This season can make even the grouchiest New Yorker an urban romantic, and encourages local residents and visitors alike to rediscover the museums and monuments we sometimes take for granted. Prepare for good cheer, special programming — and big crowds.
Whether you’re coming with your family, your friends, your lover or your good old self, you’ll want to plan ahead when visiting New York’s unsurpassed arts institutions, and exploring some exquisite smaller museums outside the tourist green zone. Check online before you go: most have shortened hours on Christmas and New Year’s Eves, and are closed Christmas and New Year’s Days. (An exception: The Jewish Museum, on Fifth Avenue, is open as usual on Dec. 25 and reliably popular that day.)
Your top priority should probably be the expanded, refreshed Museum of Modern Art, which now has 30 percent additional gallery space and a far more welcoming entrance. So far the crowds have felt palpable but manageable, although weekdays are a tick more peaceful than weekends. If all goes well you won’t have to queue too long at the new digital ticket counters, but you can walk right in if you pay at moma.org and show the ticket on your phone. You can save $25 a head by visiting on Friday after 5:30 p.m., but you’d better prepare to wait.
Friday and Saturday evenings are an excellent time to visit the Metropolitan Museum of Art, with its Christmas tree festooned with antique Neapolitan ornaments — as well as the Met Breuer, the museum’s under-trafficked satellite. Before the Met vacates the Breuer building next summer, make time now for its finespun retrospective of the Latvian-American artist Vija Celmins; then head downstairs for a drink at Flora Bar, with the smartest by-the-glass wine list on the Upper East Side.
You can explore a new neighborhood, as well as another time period, by visiting a house museum. The grande dame is the Frick Collection on Fifth Avenue, currently presenting Renaissance bronzes by Bertoldo di Giovanni and matter-of-fact painting by Manet. We’re also fans of the Morris-Jumel Mansion in Harlem, which dates to 1765 and is the oldest house in Manhattan; the even older Van Cortlandt House in the Bronx, nestled in one of the city’s largest parks; and the Merchant’s House Museum in the East Village, with one of New York’s very few landmark residential interiors.
Have a look below at a sampling of what’s on view right now, or consider following this three-hour tour through some of Midtown’s finer small institutions. Don’t worry, kids, it’s not all art: We’ve allotted time for a snack.
These Women Will Blow You Away
‘VIJA CELMINS: TO FIX THE IMAGE IN MEMORY’ at the Met Breuer (through Jan. 12). The artist’s “quietly ravishing, brilliantly installed” exhibition is one big illusion of reality. “Expanses of ocean waves, star-studded night skies, clouds or the moon’s surface, rendered in graphite, charcoal or muted tones of oil paint” can take years to make and are so realistic as to be mistaken for photographs, Roberta Smith wrote in her review. 212-731-1675, metmuseum.org.
‘AGNES DENES: ABSOLUTES AND INTERMEDIATES’ at the Shed (through March 22). A photograph of Agnes Denes standing amid her 1982 public work, a two-acre wheatfield that she grew and harvested in Lower Manhattan, speaks to her pioneering spirit. It’s among the items in a superbly installed survey of the visionary artist’s 50-year journey, exploring her focus “on ecology, on the fear of present decay and the hope for future survival,” Holland Cotter wrote in his review. “We’ll be lucky this art season if we get another exhibition as tautly beautiful.” 646-455-3494, theshed.org.
‘RACHEL HARRISON LIFE HACK’ at the Whitney Museum of American Art (through Jan. 12). “Puzzlement can be fun, and Ms. Harrison has set it as one of the tasks for her work,” Mr. Cotter wrote in his review. The artist’s first full-scale survey examines the past 25 years of her work with assemblage-style sculptures (“the kind of accidental urban still lifes you see on New York City sidewalks on trash collection day”), photography, and drawing. As you look and ponder, you’ll see that these works, Mr. Cotter wrote, “translate into information about commerce, class, value, accident, appetite, waste, color, shape, zeitgeist — even life and death.” 212-570-3600, whitney.org.
‘BETYE SAAR: THE LEGENDS OF “BLACK GIRL’S WINDOW”’ at the Museum of Modern Art (through Jan. 4). This exhibition concentrates on Betye Saar’s early years, tracking the experiments in printmaking and assemblage that led to her pivotal piece “Black Girl’s Window.” By filling old window frames with a constellation of images, her mystical works essentially “became gateways to the mysteries of the universe,” Jillian Steinhauer wrote in her review. 212-708-9400, moma.org.
