For MCNY’s Centennial, an Exhibition Celebrating Stories Inspired by New York City

“This is New York: 100 Years of Art and Pop Culture" highlights the many ways in which the city has served as a potent muse to artists and creatives.

The museum's building with the sign on the right
The Museum of the City of New York’s facade. Tiffany Del Valle

People associate New York City with the fine arts but often gloss over just how many iconic pop culture moments took place in this city. There’s the MTA bus that splashes gutter water on Carrie Bradshaw’s white tutu in the opening credits of Sex and the City. There are Jim Henson’s  Big Bird, Snuffleupagus and friends who call Sesame Street home (sidenote: the intersection between Broadway and West 63rd was officially renamed Sesame Street in 2019). There’s King Kong gripping the spire of the Empire State Building in one meaty paw and Ann Darrow in the other.

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Over the past century, these and countless other moments have unfolded in film, music videos, TV shows and plays, to the delight of New Yorkers and those outside its boroughs with a soft spot for the city.

Mannequin in a pink and white outfit and a quote to the right.
Carrie Bradshaw’s white tutu outfit from Sex and the City‘s opening credits scene. Tiffany Del Valle

The Museum of the City of New York (MCNY), located on the Museum Mile of Fifth Avenue in the Upper East Side, opened in 1923 to provide visitors with a glimpse into the city’s pivotal history, its art and its essence. To celebrate the institution’s centennial, MCNY curators assembled “This is New York: 100 Years of Art and Pop Culture,” an exhibition complementing the permanent collection, “New York at its Core,” which has more than 250,000 objects representing the city’s past and present to show what makes New York the city that it is. 

“This is New York: 100 Years of Art and Pop Culture” is a four-part show of stories told through art, music, film, fashion and more. Overall, it demonstrates how the city has served as a muse for creatives who’ve captured the image and at times, swagger, of New York, and how in turn, the city influenced popular aesthetics not only locally, but on a global scale.

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The introductory gallery, “Tempo of the City,” is named after a black-and-white 1938 photograph by American photographer Berenice Abbott. The moment-in-time picture shows New Yorkers going about their daily lives in the urban landscape, illustrating how the city recovered both its workforce and its vitality after the Great Depression. The large clocktower in the image emphasizes the collective ‘rush’ we who dwell here are still in. The hustle and bustle the world associates with New Yorkers on crowded streets and subways is on full view here, with the underlying themes of the blessings and curses of being alone in a city of millions of people, as well as the juxtaposition of struggle and displays of wealth or joy found in often mundane moments: the people who stop to listen to subway performances and the children who flock to open fire hydrants in summer.

Photograph of a large clocktower and New Yorkers on their way to work.
Tempo of the City I (1938) by Berenice Abbott. Museum of the City of New York

Subway No. 12 (1976), a screen print of a subway station filled with holes that represent blood cells, stands out. The artist, Japanese American Masaaki Sato, gifted his work to the collection and commented that he views the subway system as similar to the systems of the human body. Meanwhile, Richard Estes’ photorealistic painting, M Train on Route to Manhattan Approaches the Williamsburg Bridge (1995), renders a solo train ride not only in imagery but also in feeling.

Person sits next to a train window as the train is turning to approach the Williamsburg Bridge.
M Train On Route to Manhattan Approaches the Williamsburg Bridge (1995) by Richard Estes. Copyright Richard Estes, courtesy Louis K. Meisel Gallery

This section also showcases objects and works of the Puerto Rican diaspora in New York City, including the manuscript and filmed reading of Puerto Rican Obituary (1973) and a poem by Pedro Pietri (one of the figures in the Nuyorican cultural movement and the co-founder of Nuyorican Poets Café), as well as Easter Sunday Parade (Norman Rockwell Moment) (2001), a photograph by Máximo Colón, a New York-based Puerto Rican photographer whose work shows his passion for social justice and his culture. 

Songs of New York is an interactive installation with a map of the city divided into its five boroughs, each of which projects snippets of different music videos on the wall. Some of the featured artists inspired by the city include Frank Sinatra, Lana Del Rey, Madonna, the hip-hop duo of Queens Mobb Deep, Brooklyn rappers Nas and Jay-Z, and  Dominican Republic merengue group Los Hermanos Rosario, highlighting how New York is portrayed in music and in depictions of the New York experience.

Dancers flock the streets in different colors for the dance scene of West Side Story.
West Side Story (2021) by Niko Tavernise. Courtesy of Photofest

Expanding on that experience are the “At Home in New York” and “Destination: NYC” sections, which explore the inner world of the city–showing visitors inside the domains of the many city residents, including their apartments, rooftops and family-owned businesses. It also provides insight into life outside the home in the places where the masses gather. We see the vibrant nightlife, the landmarks such as Times Square and city parks.

Two people looking out the window of a Chinatown apartment above a Chinese American grocery store.
Chinatown Apartment (1997) by William Low. Copyright 2023 William Low. Courtesy of the Museum of the City of New York

The exhibition ends with Scenes of the City, an installation in “You Are Here” that shows behind-the-scenes images of New York City films and gives insight into how they were made. There’s West Side Story (1961) and Broadway Melody of 1936 (1935), as well as a snapshot of Billy Wilder, director of The Seven Year Itch (1955) standing next to Marilyn Monroe above the windy subway grate during the filming of the unforgettable white dress scene. The grand finale of this section is the 16-screen film experience that highlights the many New York moments in Hollywood and independent films.

Billy Wilder stands next to Marilyn Monroe above subway grating
The Seven Year Itch (1955) by Sam Shaw; Director Billy Wilder, Marilyn Monroe. 20th Century-Fox Film Corp./ Photofest

This is New York: 100 Years of Art and Pop Culture” is on view at the Museum of the City of New York through July 21.

For MCNY’s Centennial, an Exhibition Celebrating Stories Inspired by New York City