Arts & Culture

T&C Travel Guide: New York City’s Most Spectacular Museums

Some of the world’s best art and artifacts can be found at galleries in New York. Indulge in art and fashion at one of the city's many museums.
IMAGE WIKIMEDIA COMMONS, MICHAEL BODYCOMB / THE FRICK COLLECTION, NEW YORK
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The only place one can be simultaneously lost and then found is within a museum’s hallowed walls. Among priceless pieces of art and artifacts from the dawn of civilization is one's personal sense of wonder, which in these modern times is often in short supply. It’s what makes us imagine what could have been when we see the stories woven into grand medieval tapestries or stops us in our tracks when confronted with a canvas of color and movement. At these repositories of knowledge we breathe the same air as objects hundreds or even thousands of years older than us and occupy the same space as installations whose provocative ideas take us well into the future.

What better city for the consummate lover of art than New York, with a cornucopia of museums ranging from grand institutions to hidden Upper East Side treasures that have captured the fascination of locals and travelers for years.

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Being an epicenter of art and fashion, as well as a cosmopolitan enclave where the wealthy are wont to play, the city’s museum scene is rich and thriving. And if you’re tired of shopping and want a dose of culture or a quiet afternoon of contemplation, then the Big Apple’s galleries will surely give you that much-needed dose of magic.  

THE BIGWIGS

If you went to New York and didn’t even get to visit one of its most iconic museums, then did you even go? These gargantuan galleries, whose collections are so big they can’t even be displayed all at once, are definite must-sees in the city that never sleeps. Allot a day or two, don your prettiest outfit, and your comfiest shoes, and immerse yourself in the grandeur and beauty of these remarkable institutions. 

The Metropolitan Museum of Art

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Most definitely the grand dame of New York’s many museums is the Metropolitan Museum of Art, fondly nicknamed the Met. An Upper East Side icon, with steps that have long been associated with Manhattan ‘It girl’ status, it sits imposingly upon Fifth Avenue on what is colloquially known as Museum Mile.

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Opened to the public in 1880, the two-million-square-foot structure is the largest in the U.S., and was conceptualized by its founders as a place to house the world’s best art and artifacts. With objects from every human civilization, representing 5,000 years of history in its collection, it would take more than a day to fully absorb all the beauty it has on display. 

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The Met boasts 17 curatorial departments, which are in charge of the organization’s assortment of around two million objects.

One of the most prominent departments is, of course, The Costume Institute, with its impressive collection of garments and accessories from the 15th century to the present carefully curated and preserved. Each year, on the first Monday of May, socialites and the fashion glitterati converge at the museum in jaw-dropping couture for the Met Gala. Dubbed as ‘the party of the year,’ the black-tie fete christens the Institute’s annual exhibition, which for 2019 was entitled “Camp: Notes on Fashion” and runs until the 8th of September. Underscored by Susan Sontag’s 1964 essay on the topic, the exhibition highlights the origins of this exuberant aesthetic, from its origins on the fringes of society to its present position as a veritable influence on mainstream culture.

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Previous exhibitions, all of which have been well-received, include Alexander McQueen: Savage Beauty in 2011, China: Through the Looking Glass in 2015, and Heavenly Bodies: Fashion and Catholic Imagination in 2018, the latter of which attracted more than 1.65 million visitors. 

For more information, visit metmuseum.org.

American Museum of Natural History

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Across Central Park on the Upper West Side, and spanning four city blocks, is the singular marvel that is the American Museum of Natural History. Established in 1869, it houses a most distinguished collection of specimens, fossils and cultural artifacts that tell the story of humanity, from our humble origins to our fascination with space.

Made up of 45 exhibition halls, a library and planetarium, it’s every nature lover’s dream museum and is forever immortalized in pop culture by the film Night at the Museum which is set at the AMNH. And if that isn’t enough, then ogle the museum’s piece de resistance, a giant Tyrannosaurus Rex fossil that stands imposingly in the dinosaur hall. 

