close as possible to a trip to Vienna while remaining in New York City.  If the whole café seems too broad for a “best thing,” I will call out the cake display specifically.

Cafe Sabarsky at the Neue Galerie, New York

Should I recommend a museum just because I love its café?  Sure, why not.

Cafe Sabarsky, Neue Galerie, New York
Sacher Torte and Wiener Mélange

And Café Sabarsky is wonderful, unique, and an important part of the overall experience of a museum whose mission is to transport visitors to a specific time and place, in this case Austria-Hungary at the dawn of the 20th century. Continue reading “Neue Galerie”

Guggenheim Museum

Edification value  3/5
Entertainment value  3/5
Should you go?  2/5
Time spent 92 minutes
Best thing I saw or learned
Joseph Cornell, Guggenheim Museum
Joseph Cornell, “Setting for a Fairy Tale,” 1942, and Untitled (Fortune Telling Parrot for Carmen Miranda), ca. 1939.

I’ll always pick Joseph Cornell’s achingly lovely, idiosyncratic boxes, wherever I happen to find them.

I despise the Guggenheim Museum. It sucks and you shouldn’t go there.

Guggenheim Museum

The brevity of those two sentences would make for a welcome break from my normal museum review, but my highly contrarian feelings toward the Guggenheim require justification. Let’s start with the building itself, and then move on to what’s inside. Continue reading “Guggenheim Museum”

Bernard Museum of Judaica at Temple Emanu-El

Edification value  3/5
Entertainment value  3/5
Should you go?  3/5
Time spent 38 minutes
Best thing I saw or learned From a 2007 exhibit on Jewish cemeteries, I learned that they are sometimes called Beit Hayyim in Hebrew, House of Life.  More than just a euphemism, it affirms ties between the living and the dead, and an eternal existence to come.

Hans Beyer Photograph, Bernard Museum
Hans D. Beyer, “Interior of the Schmidl Family Vault,” Budapest, Hungary, 2006

I loved this photograph of the Schmidl family vault in Budapest.  An art nouveau extravaganza from 1904, covered in mosaics, I’d like to see it in person someday.

Temple Emanu-El, New York CityTemple Emanu-El is a beautiful, imposing synagogue, one of several great houses of worship on the green stretch of Fifth Avenue opposite Central Park. The temple itself is shut tight like a fortress between services,  However, if you go around to a side entrance on East 65th Street and ask the guard, you can visit the Herbert & Eileen Bernard Museum, which hosts temporary exhibits on various aspects of Jewish life, faith, and culture.

The museum occupies three smallish rooms on the second floor. A life-sized, somewhat cartoony Golda Meir sculpture currently greets you at the door.  She seems nice, though somewhat off-putting, like the Jewish museological equivalent of the fiberglass Ronald McDonalds that help to dissuade me from ever eating chicken mcnuggets. Continue reading “Bernard Museum of Judaica at Temple Emanu-El”

Jewish Museum

Edification value  3/5
Entertainment value  4/5
Should you go?  4/5
Time spent  140 minutes
Best thing I saw or learned Florine Stettheimer’s marvelous “Heat” from 1919.  Summer languor distilled into color.

Florine Stettheimer, "Heat," 1919

Entrance, Jewish Museum, New YorkThe first time I visited the Jewish Museum, in July of 2017, it was in the midst of re-installing its permanent collection, taking a floor and a substantial part of the reason to visit offline. I had doubts concerning the temporary shows on at the time— odd curatorial decisions, highly esoteric subject matter and general kitschiness all nudged me away from strongly recommending the museum.

I’ve now been back to see the new permanent galleries, and I’m happy to say that in a rare re-review of a place, the permanent collection hugely and positively changes my impression of the place. As a result, I’m updating my review and my summary rating (it was formerly all 3s). Continue reading “Jewish Museum”

Ukrainian Institute of America

Edification value  3/5
Entertainment value  4/5
Should you go?  4/5
Time spent 69 minutes
Best thing I saw or learned Max Vityk’s “Outcrops” series of tactile, colorful, geologic abstract paintings installed in the third floor library and dining room.  Sometimes abstract art clashes with classical decor, but these go better than they have any right to.  Compliments to the curator for a beautiful installation.

