Monday, October 18, 2010

Museum of Arts and Design

Landscape I, by Levi van Veluw
5/15/2010 Saturday, continued
MUSEUM: Museum of Arts and Design
TIME: 1.25 hrs
COST: $15 each

Museum of Arts and Design
The Museum of Arts and Design exhibits contemporary art, but with a twist.  It focuses on the art and design of hand-made "crafts," exhibiting objects made primarily in 1 of the 5 traditional craft materials (clay, glass, wood, metal, and fiber).  I thought the twist really worked for the museum, making it stand out from the other contemporary galleries we’ve seen.  The art was applied and approachable, and exhibits had a 3-dimensional and sculptural feel.  Paul disagreed.  He thought the limitation to 5 materials was a gimmick that the museum didn't really stick to.  Also, he felt that the museum was either arts OR design; many of the design exhibits didn't work as art, and the art exhibits didn’t work as design.  He liked it when pieces hit that “sweet spot” and combined both, but felt that was rare.  We’ll leave it too the reader (and museum-goer) to decide for themselves.

Untitled, by Shokosai Hayakawa
Sagittarius, by Shen Shaomin
If the focus on crafts and craft materials is a gimmick, at least the museum comes by it honestly.  For 46 years it has exhibited the work of American craftspeople, first as the Museum of Contemporary Crafts, then the American Craft Museum.  Its founder and patroness, Aileen Osborn Webb, sought to bring awareness to the artistry and beauty of handmade objects in an age of machine-made products.  Today, the museum has broadened its scope and includes both traditional crafts (e.g. baskets and pottery, see example at left), as well as objects made more for their expressive and conceptual content (i.e. art, see example at right).  

In 2002, the museum moved into a modern 9 story building on the famous Columbus Circle, facing the southwest corner of Central Park.  We were lucky enough to walk in just as the (free) guided tour began and got extensive explanations of the exhibits, which was much appreciated.  The guide followed what we've come to realize is the preferred mode of museum viewing: starting at the top and working down.  We’d recommend taking the stairs at this museum, as there were installations in the stairwells, such as blown glass goblets and painted murals.

Cauda Equina, by Keith Bentley
The top floor is dedicated to open studios, with young artists actively working on projects.  While we were visiting, there was a woman cobbling bizarre shoes and a group of people putting together a bicycle made entirely out of bamboo.  (The next thing in renewable resources?)  According to the guide, the next two floors down were dedicated to the “fiber” part of the museum, with fiber interpreted as anything organic.  The exhibit was called “Dead or Alive,” and presented the works of 30 different artists who work in organic materials that were once part of living organisms.

Skull, by Jan Fabre
It was an interesting collection, high on the ick factor but fascinating, like a particularly bizarre insect.  There were fanciful skeletons of extinct or mythical creatures made entirely from chicken bones from fast food dinners (I shudder to picture the artist’s cholesterol levels), a delicate chandelier of lit dandelion puffs, a shaggy horse-like taxidermy animal made from the manes of slaughtered horses (picture above), abstract sculptures made of pigeon feathers, a motorcycle with a cow skeleton frame (picture below), a suit of sticks, and lots of things made from dead bugs, including dried butterfly wallpaper, a beetle casing skull (picture at right), and a silk worm cocoon chandelier.
Mad Cow Motorcycle, by Billie Grace Lynn

Tides, by Ferne Jacob
Kuskokwim, by Fran Reed
The next floor down contained the clay and wood exhibits, showing an odd collection of 1960’s semi-abstract ceramic sculptures and a number of baskets.  Most of the baskets were non-functional and clearly meant to be modern artistic statements, such as the baskets made of coiled thread (picture at left) or dried fish (picture at right).  I enjoyed the exhibit, feeling it stretched and challenged the idea of what a basket was, but Paul felt these impractical containers had lost the essence of what a basket was.  According to Paul, “If you can’t put something in a basket, it’s not a basket.”
Wedding Neckpiece, Berber, Siwa Oasis, Egypt;  Miao Neckrings, China; Pair of Anklets, Upper Egypt

The lowest exhibition floor was entirely devoted to metal.  There was a section on the jewelry of tribal peoples in North Africa, India, and Southeast Asia.  Most of the pieces looked heavy and uncomfortable, prized less for beauty and more as a show of wealth, used for trading or as a transfer of wealth in dowries.  It made for an interesting commentary on the history and practicality of jewelry.  The rest of this floor harbored a massive collection of bicycles in the exhibit “Bespoke: The Handbuilt Bicycle.”  For once, I agreed with Paul.  Neither or us saw much art of what looked like perfectly normal bicycles, but then we aren’t avid cyclists so we’re probably missing something.