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For more information, visit amnh.org.

Brooklyn Museum

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The Brooklyn Museum is New York’s third largest art institution, with an extraordinary collection that rivals that of the Met.

Housed in a beautiful Beaux-Arts building at the edge of Prospect Park, the museum has its fair share of modern masterpieces from the likes of Dennis Hopper and Norman Rockwell, as well as Egyptian antiques, and everything in between.

There’s also an entire wing devoted to feminist art, where Judy Chicago’s The Dinner Party has been on display since 1980. Fashion lovers will also love its current exhibition, entitled Pierre Cardin: Future Fashion, which will run from July 20 until the end of 2019.

So, if you are looking for a big museum to explore minus the big touristy crowds, then this grand gallery that’s a little off the beaten track is definitely the place to go. 

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For more information, visit brooklynmuseum.org

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THE GILDED AGE GEMS

Take a step back to a time when New York was young and America’s most wealthy snapped up colossal properties with which to build their stately homes, decorating them with every manner of expensive art possible. And while that intoxicating age of elegance has long passed, you can still catch a whiff of it today by visiting one of many mansions-turned-museums that showcase the gorgeous collections of some of the most philanthropic titans of industry. 

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The Frick Collection

Above: The Frick Collection, New York, Fifth Avenue Garden and façade with magnolias in bloom; Below: The Garden Court
Photo by MICHAEL BODYCOMB / THE FRICK COLLECTION, NEW YORK.

Nothing can quite prepare you for the feeling you get when you enter the Frick, the gorgeous 20th-century mansion that used to be the home of industrialist Henry Clay Frick and his family.

As you drift from room to room serenely admiring the paintings of some of Europe’s greatest masters, you get the impression of being a guest of this palatial estate. Here paintings by Goya, Vermeer, Rembrandt, and Van Dyck hang alongside exquisite French furniture from the 1700s or fine Sevres porcelain.

The museum is decorated and its artworks arranged in pretty much the same fashion as when the Frick family had lived in the manor, offering visitors a time capsule of sorts into this luxurious bygone era. 

One favorite is the light and airy Fragonard Room, which houses Jean-Honoré Fragonard’s The Progress of Love, and has been meticulously decorated just to fully showcase these artworks. These four large rococo paintings were initially commissioned by Comtesse du Barry, the last mistress of King Louis XV for her residence, and was acquired by Frick in 1915. 

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Above: The dining room; Below: The Fragonard room
Photo by MICHAEL BODYCOMB / THE FRICK COLLECTION, NEW YORK.

A consummate lover of art, Henry Clay Frick intended his home and his collection to become a museum after his time. His generosity and impeccable taste have become the cornerstone of this beautiful institution, each visit which will surely inspire and transform. 

For more information, visit frick.org

Neue Galerie

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Located on a quiet block on the Upper East Side, the eternally elegant Neue Galerie (German for “New Gallery”) is a museum dedicated to German and Austrian art from the 19th century.

People come for the mesmerizing Gustav Klimt masterpiece, the Portrait of Adele Bloch-Bauer, but stay for the many gorgeous iterations of both fine and decorative arts collected by its founders, art dealer Serge Sabarsky, and businessman and philanthropist Ronald Lauder.

The luxurious building itself is a sight to behold, a Gilded Age Beaux-Arts mansion built in 1914 by architects Carrere and Hastings, who also built the New York Public Library. After a quiet afternoon of art appreciation, head over to the museum’s Café Sabarsky, sure to transport you to Vienna from a bygone era. 

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For more information, visit neuegalerie.org

The Morgan Library and Museum

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A library that looks like it came straight out of a fairy tale, with floor to ceiling books on walnut and bronze shelves punctuated with displays of historical treasures, the Morgan Library and Museum is sure to make any bibliophile swoon.