‘ZILIA SÁNCHEZ: SOY ISLA (I AM AN ISLAND)’ at El Museo del Barrio (through March 22). Recently opened, this museum retrospective is the artist’s first, and it traces her journey from Cuba, where she was born in 1926, to Puerto Rico, where she has lived and worked since the 1970s. Expect to encounter stretched canvases painted with acrylics in muted color palettes, works on paper, sculptural pieces and more. 212-831-7272, elmuseo.org.
Exhibitions for Kids of All Ages
‘ART OF NATIVE AMERICA’ at the Metropolitan Museum of Art (ongoing). Dip into this gallery in the American Wing, and you’ll get a bit of a reprieve from the crowds. You’ll also get plenty of history here and dazzling Native art. In addition to intricately engraved ancient ivories, textiles and beaded embroidery, there are Katsina figures, which were created as physical representations of immortal beings that, as the label reads, “bring rain, protect, teach, heal, and carry prayers to the spirit world.” This is the first significant display of Native art in the American Wing, which was established in 1924. 212-535-7710, metmuseum.org.
HOLIDAY TRAIN SHOWS at various locations. Fast-moving trains that actually run on time? It must be holiday train show time. And there are several on view across the city, including the Holiday Train Show at the New York Botanical Garden (through Jan. 26), which re-creates famous New York landmarks from leaves, bark, acorns, cinnamon sticks and other natural materials. This year the focus is on Central Park, with mini-replicas of structures like Bethesda Terrace and Belvedere Castle. “Holiday Express: All Aboard to Richard Scarry’s Busytown” at the New-York Historical Society doubles as a celebration of the 100th birthday of the “Busytown” author and illustrator Richard Scarry.
‘JR: CHRONICLES’ at the Brooklyn Museum (through May 3). Can you spot Robert De Niro in the sea of 1,128 people in JR’s most recent project, “The Chronicles of New York City”? To create the large-format mural, JR and his crew photographed and interviewed hundreds of people in the five boroughs last summer. The installation includes a range of works, tracing his career from his documentation of graffiti artists as a teenager in Paris to his more recent digitally collaged murals. 718-638-5000, brooklynmuseum.org.
‘THE LAST KNIGHT: THE ART, ARMOR, AND AMBITION OF MAXIMILIAN I’ at the Metropolitan Museum of Art (through Jan. 5). This exhibition of “grand scale and heavy metal” plots the relentless rise of Emperor Maximilian I of the Holy Roman Empire. “Though it’s armed to the teeth with flashy military gear,” Jason Farago wrote in his review, “you’ll also find paintings, illustrated books and celebratory images made with the hottest new technology of the late 15th century: printmaking, which allowed the emperor to broadcast his military prowess through books and monumental woodcuts.” 212-535-7710, metmuseum.org.
‘RAINFOREST V (VARIATION 1)’ at the Museum of Modern Art (through Jan. 5). The museum’s fourth-floor Studio space has been devoted to David Tudor’s “strangely wonderful, interactive installation,” Alastair Macaulay wrote in his critic’s notebook. The room is filled with mundane objects (a metal barrel, a wooden box, etc.) that hang throughout the space. “Collectively they become a kind of urban jungle, suspended like Calder mobiles with the anti-utilitarian aesthetic of Duchamp ready-mades,” Mr. Macaulay wrote. If that weren’t fun enough, each object emits a unique composition that, once you position yourself to hear, feels like a mini-concert just for you. 212-708-9400, moma.org.
‘T. REX: THE ULTIMATE PREDATOR’ at the American Museum of Natural History (through Aug. 9). This eye-opening exhibition “gives an up-to-date view of everyone’s favorite prehistoric pugilist, and also introduces the many other tyrannosaurs that preceded T. rex, some discovered only this century in China and Mongolia,” Mr. Farago wrote in his exhibition review. The show mixes 66-million-year-old teeth with the latest 3-D prints of dino bones, and also presents new models of T. rex as a baby, a juvenile and a full-grown annihilator. Wait till you see the fossilized feathers — believe it! 212-769-5100, amnh.org.
