Often, smaller is better, at least when it comes to tackling New York City’s cultural institutions. Sure, you should experience the mega museums – the Met, MoMA, Whitney, Guggenheim, American Museum of Natural History – but there are alternatives: smaller spots that supply a rich experience without the crowds and the inherent stress of covering an overwhelming amount of content in a limited time frame.
Two gems stand out. Housed in perfectly preserved Beaux-Arts mansions on Upper Fifth Avenue, The Frick Collection (above) and the Neue Galerie offer visitors the chance to view world-class art while feeling transported to the Gilded Age.
The Frick Collection: Celebrities’ homes are alluring, but stepping into the foyer of an early 20th-century robber baron makes their flashy digs look like child’s play. Henry Clay Frick’s residence is an entire city block, an extravagant plot of land even back when it was built in 1913. A contemporary of Vanderbilt, Carnegie and JP Morgan, Frick commanded (via architects Carrère and Hastings, who designed the iconic New York Public Library’s Midtown headquarters) a residence that smacked of prestige and privilege.
Frick collected for more than 40 years, building a showstopping arsenal of western European painting, sculpture and decorative arts, dating from the Renaissance to the end of the 19th century. The collection boasts Old Master works by Vermeer, Goya, Velázquez, El Greco, Holbein, Titian and Bellini. Portraits by Gainsborough and Reynolds grace the dining-room walls. There are landscape masterpieces by Constable, Ruisdael and Corot; and an entire room of panels by Rococo master Fragonard. The 18th-century French furniture, Limoges enamel, Oriental tapestries, Sèvres porcelain, Italian bronzes and Chinese porcelain also attest to the industrialist’s superb level of taste.
The Frick’s cultural programme is spectacular. Check the website for upcoming classical music concerts, dance performances, lectures and salon evenings.
Neue Galerie: A few blocks north sits another example of pre-war residential magnificence. The William Starr Miller House, also constructed by Carrère and Hastings, is classically Parisian, with its Mansard roof and Louis XIII motifs evoking Place des Vosges. After the Millers, the mansion’s refined style attracted NYC doyenne Mrs Cornelius Vanderbilt, who occupied the house until her death in 1953.
Neue Galerie New York is devoted to early 20th-century German and Austrian art and design, specifically from 1890 to 1940. Founders Serge Sabarsky, an art dealer, and cosmetics tycoon Ronald S Lauder aimed to bring a sense of perspective back to Germanic culture by merging their collections into a public institution.
One of the museum’s highlights is Gustav Klimt’s Adele Bloch-Bauer (The Woman in Gold), which was acquired by Lauder in 2006. The rest of the collection is equally impressive. Throughout two floors of exhibition space, fine art, photographs, sculpture and works on paper successfully illustrate this hyper-progressive art scene. Of specific interest are the decorative arts and the handcrafted. The Gustave Keller teapot, Koloman Moser necklace and Josef Hoffmann goblet from the Wiener Werkstätte are exquisite. The geometric Bauhaus pieces – a Marcel Breuer serving cart, Walter Gropius door handle and Marianne Brandt ashtray – are also compelling.
At the end of your visit, have lunch at the museum’s chic Viennese-style eatery, Café Sabarsky, which is outfitted with authentic decor by applied arts superstars Josef Hoffmann and Adolf Loos. Then pop into the museum shop. It’s loaded with carefully curated gifts inspired by the period. A limited-edition red lipstick called ‘Berlin Nights’ by Aerin Lauder (daughter of Ronald) will be a sure holiday hit for those wishing to channel the insouciance of 1920s Germany.