It was once the private collection of financier Pierpont Morgan (of J.P. Morgan fame) who voraciously amassed an almost encyclopedic assortment of rare manuscripts, old master drawings, art and artifacts. The collection boasts the Lindau Gospels, 23 copies of the original Declaration of Independence, Mozart’s handwritten score of the Haffner Symphony, thousands of ancient Near Eastern cylinder seals, and more. He was once known to have said, “No price is too high for an object of unquestioned beauty and known authenticity.” In fact, at the time of his passing, almost two-thirds of his fortune could be attributed to his collection, the latter of which became the framework of the museum’s displays. 

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Designed in the early 1900s to resemble an Italian style palazzo with rich opulent interiors and an imposing marble façade, Pierpont Morgan’s library has since expanded to become the museum and learning institution it is today. A visit to this tranquil yet majestic institution is sure to leave you with a beautiful impression of the old world elegance of New York City. 

For more information, visit themorgan.org

THE MODERNIST MUSES

“When art is made new, we are made new with it,” said art critic John Russell. Perhaps such is our fascination with contemporary creations, whose ethos demands change, embraces spectacle, and celebrates the avant-garde. With its brash, iconoclastic ways, it often makes us question if it is even art to begin with. If you crave such modern aesthetics, then add these museums to your New York itinerary. 

Solomon R. Guggenheim Museum

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Definitely one of the temples of modern art is the Guggenheim Museum, which was founded by mining tycoon Solomon R. Guggenheim to exhibit his growing collection of paintings.

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The iconic nautilus-shaped structure was designed by architect Frank Lloyd Wright, and is one of his eight buildings that has just been added to UNESCO World Heritage. Wright’s groundbreaking and organic design features a long ramp that spirals upwards for a quarter of a mile, around a central rotunda and finished off with a glass ceiling. Here, patrons can peruse works by Kandinsky, Chagall, Picasso, Cezanne, Gauguin and the like while ensconced in this mesmerizing space. 

The Guggenheim in New York is incidentally also a part of a network of museums, with other premier locations in Venice, Bilbao and Abu Dhabi. 

For more information, visit guggenheim.org

Whitney Museum of American Art

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Established in 1930, the museum gets its name from its founder, socialite and art patron Gertrude Vanderbilt Whitney. The Whitney focuses on American art from the 20th and 21st centuries, with a particular emphasis on the work of living artists, the latter of which was one of its founder’s advocacies.

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After more than 50 years uptown at what is now the Met Breuer, it moved downtown to the Meatpacking district, which is also adjacent to other hipster haunts Chelsea and Greenwich Village. Designed by architect Renzo Piano, the new Whitney boasts a much bigger structure to display its ever-expanding collection which includes works by Alexander Calder, Georgia O’Keefe and Cindy Sherman, among others. And if you’re done perusing then art in the galleries or picturesque outdoor exhibition spaces, take a gander along the High Line, or through the area’s many galleries, shops, and bars for a quintessential New York experience.  

For more information, visit whitney.org

MoMA

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The Museum of Modern Art in midtown Manhattan has long been synonymous with the best of contemporary and modern art. And while it has always been a cultural juggernaut, its current renovation and expansion promises its fans a reinvigorated space, and a perspective on art that is more diverse and global.

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Visitors can look forward to a museum that will not only feature fan favorites in its collection, but will also highlight works by women and minorities. So, while you can still catch a glimpse of Picasso’s Les Demoiselles d’Avignon or Vincent van Gogh’s The Starry Night, expect to be pleasantly surprised by the creations of emerging names as well. 

Its $450 million overhaul will add more than 40,000 square feet of gallery space for the museum’s permanent collection, as well as create an area for performance art, among other innovations. The revamp will have the museum taking a more interdisciplinary approach to its curation, with paintings, sculptures, and photography featured alongside performance art. Set to open its doors on October 21, 2019 after a four-month closure, we can’t wait to see what the new MoMA will have in store. 

