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Destination: New York

Hidden Assets : Small museums: Fine art without fanfare or crowds

June 01, 1997|DANIEL GRANT | Grant is an Amherst, Mass., freelance writer

NEW YORK — This city, one is often told, is the "culture capital of the world." Besides the 400 or so art galleries in the five boroughs, there are more than 70 museums, most of which are in Manhattan. But if asked to name some of them, most people think of the Metropolitan, the Museum of Modern Art, the Guggenheim, the Whitney and, uh, uh. . . .

It's easy to get stuck. When we think of New York museums, we think of the big ones, the ones that get all the attention--and the crowds--when they host big exhibits or spend astonishing amounts of money to buy a painting.

The institutions listed below present art without a lot of fanfare and, possibly because of this, are often less crowded. But they are no less worthwhile. Many have smaller collections and fewer annual exhibitions than the larger ones, but going to them is often a more manageable experience than to, say, the encyclopedic Metropolitan Museum of Art, where one is assured of walking out feeling exhausted.

The Asia Society

Park Avenue at 70th Street. Tuesday to Saturday, 11 a.m. to 6 p.m.; Thursday, 11 a.m. to 8 p.m.; Sunday, noon to 5 p.m.; closed Monday. Admission: $3 for adults; $1 students and seniors. Telephone (212) 288-6400.

The gallery was established in 1960 and, since then, has regularly staged three or four shows per year. Individual exhibits may seem to require rather specialized interests--for instance, Indonesian textiles, Indian stone sculpture or Chinese ceramics--but over time one can develop a more complete understanding of Asian arts and culture here than at any other museum in New York. The gallery's permanent collection consists of 250 objects, representing major art traditions from Afghanistan to Japan, donated by John D. Rockefeller III.

China Institute

125 E. 65th St. Monday to Saturday, 10 a.m. to 5 p.m.; Sunday, 1 to 5 p.m. Admission: donation suggested. Tel. (212) 744-8181.

Japan House Gallery

333 E. 47th St. Tuesday to Sunday, 11 a.m. to 5 p.m.; closed Monday. Admission: $3 adults (suggested); children under 12 free. Tel. (212) 832-1155.

While Japan House has a permanent collection and China Institute does not, both galleries are generally involved in bringing in traveling exhibitions of their respective arts. In some cases, the exhibits come from other museums around the country; at other times, they are works from abroad that have never been to the United States. These are small, intimate galleries that put on single-theme, narrowly focused shows, such as "Chinese Baskets" or "Spectacular Helmets of Japan."

The Cloisters

Fort Tryon Park. Tuesday to Sunday, 9:30 to 5:15 p.m.; closed Monday. Admission: $8 adults (suggested), $4 students, children under 12 free. Tel. (212) 923-3700.

Standing at the northernmost point of Manhattan, the Cloisters is the Metropolitan Museum's medieval wing, recreating a sense of the Middle Ages through both the objects and the building itself. Both the land and the building were donated to the city in 1930 by John D. Rockefeller Jr., and it opened as a museum eight years later. The building itself is modern but styled as a medieval monastery with a 12th century Spanish apse, parts of Romanesque chapels and other monuments and structures from European buildings incorporated into its design. The earliest objects date from AD 31, and the rest is a progression that continues to the 15th century. Displays include furniture, crosses, statues of Christian martyrs, illuminated manuscripts and stained glass. The 14th century Franco-Flemish "unicorn" tapestries are what everyone remembers and talks about.

The Hispanic Society of America

Broadway between 155 and 156 streets. Tuesday to Saturday, 10 a.m. to 4:30 p.m.; Sunday, 1 to 4 p.m.; closed Monday. Admission: free. Tel. (212) 926-2234.

The society operates both a reading room--containing more than 100,000 manuscripts and books on Spanish and Portuguese art, history and literature--and a gallery of paintings, sculpture and decorative arts. "Hispanic" here means the Iberian peninsula, not Latin or South America. Works reflect the culture of Iberia from prehistoric days to the present. Among the most notable artworks in the collection are Goya's "The Duchess of Alba," El Greco's "Pieta" and Velazquez's "Portrait of a Little Girl," but there are also illuminated manuscripts, statues of Christian figures and various household objects spanning several centuries.

International Center

of Photography

Fifth Avenue at 94th Street. Tuesday, 11 a.m. to 8 p.m.; Wednesday to Sunday, 11 a.m. to 6 p.m.; closed Monday. Admission: $4 adults; $2.50 seniors and students. Tel. (212) 860-1777.

Since its founding almost 25 years ago, ICP has built a collection of prints by photographers both famous and not so well known, and maintained a robust exhibition schedule that shows photography as a fine art and as a means of documenting moments in history. Celebrity photographers, street photographers, landscape photographers and avant-garde artists who work with cameras all get their due.

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