Hidden Assets : Small museums: Fine art without fanfare or crowds

Grant is an Amherst, Mass., freelance writer

This city, one is often told, is the “culture capital of the world.” Besides the 400 or so art galleries in the five boroughs, there are more than 70 museums, most of which are in Manhattan. But if asked to name some of them, most people think of the Metropolitan, the Museum of Modern Art, the Guggenheim, the Whitney and, uh, uh. . . .

It’s easy to get stuck. When we think of New York museums, we think of the big ones, the ones that get all the attention--and the crowds--when they host big exhibits or spend astonishing amounts of money to buy a painting.

The institutions listed below present art without a lot of fanfare and, possibly because of this, are often less crowded. But they are no less worthwhile. Many have smaller collections and fewer annual exhibitions than the larger ones, but going to them is often a more manageable experience than to, say, the encyclopedic Metropolitan Museum of Art, where one is assured of walking out feeling exhausted.


The Asia Society

Park Avenue at 70th Street. Tuesday to Saturday, 11 a.m. to 6 p.m.; Thursday, 11 a.m. to 8 p.m.; Sunday, noon to 5 p.m.; closed Monday. Admission: $3 for adults; $1 students and seniors. Telephone (212) 288-6400.

The gallery was established in 1960 and, since then, has regularly staged three or four shows per year. Individual exhibits may seem to require rather specialized interests--for instance, Indonesian textiles, Indian stone sculpture or Chinese ceramics--but over time one can develop a more complete understanding of Asian arts and culture here than at any other museum in New York. The gallery’s permanent collection consists of 250 objects, representing major art traditions from Afghanistan to Japan, donated by John D. Rockefeller III.

China Institute

125 E. 65th St. Monday to Saturday, 10 a.m. to 5 p.m.; Sunday, 1 to 5 p.m. Admission: donation suggested. Tel. (212) 744-8181.

Japan House Gallery

333 E. 47th St. Tuesday to Sunday, 11 a.m. to 5 p.m.; closed Monday. Admission: $3 adults (suggested); children under 12 free. Tel. (212) 832-1155.

While Japan House has a permanent collection and China Institute does not, both galleries are generally involved in bringing in traveling exhibitions of their respective arts. In some cases, the exhibits come from other museums around the country; at other times, they are works from abroad that have never been to the United States. These are small, intimate galleries that put on single-theme, narrowly focused shows, such as “Chinese Baskets” or “Spectacular Helmets of Japan.”

The Cloisters

Fort Tryon Park. Tuesday to Sunday, 9:30 to 5:15 p.m.; closed Monday. Admission: $8 adults (suggested), $4 students, children under 12 free. Tel. (212) 923-3700.


Standing at the northernmost point of Manhattan, the Cloisters is the Metropolitan Museum’s medieval wing, recreating a sense of the Middle Ages through both the objects and the building itself. Both the land and the building were donated to the city in 1930 by John D. Rockefeller Jr., and it opened as a museum eight years later. The building itself is modern but styled as a medieval monastery with a 12th century Spanish apse, parts of Romanesque chapels and other monuments and structures from European buildings incorporated into its design. The earliest objects date from AD 31, and the rest is a progression that continues to the 15th century. Displays include furniture, crosses, statues of Christian martyrs, illuminated manuscripts and stained glass. The 14th century Franco-Flemish “unicorn” tapestries are what everyone remembers and talks about.

The Hispanic Society of America

Broadway between 155 and 156 streets. Tuesday to Saturday, 10 a.m. to 4:30 p.m.; Sunday, 1 to 4 p.m.; closed Monday. Admission: free. Tel. (212) 926-2234.

The society operates both a reading room--containing more than 100,000 manuscripts and books on Spanish and Portuguese art, history and literature--and a gallery of paintings, sculpture and decorative arts. “Hispanic” here means the Iberian peninsula, not Latin or South America. Works reflect the culture of Iberia from prehistoric days to the present. Among the most notable artworks in the collection are Goya’s “The Duchess of Alba,” El Greco’s “Pieta” and Velazquez’s “Portrait of a Little Girl,” but there are also illuminated manuscripts, statues of Christian figures and various household objects spanning several centuries.