Ukrainian Institute, New York

Three First Impressions

The first thing you notice walking into the Ukrainian Institute on a balmy day in June is the warmth.  No air conditioning. Which is okay — fancy Fifth Avenue mansions (and the Ukrainian Institute occupies one of the fanciest) have thick walls and high ceilings to keep them reasonably comfortable on all but the hottest days.

The second thing you notice is the quiet.  They keep the front door of the house locked, you have to buzz for admission. Someone eventually emerges  from the non-public (and I bet air conditioned) offices to let you in and find out what you’re about.  She’s happy to admit you, though a little…surprised maybe?… I’m not sure the Institute gets many visitors.  (There were three others while I looked around, at least one of whom spoke Ukrainian.) She tells you that the admission fees quoted on the desk are suggested, and whatever you want to pay is fine.

And the third thing you notice is the amazingness of the interior, and how much of it you, now admitted as a guest, have available to roam around in.  I expected a single gallery space with a small, obscure show, like the Czech Center or Japan Society.  Instead, I got four floors of beautifully cared-for Gilded Age rooms, with Ukrainian or Ukrainian-related art very thoughtfully integrated into the fabric of the place.

Ukrainian Institute, New York

The House (Condensed Version)

The Institute makes its home in the 1899 Fletcher-Sinclair House, designed by C. P. H. Gilbert for wealthy (duh) manufacturer Isaac D. Fletcher.  It occupies a corner lot on Fifth Avenue, diagonally across from the Metropolitan Museum of Art.  I’d call the exterior “extreme French Gothic”: extravagant stonework with flowers and garlands and dragons and such, while the interior feels more mellow, tasteful, and comfortable according to early twentieth century standards.

“…Comfortable, by early twentieth century standards.”
View of the Met
View of the Met

Fletcher died in 1917 and left his fabulous art collection and the house to his neighbor across the way.  And unlike Gertrude Vanderbilt Whitney’s collection, the Met Board accepted.  But then a few years later, not really needing an opulent mansion (I suspect the Met today would find something to do with it), the Met sold the house. (It kept the art).  An oil man named Harry Sinclair lived there with his family for a decade. Then the very last direct descendants of Peter Stuyvesant moved in starting in the 1930s.  After they died off, the house went on the market in the 1950s, just as William Dzus’s fledgling Ukrainian Institute needed a home.  Which it got for the unbelievable auction price of $225,000 (the 1955 Times headline reads “Ukrainians Take Fifth Avenue Mansion.”)  I’m sure the place needed work, but what a bargain!

A Top-to-Bottom View

Ukrainian Institute, New York

Here’s what I saw, from top to bottom:

  • Fourth Floor:  Ukrainian Socialist Realism from the Jurii Maniichuk and Rose Brady Collection — impressive pieces from a more Soviet time, including a fantastic, huge, triumphalist painting of Khrushchev greeting Yuri Gagarin, unfortunately jammed into a hallway.
Mykhailo Khmelko, “Motherland Greets a Hero,” 1961
  • Also Fourth Floor:  The Sumyk Collection of sculptures by Ukrainian-American Alexander Archipenko, which gets a room of its own.
Ukrainian Institute, New York
The Sumyk Collection of Archipenko Sculptures
  • Third Floor:  Max Vityk’s “Outcrops.” As mentioned previously, I just loved the art and the installation.  Each piece’s title comes from one of the geologic ages of the Earth. The description talks about appreciating them just as highly textural abstractions, but also as a spiritual or environmental account, “an antidote to the tyranny of time, or chronarchy…” Down with the chronarchy! 
Library, Ukrainian Institute, NYC
Contemplating the Chronarchy, More of Max Vityk’s “Outcrops” series
  • Second Floor:  Portrait photographs of WWII Veterans by Sasha Maslov.  Rather wonderful pictures of these ordinary men (and a few women) in their unassuming homes, accompanied by quotes from interviews with them that reveal each as extraordinary.  Maslov traveled the world to take these pictures, of both Axis and Allied veterans.  He defined the word broadly, including some people who didn’t fight, but who nonetheless were involved in the war (and really, who wasn’t?)

