Empty Met, Empty Promise

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I recently went on the EmptyMet tour at the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York City, and it was a real disappointment. The tour was a Christmas gift from my nephew, a college student who could hardly afford to part with the $125 the museum charges for this experience.

Now in the interest of full disclosure, I am a member of the Met, live within walking distance of the museum, and visit it frequently. In fact, over the past two years, I’ve literally seen everything they’ve put on display. Plus, being a freelancer, I am often able to visit the museum during off-peak hours, when the galleries are less crowded.

mtmet2The EmptyMet tour gives you access to the Metropolitan Museum before it opens to the public. The draw is the opportunity to wander through empty galleries and view the art as if it were in someone’s private collection. The reality, however, is far from that ideal scenario.

We had 25 people on my “private” tour, along with three staff members. Having taken numerous tours of the museum over the past two years, I know that they are more suited to informing and educating attendees rather than providing a chance to truly appreciate each artwork showcased along the way. Being in a large group like that, you have to wait your turn to get a close-up view and then are quickly shuffled off to the next gallery, so you don’t get much of a chance to examine and enjoy the artwork that was just discussed.

What drew me to the unique experience of an EmptyMet tour (beyond it being a very generous gift) was the opportunity to photograph the museum’s picturesque galleries without the crowds of people that frequent them. I love taking photographs, and the chance to snap some pictures of the interior of such a grand space was one I could not pass up.

As with most great museums, the Met is a fascinating structure. It’s actually a collection of different buildings cobbled together over the years. Plus, it’s filled with treasures. And while I can see those art treasures any time I choose, I cannot photograph most of them, and certainly not an entire gallery, without also likely capturing some slovenly oaf in a Green Bay Packers jersey and backwards baseball cap standing around looking bored shitless because he came all the way to New York to see the rectal spectacle of Times Square and then was dragged off to this giant old museum that doesn’t even have a painting of dogs playing cards.

mtmetquoteThe problem with the EmptyMet tour is that, while the museum is indeed empty, whatever gallery you happen to be in is crowded. Wherever we went, whatever artwork we looked at, I had 25 other people vying to see it – and to photograph it. That’s about as many people as you’ll have in a gallery during regular hours. And when I visit the Met at off-peak hours, rarely will I see that many people in a gallery – let alone huddled around a specific piece of art at any given time.

I tried to make the best of it, trailing behind the crowd in hopes of snatching a photo of an empty gallery when the crowd moved on to the next. It wasn’t easy, though, as our guide had a tendency to ramble, so we were always in a rush (frankly, I’ve been on shorter tours that showed more of the museum).

Fortunately, our “crowd” didn’t have a slovenly oaf in a Green Bay Packers jersey and backwards baseball cap standing around looking bored shitless because he came all the way to New York to see the rectal spectacle of Times Square and then was dragged off to this giant old museum that doesn’t even have a painting of dogs playing cards. But we did have this German guy who kept wandering off, causing much concern among our handlers. And, much to my frustration, he had a tendency to wander off into whatever gallery I was trying to photograph.

So what I’m trying to say is don’t waste your time and money on the EmptyMet tour. You can see more of the museum, and with less crowds, simply by wandering the museum during regular hours (ideally during the week). And if you do want to snap some photos of empty – or nearly empty – galleries, then arrive early, before the museum opens. The Great Hall is open before the museum itself, so you can check your coat and purchase your ticket. That way you can head straight into the galleries the moment they’re open, though it certainly helps to already know your way around and have a plan of which galleries you want to photograph before they fill up. In fact, that is how I took the photos accompanying this piece, by rushing around after my EmptyMet tour, before the galleries became filled with the day’s regular visitors.

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The Man Cookie

ManCookie

Have you ever wanted to eat a cookie in public but didn’t feel like it was a manly thing to do? No, me either. But should you, for some odd reason, feel such unwarranted anxiety, fear no more…there’s a cookie made for manly men. Yes, I’m talking about the Man Cookie.

I came across this cookie at Perk, a coffee shop located on Second Avenue between 96th & 97th Streets. I like the place. The music varies depending on who is at the counter, but it’s clean and bright. And I usually can find a seat. I’m not particularly crazy about the coffee (Stumptown) but it’s a nice option to have in the neighborhood. And they offer Dough doughnuts along with random treats like the Man Cookie from This Chick Bakes.