International Center

of Photography

Fifth Avenue at 94th Street. Tuesday, 11 a.m. to 8 p.m.; Wednesday to Sunday, 11 a.m. to 6 p.m.; closed Monday. Admission: $4 adults; $2.50 seniors and students. Tel. (212) 860-1777.

Since its founding almost 25 years ago, ICP has built a collection of prints by photographers both famous and not so well known, and maintained a robust exhibition schedule that shows photography as a fine art and as a means of documenting moments in history. Celebrity photographers, street photographers, landscape photographers and avant-garde artists who work with cameras all get their due.

Museum of American Folk Art

2 Lincoln Square. Tuesday to Sunday, 11:30 a.m. to 7:30 p.m.; closed Monday. Admission: free. Tel. (212) 977-7298.


The museum’s purpose is to highlight the work of self-taught American craftspeople from the 17th century to the present. The collection includes paintings, sculpture, hooked rugs, handmade toys, weather vanes and embroidery. Most folk art is anonymous., Most of the creators of these pieces never signed their works because they considered them merely hobbies.

Museum of the City

of New York

Fifth Avenue at 103rd Street. Wednesday to Saturday, 10 a.m. to 5 p.m.; Sunday, 1 to 5 p.m.; closed Monday and Tuesday. Admission: $5 adults; $4 students and seniors; $10 families. Tel. (212) 534-1672.

Basically, if it was made in New York City, took place there or is even a picture of something that did, it may well be in this collection. From the utensils of the city’s early Dutch settlers to the playbills of recent Broadway shows, this museum’s massive collection of things has something for every period in New York’s history.

There are, for instance, more than half a million prints, paintings and photographs of sites in New York or of famous residents, as well as abundant examples of porcelain, furniture and silver. The theater collection includes costumes, props and wigs, and there are also artifacts that tell of the city’s architectural and political history. Without a doubt, however, the most fun is to be found in the toy collection, where both new and old dolls, dollhouses and doll furniture are displayed along with antique and contemporary toys. In some special exhibitions, it is even OK to touch.

New-York Historical Society

Central Park West at 77th Street. Wednesday to Sunday, noon to 5 p.m.; closed Monday and Tuesday. Admission: $5 adults; $3 seniors and children 12 and under. Tel. (212) 873-3400.

Why the hyphen? Because everyone seemed to hyphenate New York when the Society was founded in 1804, that’s why. The purpose of the institution hasn’t changed since then: to document the history of New York through its art, literature and ordinary objects. Highlighting the expansive collection are 433 original watercolors painted by John James Audubon for his watercolor series “Birds of America,” oil paintings by Frederick Church, Gilbert Stuart, Charles Willson Peale and his son Rembrandt, as well as political caricatures dating to the 19th century. In addition, there are sculpture, furniture, an outstanding assortment of colonial silver, needlework, shop signs, weather vanes and other examples of folk and decorative arts. There are also countless books, manuscripts, newspapers and maps that show how New York has changed through the years.


National Academy of Design

1083 Fifth Ave. Wednesday to Sunday, noon to 5 p.m., except Friday, noon to 8 p.m.; closed Monday and Tuesday. Admission: $5 adults; $3.50 seniors and students. Tel. (212) 369-4880.

The National Academy of Design was founded (in 1825) because the United States needed someplace for talented people to study art and show their work to the public. At the time, Europe was a de rigueur training ground, leading to a drain of the few artistic resources the young country then had. The rule for new Academy members was that they donate a self-portrait, plus other work later on.

This work has become the museum’s permanent collection, which today numbers more than 1,900 paintings, 250 sculptures and 3,000 drawings and prints. Among the artists represented in the collection are George Bellows, Frederick Church, Thomas Cole, Childe Hassam, Winslow Homer, Thomas Eakins and John Singer Sargent. There are a lot of nifty things to find here, and not only in the art collection. The library contains theoretical treatises on art by John La Farge as well as minutes of meetings in which members discussed then-current topics.

National Museum of

the American Indian

One Bowling Green. Daily 10 a.m. to 5 p.m. except Thursday, 10 a.m. to 8 p.m. Admission: Free. Tel. (212) 825-6700.

