Tibet House Gallery

Edification value  
Entertainment value  2/5
Should you go?  2/5
Time spent 31 minutes
Best thing I saw or learned Poncar’s best photos capture amazing contrasts, both of light and shadow and of the greens in the valleys and the stark surrounding cliffs.

Jaroslav Poncar at Tibet House
Jaroslav Poncar, “Teri Samdrub Chodhing Gompa,” 2015

Tibet House is the Tibetan Cultural Center, founded in 1987 at the behest of His Holiness the Dalai Lama.  Thus it celebrates its 30th birthday this year. 

H.H. the Dalai Lama, Tibet House
Hello, Dalai

Tibet House hosts an array of classes and events, meditation training, retreats in the Catskills, that sort of thing.  It’s kind of a starry place: in addition to His Holiness, Professor Robert Thurman, who teaches at Columbia, is the president of their board, and Philip Glass is vice president. It name-drops a whole bunch of other notables in its acknowledgements of “in-kind” donations:  David Bowie, Patti Smith, Christo, David Byrne, Emmylou Harris…

Library, Tibet House, New YorkTibet House, New YorkDespite the star power, it’s nonetheless endearingly scruffy. Although only a few blocks from the Rubin‘s glorious converted department store, Tibet House occupies nondescript second-floor office space in a midblock building on 15th Street.  It’s got a small library, devotional statues and other objects in glass cases, and some mandala and paintings, all with pretty much zero context.  And it’s got a gallery space, which also serves as a lecture hall and meditation room.

Art for Sale

When I visited, the gallery featured an exhibit of photographs by Jaroslav Poncar called “Glimpses of Mustang.”  Mustang being a region of Nepal, which Poncar visited in 1996 and then several times after that.  His photos tend toward very large format, panoramic shots that capture the stark grandeur of the setting. I found the installation haphazard. The curators stuck some of the best (and longest) shots in a hallway where you can’t get far enough back from them to take in the full sweep.  And all the pictures were just tacked onto the walls, with small labels providing the title and price of each.

Tibet House Gallery, ManhattanYep, this is a gallery in the “art-for-sale” sense.  Which is fine. I’ve decided non-profit institutions can count as museums for my purpose even if they sell art.  However, if you’re selling prints for several thousand dollars a pop, take a little more care hanging them, why don’t you?

Mustang Sally

The most glaring oversight in the curation of this show is, how the hell can you exhibit photographs of a place called Mustang and not explain why that’s what we call horses in the Wild West? Ford named a macho car after the horse (or after a plane which was named after the horse, or after a college sports team which was named after the horse).  And the horse turns out to be named after an obscure part of Nepal?  Actually, no.  Mustang like the horse comes from mestengo or mostrenco, Spanish words meaning a stray or feral animal.  So, interesting coincidence but nothing more.

Still, I think they should’ve said that, instead of making me look it up.

Anyway, photos of Mustang (the place not the horse). Lots of them.  Some of them quite beautiful. Kind of sloppily installed, without much thought to organizing in a way that would teach a visitor about the place or the people. (I would’ve appreciated a map of Mustang, at the least.)

Additionally, many of the photos are from 20 years ago–though the newest date to 2015.  Nothing here about whether and how the place has changed in the intervening decades — do they have more tourists?  A Starbucks?  Or is it untouched by time?

It’s rare I fault a place for not having enough wall texts, but this left me with several big, obvious, unanswered questions.

Should You Go to Tibet House?

I think Tibet House is great for friends of Tibet House. But I don’t recommend a visit for a general audience. 

If the Mustang show is typical, it misses an opportunity to do more to help a visitor learn from the art on display.  And it definitely misses an opportunity to present the work in a more logical, or at least aesthetically pleasing, way.

The glorious Rubin Museum is just minutes away, and will give you far more–maybe even too much–Tibetan Buddhist art, culture, and philosophy. I was not terribly enthused about the Jacques Marchais Museum of Tibetan Art in Staten Island, but there’s at least an adventure and a tale to tell in getting there.  

I almost wonder if Tibet House uses the Rubin as an excuse to not work harder to make its own collection more edifying for a lay visitor.  By all means go to Tibet House if you want to take a class or attend a talk.  But as a museum, feel free to skip it.

Tibet House, New York
Stairwell Prayer Flags

For Reference:

Address 22 West 15th Street, Manhattan
Website tibethouse.us
Cost Free, but $5 suggested donation
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