  • First Floor:  A brief introduction to Ukraine, the place, its people, history and culture.  It includes a nice touchscreen display for those who want a deeper dive, and an overview of  notable Ukrainian Americans.

This is my second Ukrainian place for this project (see: Ukrainian Museum).  I get why they both exist.  Different wealthy patrons wanted to celebrate their heritage and raise the profile of their culture.  But if anyone asked me, I would recommend the Institute over the Museum by a wide margin.

A House Museum AND a Ukrainian Museum

I suggest thinking of the Ukrainian Institute as a house museum as much as a museum of Ukrainian art and culture.  As an opulent Fifth Avenue mansion-turned-museum, it stands in good company with the Jewish Museum (also by Gilbert), the Cooper-Hewitt, the Neue Gallerie, and the Frick Collection. But with relatively fewer modifications, it feels much more homey. 

It lacks the original furniture, but retains amazing amounts of period detail. The rooms aren’t labeled, but they don’t need labels.  The ballroom (of course it has one) still looks like a ballroom, the library unmistakably remains a library.  Even better, there are no barriers or blockades, and very few “please do not touch” signs.  The woodwork smells pleasantly of oil or polish, and has a luster of well-preserved age.  The wood floors aren’t pristine, but are much more beautiful and interesting for that.

The rooms have been re-tasked with sharing Ukrainian art and culture (broadly defined), but without losing their former selves.  I deeply appreciate that.

Ukrainian Institute, New York
Sasha Maslov did it in the Ballroom with Portraits of World War II Veterans

I also appreciate that the Institute takes care to relate the story of the house.  It provides a quick summary in the ground floor “Intro to Ukraine” section. It also offers a much more thorough version of the tale (complete with newspaper quotes and other primary sources) in a series of panels in a fourth floor room. 

Last Thoughts

The Ukrainian Institute may be one of the best-kept secrets of New York that is still actually being kept.  Except by me, I guess.  Sorry?  Anyone who enjoys a taste of Gilded Age splendor (and who doesn’t?) must visit.  Even the warm summer temperatures just add to the authenticity. Though I realize that the wealthy Fifth Avenue Gilded Agers did have air conditioning. They just called it “spending August at my Newport cottage.”

Pysanky, or Ukrainian eggs

Based on my visit, the art on view will be worth seeing, too.  And as a bonus you get to learn something about Ukraine and its people.

I’m  surprised and delighted with this place, and I feel confident that  art and architecture lovers will feel the same.

Ukrainian Institute, New York
Ukrainian Institute Facade.

For Reference:

Address 2 East 79th Street, Manhattan
Cost  General Admission:  $8 (suggested)
Other Relevant Links
  • A neat history of the house with a behind-the-scenes tour on the Big Old Houses blog


Cooper Hewitt, Smithsonian Design Museum

Edification value  4/5
Entertainment value  4/5
Should you go?  4/5
Time spent 107 minutes
Best thing I saw or learned Art Deco Coffee Service

I wanted to own many of the things in the Jazz Age show, but none more than this 1927 Cubic Coffee Service designed by Erik Magnussen for Gorham.  A Picasso-esque vision of reality brought astonishingly to life.  It makes me wonder, if a Cubist painted a still life of this coffee set, would it come out looking normal?

The Cooper Hewitt Museum is the Smithsonian Institution’s branch devoted to design.  It started out under the guardianship of Cooper Union, which closed it in the 1960s.  The Smithsonian then adopted it and it opened in its current location in the 1970s.  (There’s a second Smithsonian branch in New York: the Museum of the American Indian, in Lower Manhattan.) 

Two features deeply distinguish the Cooper-Hewitt from all other museums in the city.  First, the building, and second, the electronic pen.