Treasures From the Artists’ Vaults
‘EDITH HALPERT AND THE RISE OF AMERICAN ART’ at the Jewish Museum (through Feb. 9). According to Ms. Smith, Edith Gregor Halpert was a “formidable, feisty and sometimes manipulative self-starter with an ecumenical eye, a passion for art and an inborn instinct for sales and promotion.” The story of her influential art gallery and how she willed it into existence is the subject of this show. Nearly all of the paintings and sculptures on view were exhibited or sold by Halpert’s gallery, or were in her private collection, including works by the proto-Pop abstract painter Stuart Davis. 212-423-3200, thejewishmuseum.org.
‘HENRY CHALFANT: ART VS. TRANSIT, 1977-1987’ at the Bronx Museum of the Arts (through March 8). Henry Chalfant’s photographs are considered the definitive document of graffiti culture in New York. Now those works are the subject of an exhibition, in which his train panoramas, some blown up to train car-size, have been assembled alongside his street photography of park jams and wall works, and a collection of archives and black books that re-create his SoHo studio, Max Lakin wrote in a preview of the show. 718-681-6000, bronxmuseum.org.
‘THE LIFE AND TIMES OF ALVIN BALTROP’ at the Bronx Museum of the Arts (through Feb. 9). Mr. Baltrop’s photography of the derelict shipping piers along the Hudson River not only serve as architectural studies but also reveal the “semi-residential population of homeless people, teenage runaways, sexual adventurers, criminals and artists” who found refuge there, Mr. Cotter wrote in his review. They also double as a monument to New York itself during the 1970s and ’80s, when the city was “radiating creative energy” and, in the wake of the 1969 Stonewall uprising, “a home base for a new gay consciousness.” 718-681-6000, bronxmuseum.org.
‘PRIVATE LIVES PUBLIC SPACES’ at the Museum of Modern Art (through July 1) This thought-provoking new exhibition in the galleries outside MoMA’s two main movie auditoriums features neglected footage (47 hours) from the museum’s collection. With little background information available, you get to play historian and detective. The movies “constitute a season of programming on their own,” Ben Kenigsberg wrote recently, and “taken together they run the gamut from amateurism to outsider art, from arcana to valuable additions to the oeuvres of established experimental filmmakers.” 212-708-9400, moma.org.
‘WANGECHI MUTU: THE NEWONES, WILL FREE US’ at the Metropolitan Museum of Art (through Jan. 12). The Kenyan-born artist Wangechi Mutu’s bronze statues of seated women are a striking presence outside the Met. For the first time in the museum’s history, it has filled the niches of its Fifth Avenue facade with commissioned works, which also reflects a small step on the museum’s rocky road toward diversity. “Among her sources of inspiration,” Nancy Princenthal wrote in a profile of the artist, “is a modest Congolese ‘prestige stool’ in the Met’s collection that Ms. Mutu admires for its earthiness — the figure’s knees are on the ground, rather than a pedestal — and for the eroticism of her parted thighs. Generally she favors sensuality in her own work, although for the Met she opted for figures that are resolutely chaste.” 212-535-7710, metmuseum.org.
SIMONE LEIGH’S ‘BRICK HOUSE’ at the High Line (through September 2020). At the northern end of the High Line you can glimpse New York’s shiny future: supertall skyscrapers under construction in Hudson Yards and the shiny, climbable Vessel sculpture just beckoning for your selfies. But just south of all that is a more subdued work, equally impressive from the street level: “Brick House,” a 16-foot-tall bronze bust by the artist Simone Leigh. In an interview about the commission with The New York Times, Ms. Leigh said she thought the figure, a black woman with cornrows and a dome-shaped torso, “would be a great opportunity to have something about black beauty right in the middle of that environment.” thehighline.org.
‘IN PURSUIT OF FASHION: THE SANDY SCHREIER COLLECTION’ at the Metropolitan Museum of Art (through May 17). While you anticipate the red carpet looks at next year’s Met Gala (the exhibition title: “About Time: Fashion and Duration”) consider the Costume Institute’s recently opened fall exhibition. It highlights about 80 of the 165 promised gifts from the collection of Sandy Schreier, who started amassing fashions (20th-century French and American couture and ready-to-wear gear) as a way of preserving the designs she found to be so creative. There are a range of printed gowns and jackets from Mariano Fortuny y Madrazo, Paquin Ltd. and Balenciaga; glittery headdresses and other accessories; and more. 212-535-7710, metmuseum.org.