Our take on things:  The Museum of Arts and Design was our second design museum.  The first, the Cooper-Hewitt National Design Museum, focused purely on design and design innovations, and was fairly technical.  The Museum of Arts and Design took a completely different approach and concentrated more on art, often seeming to leave design out of the equation.  We both liked its novel uses of traditional craft materials and felt that the museum’s exploration of art in common objects (and things made from common objects) made for largely interesting and approachable exhibits.  However, Paul would have liked to see more exhibits with both art AND design.

The bar at Robert
One last note:  The top floor of the building is devoted to a posh restaurant by the name of “Robert.”  Robert has a cool retro 60’s vibe with neon pink carpeting and sculpted plastic furniture, but the real reason to go is the view.  The restaurant’s floor to ceiling windows frame a gorgeous panorama of Central Park and the ultra swank condominiums of Park Avenue.  As this was our 4th museum of the day, Paul and I split a 12-dollar pot of tea and relaxed in the bar, ogling the view and watching glamorous young woman in super high New York heels negotiate the treacherously slick tile floors.  (No one fell, but there were some close calls.)  We thought the experience well worth 12 dollars.

Fragile Future 3, by Lonneke Gorkijn and Ralph Nauta
Images in the post, from the top: Landscape I, by Levi van Veluw, 2008; Image of the Museum of Art and Design; Untitled, by Shokosai Hayakawa, 2000, interlaced bamboo; Sagittarius, by Shen Shaomin, 2005, chicken bones, bone meal, glue; Cauda Equina, by Keith Bentley, 1995-2007, 1.4 million hand knotted horse hairs, fabric, taxidermy mannequin, resin; Skull, by Jan Fabre, 2001, mixture of wing cases of scarabs on plastic, stuffed animal; Mad Cow Motorcycle, by Billie Grace Lynn, 2008, cow bones, bicycle frame, electric motor; Tides, by Ferne Jacobs, 2002-2003, coiled waxed linen thread; Kuskokwim, by Fran Reed, 1994, silver salmon skin, felt tip pen, dyed and undyed gut, driftwood, cane; Wedding Neckpiece, Berber, Siwa Oasis, Egypt, 19th - 20th century, silver; Miao Neckrings from China, 20th century; Pair of Anklets from Upper Egypt, 19th century; interior of the restaurant Robert; Fragile Future 3, by Lonneke Gorkijn and Ralph Nauta, 2010, phosphorous, bronze, dandelion puffs.

Tuesday, October 5, 2010

What 60 Museums Have Taught Us

We’ve just finished our 60th museum, and have thus completed one third of our 180 museum goal.  Seeing 60 museums in 9 months has taught us a great deal; we’ve learned many things about art, some things about museums, and a little about ourselves.  In the hopes that what we've learned can help future museum-goers, we offer this list:

Always, Always, Always Get the Audio Guide

Museum goers are often idealistic.  “It’s art.  It should elicit a response on its own.  It shouldn’t need explanation.”  Then you find yourself standing in front of a stack of Tupperware (Cooper-Hewitt National Design Museum), three nearly identical pictures of goldfish bowls (Matisse exhibit at MOMA) or a basketball suspended in an aquarium (New Museum of Contemporary Art), and you suddenly realize, you’ve got nothing…. 

It so much better to dial a number and have some erudite curator murmur in your ear, “Tupperware was revolution in food conservation, leading to changes in kitchen design and the way meals were prepared after WWII.  Also, its all woman sales force and home marketing was an influence on women’s liberation and a radical change in marketing strategy;” or “Notice the use of white paint in the first painting, creating luminosity in the fish bowl, while the painting on the left uses dark shadows in the room to emphasize the bowl.  Matisse was experimenting with the abstraction of light, which can never be painted, only represented.”  We didn’t get the audio guide at the New Museum of Contemporary Art, so we’ll aways wonder about that basketball.

Start at the Top and Work Your Way Down

Most museums are designed to be seen from the top down.  Detailed, high profile exhibits are placed on upper floors, and the lobby floor is generally the least interesting.  Paul and I have learned that, when in a multi-floor museum, take the elevator to the top, then work your way down; if possible, use the stairs to move between floors as you descend.  It’s the most efficient way to see a museum.  If you don’t believe us, try it some time.

Small Museum Does Not Mean Small Amount of Time

When we started this project, we assumed two things about the 180 museums of New York: 1) that while New York City has several very large, very famous museums (i.e. the Metropolitan Museum of Art and the Natural History Museum), the bulk of the 180 would be much smaller affairs; and 2) that we could get through these smaller museums quickly.  “We’ll breeze through large swaths of them in 30 minutes or less,” I naively assumed.

