An Embarrassment of Riches: A Look at New York’s Very Best Small Museums

While New York’s Met and MoMA get all the buzz, this city is actually home to a stunning 80-plus museums–many

While New York’s Met and MoMA get all the buzz, this city is actually home to a stunning 80-plus museums–many of which would be the star attraction in a town less culturally gifted than our own. Before the fall blockbuster exhibitions open, check out the lesser-known gems. 

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The Tenement Museum

97 Orchard Street

More time machine than institution, the Tenement Museum delivers a rare and intimate experience. Or several of them, since tours of its Orchard Street home re-create the lives of families who lived on the street over the past 150 years. The Moores from Ireland, the German Gumpertzes, the Confinis, the Rogarshevskys and a handful of others are showcased in meticulously reproduced apartments that prove the cramped studio, and the relatives who crash with you, is nothing new to this town.


The Neue Galerie

1048 Fifth Avenue, at 86th Street

Housed in the former Fifth Avenue home of the Vanderbilt family, this lush institution devoted to Austrian and German art is a pet project of cosmetics mogul and voracious art collector Ron Lauder. Its collection includes top-quality works by Paul Klee, Egon Schiele, Josef Hoffman, Max Beckmann (his roaringly good Self-portrait With Horn is on display) but the star of the show is the golden Portrait of Adele Bloch-Bauer. By Gustav Klimt, it is one of the most famous and expensive artworks on the planet.


The Studio Museum of Harlem

144 West 125th Street

Go here to see work by rising art stars before the bigger institutions catch on to them; it’s known for its well-curated and prescient shows. This summer and early fall, shows include the inventive “Harlem Postcard.” Noted artists were asked to photograph the neighborhood, and the results were made into limited-edition postcards given out to museum visitors. This season, they’re featuring postcard images created by Sanford Biggers, Tiara Hernandez, Hew Locke and Ginger Brooks Takahashi. Admission is free every Sunday due to a grant from Target.


International Center of Photography

1133 Avenue of the Americas,
at 43rd Street

A cult-favorite museum among photography lovers, ICP is currently showing “For all the world to see: Visual Culture and the Struggle of Civil Rights,” a huge, 200-plus-image exhibition that documents the racial politics and famous historical events from the 1940s through the 1970s. ICP opens a show–“Cuba in Revolution”–on Sept. 23 that is already generating a surprising amount of anticipation and speculation.


The Museum of the American Indian

One Bowling Green

At the tip of Manhattan, housed in the gorgeous old Beaux-Arts U.S. Customs building, this free-admission Smithsonian satellite does a thoughtful, surprisingly inventive curatorial program. Current shows include one on skateboard culture–dubbed “Ramp It Up”–and another on the epic role the horse has played in the past 400 years of American Indian history. “A Song for the Horse Nation,” which runs through next June, offers paintings, robes, hoof ornaments and dozens of other objects that tell the story of the economic and spiritual role horses played in tribe life.


The Museum of Chinese in America

215 Centre Street

This museum has been around since 1980 as the Chinatown History Project, but it opened a greatly expanded 14,000-square-foot headquarters just last year. Its collections include opera costumes, musical instruments and a heartbreaking selection of sculptures made by the passengers of the freighter The Golden Venture to pay their pro-bono attorneys. The ship of smuggled Chinese immigrants ran ground in Queens and some passengers ended up incarcerated as long as four years. And, far from being a distant, generations-old tragedy, it all happened in 1993. (Thursdays are free due to Target sponsorship.)

The Frick Collection

1 East 70th Street

Founder Henry Clay Frick had that too-rare combination: Money and taste. The legendary Frick museum housed within his mansion is hardly obscure, but it can get lost among its bigger neighbors, such as the Met, along the city’s busy Fifth Avenue “Museum Mile.” It has a fine special-exhibitions program, but the permanent collection is dizzying: A trio of Rembrants, another of Vermeers, yet another of El Grecos, Gilbert Stuart’s George Washington, Francois Boucher’s The Four Seasons, Edgar Degas The Rehearsal. (You can imagine strolling the galleries and exclaiming, ‘Oh my God, they own this, too?”) It’s probably the city’s biggest blockbuster museum per square inch.

An Embarrassment of Riches: A Look at New York’s Very Best Small Museums