New York City’s Boutique Museums: 7 Jewels in the City

Great art collections and other treasures found only in smaller New York museums.

New York City's Metropolitan Museum of Art (The Met) and the Museum of Modern Art (MOMA) deserve all the media love they get, but New York City has more than 100 small and mid-size museums, too. Many of these places — boutique museums, you might call them — would rank as major attractions in smaller cities, what with their world-class art, live programs and cultural/historical treasures. Here's a short list of Manhattan museums with modest proportions but major offerings.   

The Morgan Library & Museum
Three of America's finest rooms are in The Morgan Library & Museum: the library, with its frescoed ceilings and stained glass; Pierpont Morgan's study, warmed by red brocade wallpaper and Renaissance-era religious paintings; and the modern Gilbert Court, a soaring glass atrium with a cafe. The collection amazes, too: portraits by Renaissance master Hans Memling, medieval Bibles featuring intricate illustrations, three(!) Gutenberg Bibles displaying the first-ever typeset words, life masks of George Washington and Benjamin Franklin, and manuscripts by the likes of Mark Twain, Jane Austen and Franz Liszt, whose scores look as frenzied as they sound. If you owned this library, you'd never leave the place.

The Frick Collection
Even Henry Clayton Frick's sprawling mansion looks modest up against the Met, just blocks away on Fifth Avenue. Nevertheless, the Frick is a serious contender for the title of best art museum in North America. Walking through its galleries, you’ll recognize masterpiece after masterpiece from your college art textbook: Rembrandt's pensive Self-Portrait, Vermeer's quiet Mistress and Maid, Whistler's paintings of beautiful women, and on and on. The Frick is a Greatest Hits of Western Art: Every work is stunning — no filler, no fat.

The International Center of Photography
With nearly 7,000 square feet of galleries, the International Center of Photography assembles first-rank exhibitions ranging from work by Diane Arbus or Wang Quingsong to collections of photojournalism or altered images — even video. ICP gets you excited about how stimulating and varied photography can be — and you leave with eureka insights about how to make your own shots better. P.S.: The gift shop is New York’s definitive photography bookstore.

The Rubin Museum of Art
The Rubin Museum of Art is generally considered the best museum of Himalayan art in the Western world. It covers not just Tibet and Nepal, but swaths of China, India, Mongolia and Bhutan. The permanent collection trumps all, with its Gateway to Himalayan Art (priceless works that in rotation highlight the wonders and fundamentals of Himalayan art) and the Masterworks: Jewels of the Collection gallery with bronze statues and bold-hued, detailed paintings.

Tenement Museum
Housed in an 1863 Lower East Side building that sheltered successive waves of immigrants, Tenement Museum docents lead visitors to apartments preserved from different decades. The curators have researched the lives of the apartments' occupants, so not only are the restorations meticulous, but the stories told are about the actual inhabitants. Meet Mrs. Gumpertz, the abandoned wife from Germany; the Moores from Ireland; Mr. Katz from Russia; and the Depression-era Baldizzi family. Profoundly moving, no matter where you come from.

Jewish Museum of New York
Drawing from a vast collection of ancient, medieval, and modern art and artifacts, the Jewish Museum's permanent exhibits pose a question about the Diaspora: How — and how well — have Jews maintained their identity for 2,000+ years while also needing/wanting to fit in with more dominant cultures? It's a critical issue, and not just for Jews. Like the permanent exhibits, many of the temporary shows explore the tug o' war over assimilation, especially those shows focusing on artists like impressionist Camille Pissarro, photography pioneer Alfred Stieglitz, and modernists Man Ray, Modigliani and Mark Rothko.

The Children's Museum of Manhattan
The Children's Museum of Manhattan (CMOM) is all about learning by playing. In the EatPlaySleep exhibit, kids wander through giant “intestines” with touch-screen videos about digestion, or they pedal exercise machines that tell them how long it will take to burn off that pizza (too long). Rooms for preschoolers feature blocks, pulleys and levers, art materials, a play bus (with a steering wheel at every seat, because — face it — every child wants to drive), and a Dora and Diego adventure featuring the popular Nickelodeon characters. CMOM also offers organized activities and shows. No wonder Manhattan parents take their kids there every week.

Ed Wetschler, Executive Editor at Tripatini.com, has contributed to The New York Times and other major publications.

Photography SuperStock, courtesy of the Frick Collection, courtesy of the International Center for Photography/Christian Erroi, courtesy of the Rubin Museum of Art/David De Armas, Keiko Niwa, courtesy of the Jewish Museum of New York, courtesy of the Children's Museum of Manhattan

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