With the largest and arguably the best collection of Native American art and artifacts in the country, this museum is a one-stop treasure trove for both the scholar and the just-interested. There are more than 1 million objects on display here, representing various peoples from the Arctic to the tip of South America. Included are quilts of the Plains Indians, Aztec sculpture and even some of the personal possessions of Geronimo and Crazy Horse (who defeated Custer). There are also more than 50,000 photographs of American Indians and their customs, and more recent artwork by painters Fred Kabotie and R.C. Gorman.

New York Public Library

Art, Prints & Photographs

Third Floor, Fifth Avenue at 42nd Street, Room 308. Tuesday to Saturday, 1 to 5:45 p.m.; closed Sunday and Monday. Admission: Free. Tel. (212) 930-0817. (An ID card is required.)


There aren’t just books here. In fact, the library has had a vast collection of artwork, prints and photographs since its founding in 1895. There are approximately 175,000 separate prints, from the 15th century to the present, representing the entire range of printmaking (etching, lithography, silk-screen and woodcuts), with examples from all over the world. Included are nearly the complete works of Impressionists Mary Cassatt and Edouard Manet, and there are also numerous caricatures by Honore Daumier, as well as 125 woodcuts by Japanese master Kitagawa Utamaro. The library has almost 2 million original photographic prints, starting with the earliest daguerreotypes and continuing up to the present. Despite this wealth of material, the galleries of this division are relatively unknown, and one never has to battle a crowd.

One may look up particular prints or artists (as one might search for a book) or ask the staff for help.

The Pierpont Morgan Library

29 East 36th St. Tuesday to Friday, 10:30 a.m. to 5 p.m.; Saturday, 10:30 a.m. to 6 p.m.; Sunday, noon to 6 p.m.; closed Monday, and Sundays in July. Admission: $5 adults; $3 seniors and students. Tel. (212) 685-0008.

Although his name is on a bank, J.P. Morgan (1837-1913) is best known for how he spent money, not saved it. A financier, he began collecting rare books and manuscripts in the mid-1850s. There were so many of them that he had a museum built to house them next to his home on 36th street. Among the works in the collection are almost 5,000 drawings by artists born before 1800, including a wonderful group of prints by Rembrandt, musical and literary manuscripts and numerous books produced before 1501 (when the printing press was invented). In addition, there are paintings by Hans Memling and Lucas Cranach the Elder, as well as an Edward Steichen photograph of the library’s founder--glowering.

South Street Seaport Museum

207 Front St. Monday to Saturday, 10 a.m. to 7 p.m.; Tuesday 10 a.m. to 8 p.m. Admission: $6 adults; $5 seniors; $4 students; $3 children 12 and under. Tel. (212) 748-8600.

In order to preserve the past, people sometimes tend to distort it.

When it first opened in 1967, the South Street Seaport Museum was a low-key place where the story of the port of New York (which, by 1825, handled more maritime traffic than any other port in the country) could be told through pictures and actual ships. Since the early 1970s, however, South Street Seaport has grown to take over an 11-block area and, with the help of Maryland mall developers, the Rouse Co., it has been redeveloped into a busy shopping complex. That’s unfortunate, but the museum’s collection of ships, maritime equipment, maps and relevant artwork has grown enormously, and many of the old 19th century buildings in the area have been restored to the original looks and functions. It’s a particularly good museum for taking the kids.


Studio Museum in Harlem

144 W. 125th St. Wednesday to Friday, 10 a.m. to 5 p.m.; Saturday and Sunday, 1 to 6 p.m.; closed Monday and Tuesday. Admission $5 adults; $3 seniors and students; $1 children under 12. Tel. (212) 864-4500.

Other museums may periodically “celebrate” the achievements of African American artists, but the Studio Museum’s entire purpose is to portray the black experience through its culture, interpreting works in this context and providing a showcase for new talent. Included in the collection are works by Romare Bearden and Jacob Lawrence, as well as several thousand photographs of Harlem life by James VanDerZee. VanDerZee began taking pictures of Harlem in the 1920s, and he continued to do so until his death in the early 1980s. His body of work forms a documentary account of the good and bad times in Harlem, and they are a focus of scholarly inquiry. The museum also has a wide assortment of contemporary sculpture, drawings and prints, as well as early craft items and African artifacts.