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City Guide

New York: The Insider's Guide

Sotheby's Museum Network connects with two of New York's leading cultural experts, Teju Cole, a writer and critic based in NYC, and Legacy Russell, a curator at the Studio Museum in Harlem, to discuss their favorite destinations and insider tips. For more on New York City, see the Museum Network City Guide featuring the art capital of the United States.
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Writer and critic Teju Cole. Photo: Yasmine Omari.

Teju Cole, Writer and Critic

What is your favourite museum in New York City?

New York is an embarrassment of riches when it comes to museums, and it’s harder to pick just one there than anywhere else in the world. But, if pressed, I’d have to go for MoMA, where I’m a member, and where, over the course of a year, there is a range of special exhibitions that deliver surprising and sometimes inspiring answers to some of my own deepest queries.

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Mezzanine Painting Gallery at The Hispanic Society Museum & Library. Courtesy: The Hispanic Society Museum & Library.

What is a museum that is special to you and is off the beaten track in New York City, and why?

The Hispanic Society of America (currently closed for renovations, expected to reopen by 2020) in Upper Manhattan is a gem. The sheer quality of the paintings on view (Velázquez, Goya) make it always worth the trip, but the fact that it’s never crowded is a plus.

The Studio Museum in Harlem has a smaller footprint but an arguably greater cultural impact. It never fails to give a vivid image of the contemporary art scene, and it has thrived especially well under the leadership of its visionary director and chief curator Thelma Golden.

Both of these Uptown institutions are undergoing renovations—in the case of the Studio Museum, a major expansion imagined by architect David Adjaye—and I expect both to come back even stronger.

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Architect David Adjaye and Thelma Golden, director and chief curator of the Studio Museum in Harlem. Photo: 2017 Scott Rudd.

New York can become overwhelming and exhausting even for the longtime resident. Which cultural institutions and events renew your appreciation for the city?

New York is really an infinite garden of blooms. We know all the grand old institutions, like MoMA and the Met, but we also treasure the smaller destinations that, collectively, make the city so special.

I love New York as a space that still supports artists, whether in the numerous university programs in the arts or in the shops where one can buy or develop film. I love New York for its profound diversity, which means that I as a Nigerian can find restaurants that serve Nigerian food or clubs that play Nigerian pop late into the night. With close to 20 million people in the metropolitan area, to be in New York is to be in the world, and the only limits are one’s curiosity.

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The exterior of Carnegie Hall. Photo: Jeff Goldberg / Esto.

Tell me how a great day in New York City might unfold for you.

A great day in New York is an ever-evolving thing. Here’s one way it could go: Wake up late to Fujianese communities doing tai-chi in Sunset Park, Brooklyn; have some Dominican food for breakfast; catch an afternoon film screening at the Brooklyn Academy of Music; lunch at Buka on Fulton in Brooklyn.

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The Brooklyn Academy of Music Harvey Theatre. Photo: Elliott Kaufman.

Then you could head to Manhattan for a tour of the galleries in Chelsea (I never miss Aperture, Jack Shainman Gallery, and David Zwirner Gallery), before catching up with a friend for a stroll on the High Line and a browse of 192 Books.

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The High Line Wildflower Field. Photo: Iwan Baan.

Catch dinner at Red Rooster in Harlem; back to midtown for a concert at Carnegie Hall; cocktails at Center Bar at Columbus Circle with a view of Central Park; then back up to Harlem for dancing to the latest Afropop at the Shrine; and then the glittering apparition of the city deep in the night as the taxi returns me to Brooklyn.

Teju Cole is author of Open City, Blind Spot and other works and a photography critic for The New York Times Magazine.


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Curator Legacy Russell. Photo: Daniel Dorsa.

Legacy Russell, Curator

I was born and raised in New York. I grew up in the East Village but my dad is from Harlem so I spent a lot of time exploring cultural institutions across the city as a kid.

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Inside St Mark's Church-In-The-Bowery. Photo: Anja Hitzenberger.

Some core downtown spots for me are Performance Space New York (previously known as P.S. 122) as well as Danspace and Poetry Project (both housed at Saint Mark's Church-in-the-Bowery). These three institutions have been important sites for me – the places where at an early age I first experienced performance, laying the foundations for my love of social practice, participatory art, institutional critique and relational aesthetics.

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Skeleton Architecture collective performing the skeleton architecture or the future of our worlds, part of Platform 2016: Lost & Found, Danspace Project. Photo: Ian Douglas.

The juxtaposition (and juxtapolitic) of these spaces to events like Howl Festival (2003-2013) and Wigstock (which began in the 1980s and was recently revived in 2018 after a hiatus) also made important room for women, people of colour, and queer communities in a monumental way.

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The Anthology Film Archives building on Second Avenue. Photo: Anthology Film Archives.

Wandering down Second Avenue, it's easy to miss the unassuming Anthology Film Archives, co-founded by Jonas Mekas in the 1970s.

The theatre is a cosy nook where you can catch independent films of all varieties. Anthology has many brilliant artists in its collection as well, ranging from Nam June Paik to Joan Jonas. The institution also collaborates with important partners such as Third World Newsreel, which answers to a need to present diverse global voices within media practice.

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The interior of the Schomburg Center for Research in Black Culture. Photo: Schomburg Center/NYPL.

If you hop on the train to Harlem and head to the Schomburg Center for Research in Black Culture you’ll find yourself immersed in a living archive of another kind, one that specifically celebrates histories of the African diaspora. They’ve been a key Studio Museum collaborator as part of our ongoing inHarlem initiative, which brings artists and artworks “beyond the walls” of the institution while our new building is under construction.

Each of these special spaces focuses on aspects of visual culture that have too often been overlooked and are certainly the heartbeat of New York City’s creative momentum yesterday, today, and in the days to come.

Legacy Russell is associate curator of exhibitions at the Studio Museum, New York.

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