The Marvelous, Monstrous Met

As I wandered through the Metropolitan Museum of Art, I stumbled upon masterpieces like Emanuel Leutze’s Washington Crossing the Delaware.

I mastered the Met. And that’s no easy task. The Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York City is the largest art museum in the United States.

Had I realized what a massive undertaking it was, I would have tracked my time – like counting the licks to get to the center of a Tootsie Pop. But when I started exploring the museum with my new membership in January, I hadn’t a clue. I had visited the Met a couple of times over the years but never fully comprehended its vastness nor the richness of the treasures within. And its setting in Central Park, away from other blocks and buildings that could provide perspective, makes it hard to gauge its scale – 2 million square feet – from the outside.

Velazquez’s Juan de Pareja is one of those paintings I instantly recognized but knew nothing about.

My best guess is that I spent roughly (very roughly) 50 hours exploring the museum’s galleries. That’s based on the assumption that I did, in fact, visit the place once a week – with a few exceptions – and spent an average of about 2.5 hours per visit. In reality, though, I probably spent even more time there, as some weeks I think I went twice, and occasionally I’d last 3-4 hours before my feet began to ache.

The one thing I am certain of, however, is that I still haven’t visited every gallery in the museum. Of the 440 galleries, 57 of them were closed during my visits. Of course, I visited some of them twice, as certain galleries feature temporary exhibits that rotate. And I returned to some simply to marvel at the treasures, and others because of fantastic events like Jazz & Colors at the Met.

I also can’t claim to have seen every object in every gallery. I have come close, though, as I meticulously worked my way through each, giving everything a look. But occasionally I’d come across am empty space marked with a note explaining that the item had been temporarily removed for one reason or another – cleaning, restoration, on loan elsewhere, etc.

The Met features art from all around the world, including Katsushika Hokusai’s Under the Wave off Kanagawa.

And the Met has a lot of stuff. A whole lot of stuff. It’s overwhelming. For example, the ancient artifacts are amazing, but shelves lined with chards of pottery can become mind-numbing while offering little insight beyond the realization that we pocketed everything from these archeological sites.

On a side note, that’s one of the disturbing aspects of the ancient treasures at the Met. What gave us the right to collect all this stuff, other than the fact that we had the foresight and finances? If you live in Cyprus, you’ll probably need to come to New York to learn about your past – and that doesn’t sit well with me.

The other art ad nauseam experience at the Met can be found in the European galleries, where you will be subjected to an infinite number of horribly similar paintings of religious subjects. If I see another portrait of the Madonna and Child I’ll crucify someone.

But there are treasures. Many, many wonderful treasures. Art and artifacts in every medium imaginable from every era and every corner of the world. You’ve got treasures from the ancient world – Egypt, Greece, Rome, and then some – including sculptures, sphinxes, sarcophaguses, and even a real, transplanted temple from 15 BC. There are tons of classic paintings along with a good collection of modern and contemporary art. And some unexpected finds, like an entire wing devoted to Africa and Oceania.

Among the many masterpieces you’ll find at the Met is Pablo Picasso’s At the Lapin Agile.

It may sound cliché, but there really is something for everyone at the Met – even folks who aren’t too crazy about art. You’ve got suits of armor and all sorts of guns and swords. Giant sculptures and carvings. Costumes, textiles, musical instruments, and even furniture.

Since few will have the time to tour the entire museum as I have, visitors need to decide what they want to see – what era, region, or art form they are most interested in. Or they can pick a wing and explore every nook and cranny of that.

I find that two hours is a good amount of time to spend in any museum. Visitors might want to linger a little longer in the Met, given its sheer volume. You can always take a break, as there are many benches and a couple of cafes. And while most of the food and drink options are as overpriced and underwhelming as one would imagine, the roof garden is worth a visit just for the views of Central Park.

Be sure to check out the Met’s Web site before you visit the actual museum because it is an exceptional resource. It offers an interactive map with overviews of each individual gallery, visitor tips and policies, and even some suggested itineraries. A little research and planning will go a long way, ensuring you get the most out of your visit to the marvelous, monstrous Met.

One of my favorite pieces at the Met is Winslow Homer’s The Gulf Stream.