We were right about the first assumption.  Outside of a few famous behemoths, most NYC museums aren’t very large (NYC real estate prices being extremely good motivation for small floor plans).  However, we were completely wrong on the second. Small museums have to fight for both patrons and financial survival, and as a result many are focused and captivating places with jewel-like collections: small but breathtaking.  Also, they’re often staffed by zealots.  People who have given up their Saturday, spending the entire day on their feet, without pay, just to talk to you about one particular subject.  These are not the sort of people you ignore. 

Free Times: Not Always a Good Idea

At small museums, free times can be a nice bargain, but at larger, more well-known museums, you should weigh the worth of a good deal against the inconvenience of standing in long lines and fighting through the crowds that will lie between you and every painting.  Sometimes it’s best to pay full price.

One addendum to this: if you’re looking for a bargain, there are other ways.  You can usually find coupons to the popular attractions like Madam Tussauds, Ripley’s Believe It Or Not, and the Discovery Times Square Exposition on the web, and many other museums post discounts or coupons on their websites, particularly during the off seasons (spring and fall).  Additionally, students often receive significantly reduced admission, and even get in free at some museums, so it pays to ask if you happen to have a student ID.  Lastly, for the daring bargain hunter, several of the largest, most expensive museums (i.e. The Met, The Museum of Natural History and The Cloisters) are actually “suggested donation” museums.  You can pay just a penny, if you’re brave enough to push the coin across the counter.

Don’t Bring Knives to a Jewish Museum

Most museums put a guard at the door, a few guards in the rooms, cover the place with cameras and leave it at that.  However, Jewish museums can be more serious about security (for understandable reasons), and add metal detectors and purse/coat searches to the gauntlet.  Paul’s pocketknife does not go over well.

Be Prepared to Pay More Than the Admission Price

Transportation, parking, coat check fees, snacks, drinks, programs and souvenirs- it all adds up.

Maritime Museums: The Museums of the Common Man

New York City has a port city since it’s creation and salt water runs deep in its veins.  The city has a number of maritime museums (8 at last count), and most are built, staffed and maintained entirely by volunteers.  These are not members of the rich upper crust behind so many Manhattan museums, these are ordinary people with jobs and busy lives who give their time, their sweat, and their personal collections, making these spaces feel both passionate and intimately personal.  Maritime museums are not the prettiest museums, but in a world of expensive, polished, high profile collections, they stand out as being more honest, and have an emotional resonance that cannot be ignored. 

Modern Art and Contemporary Art May Sound Like the Same Thing, But They're Not

The exact definition may be debatable, but generally modern art means art produced 1860 – 1960, while contemporary art means art produced 1960 – present.  The two are VERY different.  Modern art involves the exploration of unique styles and a trend toward abstraction (Impressionism, Cubism, Surrealism, etc), while contemporary art breaks down the borders between all styles and media, and anything goes.  Don’t walk into to a contemporary art museum like the Whitney or P.S.1 and expect to see anything as mundane as a “painting,” and the impact of a Picasso painting at the Guggenheim is going to be very different from a pile of life-like male genitalia (Black Narcissus) at the New Museum of Contemporary Art.


You Don’t Know What Kind of Art You’re Going to Like Until You See It

Paul:  Seeing 60 museums have confirmed his love of photography and iconography.  He’s realized that he doesn’t particularly like modern art, and to his utter shock, has discovered that he enjoys a great deal of contemporary art, particularly performance art.

Pauline:  Seeing 60 museums have confirmed her love of modern art and architecture.  She’s realized that she doesn’t hate medieval painting as much as she’d thought, and to her utter shock, has discovered that she enjoys some contemporary art, particularly sculpture.


Worst Borough to Drive: Brooklyn 

Worst Borough to Park: Manhattan 


Best Museum Café: Café Sabarsky at the Neue Gallery 

Best Pizza in New York City: Deninos on Staten Island (in our humble opinion) 


Images in this post, from the top: In the upper collage, listing the museums from left to right:  Seventh Regiment Armory Conservancy; Whitney Museum of American Art; Cooper-Hewitt National Design Museum; Paley Center for Media; The Guggenheim Museum; Rubin Museum of Art; Museum of the City of New York; Austrian Cultural Forum; Morgan Library and Museum; Wave Hill House; Scandinavia House.  Images below the collage: One Ball Total Equilibrium Tank (1985), by Jeff Koons; New Museum of Contemporary Art, with diagram; interior of the Guggenheim on Pay-What-You-Wish Friday; no pocketknives; Before the Mirror (1876), by Manet; Supper Sister (1999), by Lisa Lou.  Lower museum collage: Enid A. Haupt Conservatory at the New York Botanical Gardens; Jewish Museum, Museum of Biblical Art; Neue Gallery; Valentine-Valerian House.