New York: Beyond the Met

By Bronwyn Sell

The best under-the-radar galleries and museums.

New York is home to many impressive museums and galleries.
New York is home to many impressive museums and galleries.

If you're visiting New York for the first (second, third ...) time, the Met, the Guggenheim, the Museum of Natural History and MoMA will keep you gainfully employed for a week or three. But beyond their imposing facades you'll find dozens of museums and galleries that are lesser known, less crowded, often less expensive, and just as intriguing.

1. The Frick Collection

The perfect place to channel Edith Wharton's The Age of Innocence. As fascinating for its glimpse of how the other half used to live as for its art, this neoclassical museum is a serene spot to spend a few hours. It's said to be one of New York's few remaining mansions from the Gilded Age, though it was completed a little later, in 1914, for Henry Clay Frick, who is kindly remembered as an industrialist, and much less kindly as a robber baron.

It houses an impressive collection of antique furniture and European old masters, including works by Rembrandt, Vermeer, Gainsborough and Goya, as well as grand gardens and courtyards.

2. The Met Cloisters

A lesser-known outpost of the Met, the Cloisters is a medieval art museum housed in a baffling folly of a building designed to recreate a medieval European monastery. It was built in the late 1930s from columns and arches with frescoes and other artistic and architectural features salvaged stone by stone from dilapidated European abbeys, monasteries and the like. With medieval-style gardens, Hudson River views and set in a peaceful location within the lush uptown Fort Tryon park, it's an oxygenating escape from 21st century craziness of the city.

3. The Morgan Library and Museum

A sanctuary off Madison Ave in Midtown, this treasure trove began life in the early 20th century as the neoclassical library and museum of financier and banker JP Morgan.

It has been expanded since into an elegant patchwork of architectural styles, and houses a mind-blowing collection of art, rare books and manuscripts, and ancient, mostly bookish, artefacts. The centrepiece is a sumptuous vaulted Italian Renaissance-style library, still called "Mr Morgan's Library". A bibliophile's dream.

4. The Lower East Side Tenement Museum

If all that extravagance and folly has left you feeling a little nauseous, head to the Lower East Side to experience what the Gilded Age (and beyond) was like without the gilt. The Tenement Museum at 97 Orchard St recreates the life and work of New York's working-class immigrants from the 1860s to the 1930s.

The museum is a five-storey tenement building that housed about 7000 people over those decades. By 1935 it'd fallen into such disrepair that the tenants were evicted and much of the building was sealed, effectively creating a time capsule that remained undisturbed until 1988, when the idea for the museum was born.

Today, its rooms are staged to tell the stories and struggles of some of the people who lived there.

5. The Museum at FIT

From 18th century corsetry to Tom Ford for Gucci, from fifth century textiles to Vivienne Westwood, this is a museum for fashion fans to drool over. (But mind you don't drip on the Manolos!) The Museum at FIT is the showpiece of the Fashion Institute of Technology in Chelsea, and displays a regularly refreshed selection of clothing and accessories, with a focus on contemporary fashion. Free entry.

6. MOMA PS-1

The lobby of MOMA PS1 gallery in New York. Photo / Martin Seck
The lobby of MOMA PS1 gallery in New York. Photo / Martin Seck

Earn your avant-garde credentials (or just scratch your head) at the hippest of hip exhibition spaces, in a converted century-old schoolhouse in Queens. For those who think a bare lightbulb in an empty room at the Guggenheim is just tres obvious, MoMA PS-1 prides itself in displaying the world's most experimental art. In a boiler room in the basement, for instance, you can muse over a square drawn in crayon on a cinderblock wall. It's called Crayola Square.

In summer, check out their Saturday courtyard concerts, featuring experimental music to lose your mind to. (And because I know you're about to Google it, the PS-1 in the name means "public school number one", a reference to its building's origin. And MoMA, of course, stands for Museum of Modern Art, with which it's affiliated.)

7. The Museum of the Moving Image

An homage to screen time, this is one of New York's most cerebrally accessible museums. It's no self-important ode to silent movies and dusty Kinetoscopes, though it does cover the history of screen entertainment. At the moment, for instance, it has an installation of GIFs, and an exhibition of video arcade games from the '70s to the '90s - and you get to play them! Frogger, Asteroids, Space Invaders ... An extra 10,000-point jackpot for anyone who remembers Magnavox Odyssey. As you'd expect, they host regular film screenings. It's in Astoria, Queens.

8. Cooper Hewitt, Smithsonian Design Museum

Like the Cloisters and the Frick Collection, this museum is worth visiting for its architecture and garden alone. It is accommodated in a princely Georgian mansion in the Upper East Side, which was built in 1903 by industrialist and philanthropist Andrew Carnegie.

Cooper Hewitt Museum, in New York. Photo / Alejandro
Cooper Hewitt Museum, in New York. Photo / Alejandro

These days, it's an ode to a quarter of a millennium of creative design — architecture, decorative arts, jewellery, marketing, industry, wallpaper, furniture, ceramics, digital ...

9. Chelsea's galleries

Though soaring rents are said to be threatening Chelsea's gallery scene — as happened in SoHo in the 1990s — it's still one of America's most thriving art neighbourhoods. Switch on Google Maps, start at the new riverside Whitney Museum of American Art (technically in the Meatpacking District) and head north, climbing on and off the High Line raised walkway to explore the many small (and free) galleries, from the David Zwirner on West 19th Street up to the SVA Chelsea on West 26th.

10. Brooklyn Museum

In any other city, this art museum would be a blockbuster. In New York, it's overshadowed by its Manhattan sister, the Met. Yet it has an international collection of 1.5 million works, and one of the world's best displays of Egyptian antiquities and American art. It's housed in a grand late-19th century neoclassical building and has a kooky sculpture garden filled with architectural features salvaged from old New York buildings. Entry by donation of $16. If the garden doesn't provide enough respite to let the cultural overload settle, the Brooklyn Botanic Gardens are next door.

CHECKLIST

Getting there: American Airlines flies from Auckland to New York via LAX.

Further information: See nycgo.com.

- NZ Herald

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