The New Museum Triennial

NewMu4I wanted to like the New Museum. I really did. I’ve gone there a couple of times. I even considered becoming a member.

But it sucks.

OK, maybe that’s a bit harsh. But every time I visit the New Museum, I find their “art” more laughable than inspirational. It’s as if the mission statement of this museum is along the lines of “You can declare anything to be art, and we will revere it as such.”

I’ve gone-off about meritless art many a time on this blog (including here and here). And I’ve spared the New Museum my scorn simply because they weren’t worthy of it. Genuinely interesting art seems to be the exception in that place, so I stuck to taking jabs at other art museums where sham art is the exception not the rule.

But I thought I’d give the New Museum a third and final try when I saw they were having a triennial exhibit. After all, they have a boat hanging from the front of their building, so the place can’t be all bad, can it? And, in fairness, it surely won’t be my last visit because the International Center of Photography is opening up its new museum across the street this fall, and I’m definitely rejoining that institution.

The Try-ennial
I plowed through the New Museum’s triennial exhibit in hopes of finding some inspiration. Most of the stuff was what I call sham art – stuff that’s considered art simply because someone declared it to be art. But there were two gems that caught my eye.

The first was an aquarium. It had some convoluted meaning which required a long, rambling explanation on a poorly lit placard. But I really liked it because it gave you an up-close look at some beautiful soft coral. And I didn’t even have to don my dive gear.

The second was a virtual reality thing. Apparently some guy (or guys) digitally mapped a small section of the Brazilian jungle. And by “small” I mean about a 10-yard radius. This exhibit had its own separate room, with a pair of goggles tethered to the high ceiling. And there was a line. Normally I wouldn’t bother with a line. But since I found little else of interest, I figured I’d stick around and have a look.

One of the highlights of the New Museum's triennial exhibit was the stairs, which were lit in green and a lot faster than the elevators.

One of the highlights of the New Museum’s triennial exhibit was the stairs, which were lit in green and a lot faster than the elevators.

When my turn came, I slipped the goggles over my eyes and was surprised by what I saw. I was told that it would be a 3D image of the Brazilian rainforest, which I expected to be in full-color (it is 2015, after all). Instead, it was black and white. In fact, it wasn’t an image but rather dots of white light – like stars in the night sky – that formed the outlines of plants and other features. More of a sketch than a picture.

At first I felt a little disoriented. I looked up to get my bearings and saw that I was in some sort of tube or vortex. Too small to be a clearing in the canopy, I thought. Then I realized I was standing in the middle of a tree, looking up through its trunk. I stepped out and walked around a bit. It was pretty cool – like the Matrix, but with patterns of white light instead of green.

I told the attendant, who was there presumably to keep order in the line, that the only thing missing was a member of the indigenous population running out of the darkness with a machete after five minutes. That, I explained, would prevent people from bogarting the goggles. Though it would also be quite the buzzkill for anyone who was high, and that’s probably the best way to experience such an exhibit.

In fact, being high is probably the only way the New Museum is worth the price of admission. Yes, they deserve credit for taking chances, like an “exhibit” in which visitors can follow an “artist” around the East Village (I prefer to trail random people in the East Village). And I am glad someone is taking chances, as it offers opportunities for new artists and encourages established ones to try new things.

Other Options
The Museum of Modern Art (MoMA) has long been the innovator in the city’s museum scene. Its busy midtown location, which they are planning to expand yet again, probably draws more tourists than locals. But, in an attempt to attract more of that new money (and even more tourists), they have shamelessly been pandering to all of the wrong young people. As a result, they’ve only managed to shoot themselves in the foot. In fact, MoMA even made Bjork look decidedly uncool (which is no easy task). And this pandering to Main Street USA may attract tourists, but it also makes MoMA the Cats of the New York City museum scene.

Fortunately, there’s also MoMA PS1 over in Long Island City. That’s where MoMA keeps its edge sharp. Like the New Museum, exhibits at PS1 tend to be hit or miss. But with the backing of MoMA, they seem to have better luck landing the hits.

Again, experimentation is good, especially in the art world. But I don’t have the kind of deep pockets to consider myself a patron of the arts. Maybe (hopefully) someday I will. But until then, I go to museums for inspiration and – if possible – enlightenment. And having devoured the New Museum’s triennial exhibit, I found little of either.