The Cooper-Hewitt is another in the series of great New York museums occupying mansions of the Gilded Age robber barons. However, its mansion might just be the best of all of them. The Cooper-Hewitt’s  Fifth Avenue abode started out as the 1902, 64-room abode of Andrew Carnegie.  While the interior is much changed from Carnegie’s time, it retains a good deal of period detail, including yet another beautiful staircase (I should add it to my list), a glassed-in conservatory, and much ornate plaster and woodwork.

Cooper Hewitt Museum, Carnegie Mansion, New York
Crazy wisteria climb the rear of the Carnegie mansion

The jewel-like garden recently opened to the public for free — you can just walk in.  If you tried that back in Mr. Carnegie’s day, it probably wouldn’t have gone so well for you. The day I went the wisteria were blooming like mad, the sun was shining, and it was almost a shame to go indoors to look at art.

Before I get to the art, though, a word on the second distinguishing thing: the electronic pen.  The Cooper Hewitt underwent a major refit a few years back. When it reopened in 2014, along with a whole new floor of exhibition space and the public garden, the museum rolled out digital pens.  Every visitor gets one of these gizmos, enabling them to interact with the digital tabletops  throughout the museum. More importantly, visitors can also capture any object that they see with a tap of the pen. 

You return the pen at the end of your visit, but you take away a unique URL that provides details and images of all the objects you tagged.  It’s like a Crate & Barrel wedding registry, for things none of your friends could possibly afford.

Cooper Hewitt Pen
Cooper Hewitt Magic Pen (and my hand and iPad)

Part of me feels skeptical about the pen.  What’s wrong with taking notes the old fashioned way (i.e., by snapping photos of objects and captions)?  But part of me just loves it.  It’s super gutsy of the Smithsonian to  bridge the physical and digital worlds like this, and to zig when all other museums offer the zag of an audio guide.  It works really well.  It’s fun!  And I imagine the pens generate a treasure trove of data for the museum.  If I were them I’d map visitors’ paths through the place, identify popular items, and understand how people use the Cooper Hewitt. (I collected 47 items, 24 different types of item, associated with 9 colors and 119 tags…etc.)

The digital tables appeal, too, inviting visitors to “grab” random objects with their pens and trace their way through the museum’s collection by material, theme, function, or era. Visitors can also use the pen to take a stab at designing something of their own.

Finally, there’s also a space called the “Immersion Room,” which projects wallpapers lifesize on the walls, or lets you use the magical pen to design a wallpaper of your very own.  Maybe more about Instagrammable moments than about learning about design, but that’s fine in moderation, and my wallpaper had crescent moons and bats.

So that’s the mansion and the tech.  On top of all those, the Cooper Hewitt has a fantastic collection and the space to show it off well. The main show when I visited was “The Jazz Age,” design from the 1920s. 

Jazz-Age Desk
“Skyscraper Desk” from the Jazz Age show

A few weeks back I wished there was a historic house museum from the Art Deco era.  This show amplifies that wish.  How amazing would it be to see these objects in actual rooms that people lived in? Many beautiful, covetable things, and I also note that the exhibition deployed music well: it wouldn’t be a Jazz Age show without jazz.

Screen, 1921, Cooper Hewitt Museum

Who should visit the Cooper Hewitt?  I think almost everyone.  You definitely don’t need to be a design geek to derive huge pleasure and edification from it.  It combines a wonderful building from the past with interactive technology that feels like the future and a collection that spans all eras.

Deco Sofa, Cooper Hewitt Museum
Canapé Gondole, 1925, by Marcel Coard

Finally, design museums have the best gift shops.  So, if nothing else has enticed you yet (that pen, though!) go for the shopping.

For Reference:

Address 2 East 91st Street, Manhattan
Cost  General Admission:  $16 in advance online, $18 at the door.  Free for Smithsonian members.


El Museo del Barrio

Edification value
Entertainment value
Should you go?
Time spent 50 minutes
Best thing I saw or learned A haunting and beautiful photograph by Cecilia Paredes, a Peruvian artist.  In her work, she has her body painted to match fancy floral wallpapers or fabrics, and then photographs herself in front of them.  My photo is at the end of the post.