For more information, visit.moma.org

The Met Breuer

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Opened in 2016 on what was formerly the Whitney Museum, the Met Breuer is the Met Museum’s brainchild dedicated to modern art from the 20th and 21st centuries. Designed by preeminent Bauhaus architect Marcel Breuer, the landmark building was renovated prior to the museum’s opening, with care as to preserve its creator’s bold vision and his intent for space. Sitting proudly on Madison Avenue, it allows visitors a more intimate interaction with the museum’s more contemporary pieces through its extensive collection, as well as special exhibitions, commissions, and performances. 

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For more information, visit metmuseum.org/

THE FASHIONISTA

New York has long been synonymous with fashion with Manhattan’s Garment District at the heart of it all. With numerous boutiques, showrooms, ateliers, and design schools rubbing sartorial elbows on the island, it’s definitely the most stylish place to see and be seen. And amid the bustling energy of creativity is one of the world’s premier fashion museums, the Museum at FIT. 

The Museum at FIT 

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Dubbed by Michael Kors as ‘the fashion insider’s museum,’ The Museum at FIT is a forward-thinking institution that is dedicated to the study and preservation of the art of fashion.

It was initially founded in 1969 to support the educational programs of the Fashion Institute of Technology, but has since evolved into a force all its own. With more than 50,000 garments meticulously preserved, including works by Alaia, Balenciaga, Chanel, Dior, Charles James, and Yves Saint Laurent to name a few, as well as pieces the 18th century, it veritably catalogs more than 250 years of fashion history. And if you’re a shoe lover, then the 4,000 pairs it has in its closets should be enough to make your mouth water. 

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The Museum at FIT’s numerous exhibitions allows viewers an unconventional glimpse to fashion that's both intellectual and easily enjoyable. Spearheaded by its curator and director, Dr. Valerie Steele, MFIT recently celebrated its golden anniversary with a show entitled Exhibitionism: 50 Years of the Museum at FIT, which featured 80 noteworthy looks from more than 200 past exhibitions.

Aside from organizing events, the museum is also a valuable resource for both students and educators at FIT who are able to study garments up close. Hamish Bowles recalls, “so many great fashion designers now recall their student days and the opportunity of being able to get up close to the cut and finishing and the use of fabric. Those are just invaluable things…” And the best part? Entrance is free.

For more information, visit fitnyc.edu/museum/index.php

THE OUTSTANDING OUTLIERS

One can often find the best discoveries when going off the beaten path. The same is true for these secluded museums that thrive away from the hustle and bustle of Manhattan. If you’re craving a quieter and more eclectic experience, then a visit these places will not disappoint. 

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The Met Cloisters

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Located in upper Manhattan, overlooking the Hudson River, the Met Cloisters is the branch of the Met dedicated to the art and architecture of medieval Europe.

Its growing collection of tapestries, illuminated manuscripts, stained glass windows, and sculptures in itself is impressive and offers us a rare glimpse to that storied time. But what is most remarkable is the museum’s structure itself, interwoven into which are four medieval French cloisters, shipped stone by stone to New York in the earlier part of the 20th century. Walking around these historic walkways, one can imagine what life might have been like in an abbey hundreds of years ago, which is truly a rare esoteric experience for these fast-paced times. And if that weren’t enough, the museum is surrounded by beautiful gardens whose plantings and designs were inspired by documents and art from the Middle Ages. 

For more information, visit metmuseum.org

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MoMA Ps1

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Nestled in Long Island City, Queens, MoMA Ps1 is the younger, hipper cousin of the MoMA. Dedicated to site-specific art, it functions as a venue for installations, exhibitions and performances rather than a collecting museum. The venue used to be a school building, hence the name Ps1 or Public School 1. It’s not structured and its uninhibited approach to art allows for creative expression wherever it may lead, and lends to a truly invigorating experience. 

For more information, visit momaps1.org

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