Sunday, August 22, 2010

NY Public Library for the Performing Arts / Rose Museum

5/15/2010, Saturday

Rose Museum ……………………………………...…. 20 min

New York Public Library for the Performing Arts … Free
Rose Museum ………………………..……...………. Free

The New York Public Library (NYPL) is not like other libraries. The first difference you notice is its size. As we’ve come to expect from all things in New York, the library is really big. With 50 million items (20 million of which are books), it’s among the world’s largest libraries, ranking with the Library of Congress, Bibliothèque nationale de France, and the British Library. The second difference is its collection, consisting of more than standard library fare, with outstanding historical and research materials such as Jefferson's copy of the Declaration of Independence, ancient maps from 15th century Florence, and Columbus’s first letters back to Spain describing the new world.

It’s not just the collection that’s large; the NYPL system consists of 87 individual libraries spread out over Manhattan, the Bronx and Staten Island. We’d highly recommend a visit to the “main branch” as a great stop on any NYC tour. It’s an impossible-to-miss landmark Beaux-Arts building on Fifth Avenue (see picture above), with huge lions on either side of the marble columned facade and an upstairs reading room as grand as any European palace. It’s iconic enough to be featured in movies from “Ghostbusters” to “Sex In the City.” However, it’s not a museum, so that’s not where we went today.

In addition to the 81 lending libraries and the Andrew Heiskell Braille and Talking Book Library for the blind, NYPL has 4 non-lending research libraries: the Humanities and Social Sciences Library; the Schomburg Center for Research in Black Culture; the Science, Industry and Business Library; and the New York Public Library for the Performing Arts. This last library is situated in a prime location within Lincoln Center (see picture at right), between the famous Juilliard School and the home of the Metropolitan Opera. It houses one of the worlds most extensive collections of materials on the performing arts, and is particularly known for its non-book materials, such as historic recordings, videotapes, autographed manuscripts, correspondence, sheet music, stage designs, press clippings, programs, posters and photographs.

A few times a year, the librarians at the New York Public Library for the Performing Arts pull a few things out of the collection and exhibit them in a small space set aside from the library stacks. We’re still not sure if it’s technically a museum, but due to the fact that most of the collection is in media format (not books), it certainly makes for some entertaining exhibits. Just finishing up now is an expose on W. C. Fields (“The Peregrinations & Pettifoggery of W. C. Fields”), featuring his comic radio broadcasts, diagrams of his famous juggling and billiards acts, numerous photos and lots of film clips. While we were visiting, the exhibit was The Jazz Loft Project,” about a more mysterious and haunting subject.

In 1957, celebrated photographer W. Eugene Smith quit his job at Life magazine, moved out of the home he shared with his wife and four children in a charming village in Westchester County, and into a dilapidated five-story loft building at 821 Sixth Avenue in New York City’s wholesale flower district. He wired the space for sound and furnished it with pianos and drum sets. For the next 8 years, this loft served as the late night haunt of NYC’s jazz scene, playing hosts to the biggest names of the age (Charles Mingus, Zoot Sims, Bill Evans, and Thelonious Monk) and countless underground characters. 

Smith obsessively documented events in the loft, taking 740 reel-to-reel tape recordings (approx. 4000 hours) and nearly 40,000 photographs, but always setting himself apart. Paul felt he was the muse of the beat generation, bearing witness to the rise of New York jazz, and perhaps forming the catalyst for what elevated the scene to greatness. Major figures to minor players, all did their time in the loft and are captured forever on his tapes.

Yet the “Jazz Loft Project” isn’t about the obsession of one man, but two. Sam Stephenson of the Duke Center for Documentary Studies spent 13 years transcribing these tapes (to the tune of half a million dollars) and researching the events of the loft. His curation of the tapes and photographs made the exhibit possible. 

Walking into the gallery set the mood. The room was dimly light and all around played the haunting strains of jazz, recorded from the loft. The room’s black glass walls held stark black and white photos of late night jam sessions and conversations at dimly lit parties, everyone with a drink in their hand, a cigarette in their mouth and an instrument at the ready. It seemed as if there’s never been an era that captured cool quite like the 50’s. At the end of the room, hidden in a dim nook, was a wall of TV’s and headphones set up to listen to the interviews of the surviving musicians, the NPR broadcast about the project, or the tapes themselves. Both Paul and I found the exhibit to be a fascinating documentation of the merging of madness, obsession and music.