El Museo del Barrio is currently the northernmost of the “Museum Mile” museums, occupying a stately building on Fifth Avenue, just across 104th Street from the Museum of the City of New York.  According to its website, it  started in the early 1970s as a cultural center focused on Puerto Rico.  It has since expanded its focus to cover all Latin American and Caribbean art and artists.  After bouncing around East Harlem a bit it found its current home in the Heckscher Building in 1977.

The building dates to 1921 when it was built as an orphanage, and includes a spectacularly beautiful theater, now run by El Museo and called Teatro Heckscher.

I was a little disappointed in El Museo.  I was expecting a survey of that Latino experience in New York City, as told through art as well as other sorts of artifacts.  The museum has a permanent collection of 8,000 objects, so I’m sure they could tell that story.  In practice, though, El Museo is a small art museum, showing work by Latino-Caribbean artists.  It’s in a large building, and I always assumed it was a rather large museum, so I was surprised to realize the exhibition space is confined to six rooms on the ground floor.

The main show when I visited was of video art by Beatriz Santiago Muñoz, as well as selections she chose from the museum’s permanent collection.  I run hot and cold with video art. On the one hand, two of the best, most memorable works of art I’ve seen in the past two years were video pieces. On the other hand, I am bored to tears with the vast majority of it. Muñoz’s work, largely non-narrative, did little for me.  I lacked the eye or knowledge to understand how her selections from the permanent collection clicked with what she’s trying to do.

The other show featured recent acquisitions, definitely a common and valid theme for a museum, although given the small space available, I didn’t find it very edifying as far as key current trends in Latin or Caribbean art.  I liked some of the pieces, but I also thought much of the work on view wasn’t especially “Latin.”

It’s like my rhetorical question about the Leslie-Lohman‘s acquisition strategy:  will they collect anything just because it happened to be made by someone LGBTQ?  Or do the themes and topics and content of the art have to also reflect that world somehow?

Catalina Chervin (b. 1953, Argentina) “Songs 1-6” from the Canto portfolio, 2010.

Based on the recent acquisitions show, I’d tentatively say that El Museo opts for the broad approach:  they’ll acquire anything by an artist with the right name or country of origin.

That’s a perfectly valid collection strategy.  However, given their minuscule space it directly impacts the likelihood that a visitor to El Museo del Barrio actually learns something about el barrio. I’d therefore argue the museum needs to be clearer about its brand or purpose.

The museum also features Side Park Cafe, a large and decent looking bar/restaurant.  Without at all wanting to seem stereotypical, I bet they make great margaritas.  Apparently it’s fairly new:  there aren’t enough reviews on Yelp to get an objective margarita quality metric.

Should you go to El Museo?  I don’t really recommend it.  If you have to choose between going there and extending your visit to the Museum of the City of New York, the latter is probably the better use of your limited museuming time.  Naturally, as with many places I’ve visited, it comes down to your interest in the current exhibition. If you have a chance to go to the theater there, definitely seize the opportunity. 

Cecilia Paredes (b. 1950, Peru) photograph

For Reference:

Address 1230 Fifth Avenue, Manhattan
Cost Suggested Donation:  $9
Other Relevant Links


Museum of the City of New York

Edification value  
Entertainment value  
Should you go?  
Time spent 203 minutes across 2 days.  I had a lot I wanted to see.
Best thing I saw or learned On display in “New York at its Core” show is the scrap of paper, literally the back of an envelope, on which Milton Glaser scribbled “I ♥︎NY.”  It’s such a quintessential statement it’s hard to imagine someone had to invent it, but Glaser did, in 1977.  That little idea changed the way generations of visitors think about this crazy place, and it elegantly expresses a sentiment I feel (almost) every day.

The Museum of the City of New York is an absolute treasure.  It occupies a really lovely Georgian/Federal-style building at the northern end of Museum Mile on Fifth Avenue.  The Museum started out its life in Gracie Mansion, but as its collection and ambitions grew, and its directors wanted it to be more central, a move seemed prudent. 

I confess I always assumed the building was legitimately old, though on reflection that doesn’t make sense.  Who in the 1800s would build a grand federal style institutional building that far north?  The building was started for the museum in 1929, and it was completed in 1932.