‘PIERRE CARDIN: FUTURE FASHION’ at the Brooklyn Museum (through Jan. 5). The 97-year-old French designer, still defined by his groovy late ’60s fashions, gets a swinging exhibition in Brooklyn. “His New Look gave way to thigh-high boots and dresses of heat-molded synthetics,” Mr. Farago wrote in his review. The show has 85 ensembles, the earliest dating from 1953 and the most recent from this decade. At its core “are the space-age outfits that Mr. Cardin designed in a young, newly prosperous Paris, seen here on mannequins as well as in photographs and films of Jeanne Moreau, Mia Farrow and the cast of ‘Star Trek,’” Mr. Farago wrote. “Some are chic, many are risible; all of it has an exuberant view of the future that marks it as decidedly from the past.” 718-638-5000, brooklynmuseum.org.
Rich Palettes and Decorative Arts
‘ERNST LUDWIG KIRCHNER’ AT NEUE GALERIE (THROUGH JAN. 13) “To linger on Ernst Ludwig Kirchner’s lurid biography would be unfair to the mesmerizing technical genius of his style,” Will Heinrich wrote in his review of this show. He went on to call this exhibition a “generous and essential overview of a peripatetic and unconventional career.” (Kirchner, who had an addiction to morphine, Veronal and absinthe, committed suicide in 1938, at the age of 58, after the Nazis had denounced him as “degenerate.”) At the Neue Galerie, we see up close how he surrounded more or less sober portrait subjects with backgrounds of flat but brilliant color, though it wasn’t just a youthful revolt, Mr. Heinrich wrote. “It was also an ingenious way to articulate subjective experience in an increasingly materialist modern world.” neuegalerie.org.
‘HENRY ARNHOLD’S MEISSEN PALACE: CELEBRATING A COLLECTOR’ at the Frick Collection (ongoing). Is this collection of ceramic ware impressive enough to make you swoon? Augustus II, King of Poland, was certainly a fan: According to the museum, Augustus was the most important porcelain collector of his time and was enamored with the works that he “was said to have been afflicted by a maladie de porcelaine (porcelain fever).” The pieces on view here are drawn from the collection of Henry H. Arnhold, a prominent banker and philanthropist who died in 2018. The gallery where these works reside has been turned into an 18th-century “porcelain room,” with the pieces grouped together by color. frick.org.
Artist as Curator
‘ARTISTIC LICENSE: SIX TAKES ON THE GUGGENHEIM COLLECTION’ at the Solomon R. Guggenheim Museum (through Jan. 12). Displays that artists select from a museum’s collection are almost inevitably interesting, revealing and valuable. And that’s the case with this show for which Cai Guo-Qiang, Paul Chan, Richard Prince, Julie Mehretu, Carrie Mae Weems and Jenny Holzer were invited to select six separate yet cross-talking thematic displays, one per ramp. The result is “a rare, dazzling, dizzying cornucopia of objects, viewpoints and agendas,” Ms. Smith wrote. 212-423-3500, guggenheim.org.
‘JASON MORAN’ at the Whitney Museum of American Art (through Jan. 5) The pianist and conceptual artist Jason Moran turns space and time sideways in his first museum survey, Giovanni Russonello wrote about the show. Here, Mr. Moran engages with the physical history of jazz in collaborations with Kara Walker, Joan Jonas and other art world figures. It’s a modest, yet striking installation that is best when activated during weekend performances by renowned jazz musicians. 212-570-3600, whitney.org.
‘AMY SILLMAN: THE SHAPE OF SHAPE’ at the Museum of Modern Art (through April 12) Ms. Smith called this iteration of the Modern’s “Artist’s Choice” series “one of its best” and “among the most valuable” of the newly reopened museum’s inaugural shows. In pulling works from the permanent collection, the New York painter Amy Sillman, who worked with the curator Michelle Kuo, sought out overlooked or excluded artists and unfamiliar works. Her effort “reflects a relatively robust visual appetite” and the show’s “dense installation encourages surprising connections.” 212-708-9400, moma.org.