In the same performing arts theme, Paul and I also saw the Rose Museum today, the museum chronicling the history of Carnegie Hall (see picture at left). The Rose Museum is a tiny place, tucked up a narrow stairway in a hard to find corner of the great hall. It exhibits a small collection of brochures and memorabilia from the famous musicians and tenants of the hall. On one wall, a flat screen TV shows a live broadcast of whatever is happening on the main stage. While we were there it played a rehearsal of what appeared to be a Chinese opera/dramatic musical, all done in plain clothes with scripts in hand and the actors stopping frequently to try a scene in different ways. I hadn’t seen a rehearsal since grade school and it was fun to watch, despite the fact that I don’t speak Chinese.

Our favorite parts of the Rose Museum were about the history of this iconic place, including the opening of Carnegie Hall in 1891 with the American debut of Pyotr Ilyich Tchaikovsky. “Tchaikovsky’s opening-night appearance set an auspicious precedent for the array of classical musicians and conductors for whom the Hall would become the essential venue in the United States. Henceforth, a success at Carnegie Hall would be the litmus test of greatness.” We also learned about how the hall was nearly destroyed in 1960 by developers, but saved at the eleventh hour by a cadre of musicians and politicians headed by Isaac Stern. From this story and others, it was clear that many of the musicians who play here develop a deep love of this American icon, and this love has saved Carnegie Hall more than once.

Our take on things: Both the New York Library of the Performing Arts and the Rose Museum delve into the history and culture of performing arts in NYC and both are free, but otherwise they have little resemblance. The New York Library of the Performing Arts features well-researched and atmospheric multi-media exhibits that are well worth the time.  However, definitely check into what’s showing before you go, as subjects vary widely, and you might not find all of them equally fascinating (i.e. past exhibit “The New York Choral Society: The First 50 Years”). The Rose Museum was a much less meaty museum, but this hidden corner of Carnegie Hall might be worth exploring, particularly for lovers of classical music.

Images in this post, from the top: Arthur Taylor, by W. Eugene Smith from the Jazz Loft Project; the facade of the New York Public Library main branch on 5th Avenue; section of Lincoln Center; four photographs by W. Eugene Smith from the Jazz Loft Project (Vic Dickenson and Pee Wee Russell, Thelonious Monk and Town Hall band, Zoot Sims on saxophone, and David X. Younng's canvases and Jimmey Raney on guitar) exterior of Carnegie Hall; self portrait caricature of the tenor Enrico Caruso from the Rose Museum collection; Isadora Duncan's scarf from the Rose Museum collection; Untitled, by W. Eugene Smith from the Jazz Loft Project.


  1. Need to correct you on something: NYPL only has branches in the Bronx, Manhattan and Staten Island. Brooklyn and Queens have their own separate library systems. This is a common mistake made by both (some) native New Yorkers and newbies alike.

  2. Wow! We're honored to have our first fact correction. I checked the NYPL website and you are indeed correct; NYPL does NOT have branches in Brooklyn and Queens. We'll make the correction in the blog shortly. Thank you for caring about our accuracy.

  3. Mike and I toured the NYPL and were very impressed with the ornate ceilings, beautiful woodwork on the walls and all that marble. It's truly a gorgeous building that rivals those in Europe! Lynn

  4. You neglected to mention your visit to the Museum of Biblical Art, so as your penance I will leave you with a quote from Augustine to ponder: "Every good and true Christian should understand that wherever he may find truth, it is his Lord's." - Mike

  5. Being the first blog I've read, ovbiously a very consistent and comprehensive run-down of the facilities, it's history and their attractions.

    But what may already exist that I've not been exposed to?

    Something perhaps from you both that gives a personal glimpse to your opinions. A scale so to speak, but something that projects your value of each museam. This would hold value to help people prioritize their interests if tourism is involved. And the idea could spawn. Or... is that not the intent...?

    My 2 Cents, Love it,

    Your Brother

  6. I'm impressed by Enrico Caruso's self portrait caricature. He's captured his look with no flattering avoidance of the fat under his chin, or the thin comb-over. I wish I had the artistic capabilities to whip off a self portrait caricature as part of my signature, and I wish I had the illusion-free view of myself sufficient for it to be accurate, like Caruso's, rather than skewed to skip the less flattering aspects.
    Did they have any other sketches from Caruso?