For all that it’s merely fake old, it’s got one of the best staircases of any museum in the city, a super-elegant curve leading up from the ground floor.  Nowadays complemented by a terrific light sculpture. 

It also claims to have the most exciting stairwell in the city, so it’s definitely got a New Yorker’s flair for self-promotion.

Off the top of my head, other great staircases, if you’re a scalaphile or like making a dramatic entrance, can be found at the Neue Gallerie, the Czech Center, the Frick Collection (but you can’t go on it), the Cooper Hewitt, the Rubin, and of course the grand stairs at the Met (both the outside and inside ones).  Come to list them, there are a lot of great staircases in New York City museums.  But City of New York’s is still near the top.

I also have to say a word or two about typography.  Most museums manage signage and wall descriptions okay, but not great. But it matters.  City of New York does its visuals stunningly well.  Legible, fun, brash…  It  makes navigating the museum a pleasure.

The main exhibit on currently is called “New York at its Core,” a look at the full sweep of the city’s history, from the earliest beginnings to the future.  It’s extremely well thought out, covering an immense amount of content economically and judiciously.  It also makes great use of interactive features.  Person-height vertical screens in the middle of the main room feature key historical characters on a rotating basis.  Interact with a character and you get more, potentially much more, about them and their contribution.  And it’s not just human characters, you can find out about players like beavers and oysters, too.  I’m often skeptical of the value of these kinds of things. Too often they are more sizzle than steak.  But this impressed me a lot.

I can’t argue with that…

Other exhibits look at the Gilded Age, protests in New York (no small topic),  photos of Muslim life in the city, and an in-depth look at the city’s zoning laws on the centennial of the original 1916 law.

Let me underscore that.  This museum can make a visually and intellectually interesting show out of the city’s zoning laws.

Graphic showing the number of pages in NYC’s Zoning Laws, 1916-present

Then there’s the Stettheimer dollhouse, with its legit modern art.  And the cafe (great, by the way, and at the top of the grand staircase). 

And the future bit of “New York at its Core” where via touchscreen you can design a building, streetscape or neighborhood and have it rated based on affordability and livability and environmentalism.  Neat, fun, and yet again way better implemented than is typical for that sort of technology.

And finally, as I do wherever I can, I will mention Alexander Hamilton, who is present, larger than life size, on the facade.

Should you go?  Absolutely.  City of New York epitomizes great museuming in my book.  It balances edification and entertainment with great finesse, and tells the story of this place such that both newcomers and lifelong New Yorkers can get something fresh and interesting out of it.

For Reference:

Address 1220 Fifth Avenue (at 103rd Street), Manhattan
Cost  General Admission:  $18

The Frick Collection

Edification value
Entertainment value
Should you go?
Time spent 125 minutes
Best thing I saw or learned Contemporary critics weren’t always kind to JMW Turner, accusing him of being “unrealistic” and using “blinding” light effects. So he painted the story of Regulus, a Roman general who was captured by Carthage and (among other tortures) had his eyelids cut out and was forced to stare at the sun until he was blinded, before being killed. Turner painted a port where you can barely make out Regulus, and dominating the painting is light, light light.  Touche, Turner.

UPDATE APRIL 2021: The Frick Collection’s 5th Avenue mansion is closed for the next several years for a major renovation. The good news is Mr. Frick’s art has an temporary home in the old Whitney Building, the former Met Breuer, giving it a chance to recontextualize the art and juxtapose and present its art in exciting new ways. I’ll be writing about it soon, I hope. Spoiler alert: I love it!

This is going to be a hard one to write.  I’ve been going to the Frick Collection regularly for over 20 years.  I’m a member there.  It’s my second favorite museum in New York City (the Cloisters is number one).  Everyone needs to go to the Frick Collection. 

Henry Clay Frick may have been a plutocrat industrialist, but he had such an eye for art.  And the Frick, like the Gardner in Boston or the Barnes Foundation in Philadelphia, is his collection of art, much of it hung as he liked it, in rooms that were his rooms, now open to the public. 

Continue reading “The Frick Collection”