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 midsize 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 Rubin Museum of Art houses inspiring pieces that foster a personal connection to the ideas, cultures, and art of Himalayan Asia.
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.
The International Center of Photography
The International Center of Photography (ICP) assembles first-rank exhibitions that explore social and political issues and in the process help spark discussions and debate. With three locations throughout the New York area, including a school and library, media lab, and the museum, 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 Tenement Museum offers guided tours of apartments that recreate immigrant life in the 19th and 20th centuries.
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. The museum unveiled a new exhibit in July 2017 featuring the stories of immigrants who started their lives anew in the Lower East Side following World War II, helping make the neighborhood one of the most diverse in New York.
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 of war over assimilation. In addition to nearly 30,000 unique works of art and ceremonial objects, the museum also offers engaging lectures and performances for kids and adults that explore the Jewish culture and identity.
The Children’s Museum of Manhattan
The Children’s Museum of Manhattan (CMOM) is all about learning by playing. In the EatSleepPlay 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.